Advice for Students

December 9, 2008 · by James P. Cramer

Questions and answers for those who are forging new careers in the design professions.

Questions and answers for those who are forging new careers in the design professions.

Each year, I am asked about the quality of architectural education and whether or not the schools are keeping up with changes in the profession. This is a good question since architecture and the other design professions are changing rapidly.

My point of view is that the design professions are brimming with new opportunities. And to match these opportunities, there are many schools and universities with high-quality programs in architecture and design. And design education quality is trending up. I believe this is true today even more so than perhaps any other time in history.

Some practitioners will say that schools are not keeping up with the profession’s needs. But our close examination finds a depth of respected educational resources. There is often some friction between education and the professions, and in many ways this is actually a good thing. It is my experience that both educators and practitioners agree there is a sense of urgency to evolve. There is fundamental agreement, and in many instances a commitment, to continuous improvements. The urgency for change is felt more acutely in professional practices.

I believe that design and architecture are among the best careers choices a person can make. Today, students are fortunate to have a diversity of school choices that include some very fine programs — and some that are absolutely excellent. And by the way, these can include programs that are not yet on our DesignIntelligence top rankings lists. Frankly, new programs and smaller programs are at a disadvantage in our surveys. These schools have fewer alumni, smaller communications budgets, and may have a more focused regional scope of service.

I like to warn students and their parents to not get too stuck on any particular ranking. It’s a flawed system. On one hand, the DesignIntelligencerankings can be trusted to conduct a solid analysis of quality programs, presenting the role models with the highest stature in the field. But most successful practitioners will quickly tell you that some of the best architects graduate from smaller, less well-known schools. You can think of them as jewels in design education even though they may not make it to the top of our lists. Attention should be called to these “invisible programs,” and they should be considered for their hidden strength and dedicated, energetic faculty.

Following are a few questions I’m often asked by students or parents.

Q: I’ve decided on architecture studies. How do I know if a school is right for me?

A: I recommend that students visit each school they are serious about and walk the campus they are considering. Talk to other students first. Then visit classrooms and studios to see the learning environment. Review the school’s catalogue and handbook. Next, review the facilities overall. The buildings, community spaces, classrooms, and studios should be conducive to learning about design experiences. Don’t trust a school that has a laissez-faire attitude about housekeeping. Schools should reflect the quality design experience you might find in a typical architecture firm. Not all schools need to look like the offices of Renzo Piano, Lord Norman Foster, or SOM, but they should be leaning in that direction — organized, clean, and either classic or edgy design. Spaces in architectural education should inspire future architecture. Some faculties just don’t get this part of education. But the best schools around the globe do.

Q: How can I better understand the design professions? I’m particularly interested in how they interface with construction, the environment, and the improved health, safety, and welfare in our cities.

A: Visit the office (or offices) of an architect, landscape architect, interior designer, or product designer and talk about careers in the design professions. I can’t think of a design firm that wouldn’t be happy to respond to you, give you a tour, and talk about technology changes and trends. Quite often, this is the time you will really get turned on to the meaning and relevancy of the design professions. There is no other profession quite like it.

Q: How important is it for a school to be accredited?

A: It is essential that the school you decide to go to is accredited in the discipline you are most interested in. Accreditation assures a program’s quality as well as the lasting value of your degree. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. For instance, architecture programs are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board, landscape architecture is accredited by the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board, and interior design is accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation.

Q: Is it important that schools have licensed architects or design professionals teaching courses?

A: Yes it is. However, look also for a balance of talent and high energy that stays in tune with the trends and structural shifts that are transforming our design professions. At the Design Futures Council, we usually like to see 60 percent or more licensed full-time faculty and 80 percent part-time faculty in architecture schools, for instance. It is similar in landscape architecture, and can be somewhat less in interior design and industrial design. Licensing is not as important in industrial design and interior design — although this point is often debated by the professions. What is very important is that faculty stay current on technology and professional practice issues and that they care about students as well as the profession. Below is an overall breakout of licensed architecture faculty.

Q: Are the design professions well compensated?

A: Yes, in most instances, and the latest research shows upward trajectory. Once you become a principal of a design firm you will make (in today’s dollars) a mean base compensation of $140,057 and an average year-end bonus of around 50 percent, for example. World-class architects and designers make much more. As far as what to expect right out of school, interns earn approximately $40,000 (some sign as high as $60,000) with a bonus of 6.7 percent. In three to five years, the compensation begins to get more interesting. If your goal is to become a licensed architect, you will need three years of internship. The intern experience in a professional practice is a very important decision. Pick a firm with as much rigor as you picked your school. Remember, you can start taking your Architect Registration Exams immediately upon graduation. The regulatory systems are now being streamlined somewhat, and for the better. For further information, read the annual compensation survey published each spring in DesignIntelligence, which provides the latest salary statistics for each profession. For licensing updates, check with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, or the Council for Interior Design Accreditation.

Q: What other resources should I use?

A: Work with the professional associations to gain a better understanding of careers in those professions. They are very responsive to students. They include the American Institute of Architects, the Industrial Designers Society of America, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the International Interior Design Association, and the American Society of Interior Designers. All these groups offer information that is tailored to the specialized professions. The American Institute of Architecture Students is also a great resource. This is a dynamic source of data and opinions.

Q: Do most schools teach leadership and communication skills along with technical and design skills?

A: This is a question to ask of each school, and it’s a good one. The professions need even more dynamic leadership in the years ahead, and some schools foster and mentor this behavior better than others.

I believe design schools should offer heavy doses of leadership education, entrepreneurial practice studies, and communications coaching. If this happens, graduates would earn more, professional practices would contribute more to higher education, and architects and designers would have greater influence and a bigger voice in improving the planet.

My bottom-line advice is this: If you desire a leadership position in a career that will be highly and increasingly relevant to our planet in the future, you will find that the design professions are without equal.

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