Design school does not go out of its way to teach young designers and architects empathy for their would-be clients. In my Masters of Interior Design program, "clients" were imaginary and "budgets" were an afterthought in service of Creative Expression. We focused our precious studio time on kindling and stoking the fire of our ideas, stretching the boundaries of the possible, and striving for innovation. Looking back, I still support this strategy to learn the art first and then apply the practical later on. My projects benefitted from my instructors' lackadaisical approach to cost and schedule, and I did indeed learn how to layer in the constraints of reality when I moved into the workplace.
Over the years of practicing interior design from within a large architectural firm, I grew to understand the importance of working with a well-managed team of stakeholders (clients, contractors, consultants, etc) in which everyone was committed to a shared set of reasonable goals. The design and construction process is one of compromise - everyone gives a little and takes a little until some version of the initial vision exists in real life. As a designer, watching an idea go from paper into something tangible was the most exhilarating and exciting part of the job. I thought it would feel the same when I moved around the proverbial table to sit on the client side, but it's so much more complicated when one's own (real) money and time are on the line! I have to admit that in all of my years of school and work experience, I never paused in the midst of a job to consider what my clients were going through. Sigh.
So far, being a client in a design project is like being on a new roller coaster. We're strapped into a ride over which we have little control and, as the car starts to climb slowly, we're thinking...okay, this is going to be fine, right? We reach the top of the slope and get a big picture view of the track - it's breathtaking and all is calm before the car clicks into action and we plummet at great speed into unexpected twists and turns (details! nitty gritty! design options!). Again, we climb slowly up a hill to gain some healthy perspective on the ride before plunging into another series of hair-raising loops (codes! hidden costs! unrealistic budgeting!). Then, because we're not having enough of an adventure, the ride stalls (this is where we're at right now). Hanging upside-down in the biggest loop, we're forced to wait for the coaster crew to resolve the issue. We wonder whether we'll be able to continue the ride or whether we'll need to be rescued in some other way? After what seems like an eternity, the ride starts up again and we zoom through a series of really scary loops (value engineering! cutting cool stuff! permitting!) before coasting into a stretch of gentler terrain. At last, we can see the end of the line and the whole track that we'll take to get there. I imagine that the end of the project will feel a lot like getting off of a roller coaster too; shaken up but proud and awestruck.
Throughout this experience, I am learning how to ask better questions, give clear feedback, and exercise patience in all things. While I'm not pulling all-nighters like I used to as a designer, I see now that being a client is emotionally challenging work. Ceding control and leaning on others for their expertise is not easy. But it's worth it...Orange Door Kitchen will be a better place because of all the brilliant and talented people that are helping to turn our initial idea into real life. If I ever return to a design career, I will bring along everything that I've learned as a client because I now know that a little bit of living in someone else's shoes goes a long way.