03 June 2008
Sarah E Lorenzen
Sarah E Lorenzen

In this week's feature, originally in Creative Behaviour's online magazine, Sarah E Lorenzen shares her thoughts on multidisciplinary design.

The difficult economic conditions and uncertainties of the last few years: 9-11, the dot-com bust, corporate scandals, the Seattle WTO protests, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have radically changed the political, social and business climate in this country. Politically the country seems to have shifted even further to the right. In business this uncertainty has made corporations much more cautious, this is reflected in their investments, marketing campaigns and level of experimentation. At the same time, contradicting the trend towards conservatism, the new millennium has brought a renewed interest in design. Apple is back in business. People are entering college design programs in record numbers. Architects who break the rules and promote new ideas, people like Thom Mayne, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, are being given large institutional projects. The schism between the growing trend towards conservatism and the superstar status of a few exuberant designers is hard to reconcile. What is allowing these seemingly opposing trends to co-exist? How can small firms interested in innovation, but not part of the elite design world, position themselves?

The growing interest in design in this country would appear to be a good sign for young designers. As optimists we would like to believe that this newfound respect for design will trickle down the profession; that the underbelly of design will be lifted by the success of those at the top. However we should pay attention to the failures of other trickle down theories such as Reagan's economic policies. The reality is that given a risky business environment, due to the economic and political situation, most businesses (small and medium sized ones at least) will hesitate to take on additional risk of an untried approach to solving problems. Wonderful exceptions aside, today (even more than during the 1990s boom) what matters most to clients are returns on investment.

The title may have suggested that this article was supposed to be about the advantages of running a multidisciplinary design firm. So what does the general state of design have to do with multidisciplinary firms? There are three significant reasons to consider larger trends in this discussion. The first is that while multidisciplinary alliances tend to promote innovation, the process is often unpredictable and difficult to explain. The second is that although there are quite a few examples of interesting collaborations between people in different disciplines, it is rarely the primary reason for their success. The third point is that during conservative periods businesses prefer to hire specialists.

Just to make things clear, the multidisciplinary collaborations I am describing here are those whose primary motive is innovation. The point of the collaboration is to uncover new ideas. There are other types of "multidisciplinary firms" such as large A&E firms that house structural engineers and architects under one roof. These firms are primarily interested in combining different disciplines in order to package multiple services. The selling point is similar to that of a supermarket - it allows you to buy orange juice and toilet paper in one place. These firms can be recognised by their slogans that tout: "fully integrated design means contact with a single entity" or "there is greater efficiency in a team approach." These "multidisciplinary" firms are no less valid, but their goals are very different. The way to distinguish between the two is to evaluate the objective of the collaboration.

An Unpredictable Outcome
Multidisciplinary collaborations (those interested in innovation) are by their nature unstable. There is no common language, history or process. When people are not trained in the same way, working together requires that they invent new design processes and ways to communicate. The time and creativity required to invent new tools may be costly and cumbersome, but it is often what allows break-throughs to happen. A critical piece of information may come from the most unexpected source, and tools used to design and communicate can have a significant effect on the final product. Inventing new tools allows access to new ideas, which in turn encourages new designs.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to sell a client a process that will not have a predictable outcome. People like to be able to predict what is coming, to believe that there is one right path - a perfect fit. Although it has been more than twenty years since post-modernism counseled us to question a singular notion of truth, memory and history - our society still prefers easy answers. It is why formulaic deliveries are so popular; it is why networks buy sitcoms and cities hire New Urbanists. While business schools scream innovation, the average Joe is not a creative type and prefers the known of copying what his neighbour does. So you have a situation that is due in part to our current economic and political climate, and in part to deeply ingrained behavior. The problem is how to convince business people that innovation can be profitable.

Why go multidisciplinary?
The collaboration between Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mao was extraordinary, so why not follow in their footsteps? And they are not the only ones. Magazines that are in the business of predicting trends (read Wired) have articles in every issue about wildly successful alliances between artists, architects, filmmakers, product designers, and software developers. While we may value and admire the work being produced by high profile collaborations we need to be careful how we model our own businesses. These successful alliances have been almost exclusively between individuals that have already proven themselves successful. If you are relatively unknown there are serious issues that need to be overcome. The current economic climate has made it more difficult to sell new ideas. This is especially true if these ideas come from people who do not already have a proven record of success. Well known designers are able to push radical ideas and complicated relationships because their fame affords them two necessary ingredients largely unavailable to younger designers: time and trust.

What's Wrong with Specialisation?
Even for those of us who are not famous, collaborating with people from other disciplines still feels like the right approach. It is important to avoid the inertia that sets in with specialisation (think of the crocodile.) Moving forward is the primary reason that scientist and research institutions (just look at Stanford) are going to great lengths to get physicist and biologists to collaborate - it is how they get break-throughs. The difficulty is that while people interested in new ideas believe complex relationships are the best approach, business and political groups love specialisation. They want to get sausages from the butcher and morality from a preacher. While as designers we are in the business of selling specific skills, one of our greatest assets is our ability to combine seemingly unrelated skills or processes. Even though we may be able to sell something as vague as creativity, our desire to find new approaches to solving problems often makes those who hire us uneasy. Convincing people that you can detail buildings, program computers and design typefaces is a surprisingly hard sell. This narrow mindedness should not be taken as a lack of respect, but as a symptom of this greater trend towards avoiding risk.

How to Survive Through the Rough Bits
If one is committed to progressive design and interested in finding new ways of working will it be possible to ride out our current conservative climate? If you have already established a name for yourself, then you are probably golden for the next few years. If you are just starting out, but you have other sources of income (say you teach or have a large trust fund) and you have the stamina to wait out the current trend, then you may also have a chance. Trends tend to be cyclical so there is bound to be a more open-minded and egalitarian period in our future. There is another advantage to waiting - it should allow you to catch the next big wave. If you have neither cash nor patience you may have to work in a more conventional way or try to push for change within a larger organisation. Revolution from within, although rare, is possible and can have far greater social consequences than small insurgences. However, if you choose this path, but are unable to convince the organisation to spend time and resources on unproven strategies, you may be very disappointed. You will also likely miss the next wave, but hey (if it's any comfort) you will still be able to buy Wired and read about it.

This article is reproduced with permission from the author, and originally appeared in Creative Behaviour.

About Sarah E Lorenzen
Sarah E Lorenzen is a licensed architect and principal of Plasmatic Concepts, a multidisciplinary firm in Los Angeles. Her partner David Hartwell is a graphic designer who also programs websites, designs installations and makes motion graphics.

Sarah Lorenzen, AIA
Principal Plasmatic Concepts
T: +1 323 644 5480