Why Not? Conference invites A&D to think proactively about the future of the design profession

Jennifer Busch

Is the design firm as we know it an endangered species?

As political and social unrest, the global economic crisis, generational mind shifts, technological advancements, and the ongoing pressures of environmental degradation have caused many of us to re-evaluate our personal and professional priorities, the design community has been required to think differently about how it will survive and thrive in a radically changed business landscape. Increasingly, architects and interior designers are grappling with questions about how the design profession can maintain its relevance and demonstrate its value in the New Economy.

The 2013 Why Not? Conference, presented by Interface and Universal Fibers in late July, invited an elite group of 30 architects, interior designers, and design students to explore the core values that design practices will need to embrace in order to be successful today and into the future. The conference, which took place at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Calif., featured thought-provoking speakers on the topics of Design Innovation, Expertise, Sustainability, Social Impact, and Leadership.

Pernilla Ohrstedt of Pernilla Ohrstedt Studio in London, a designer on Wallpaper magazine’s 2012 “Ones to Watch” list, inspired the audience with her innovative and experimental approach to design practice, bridging architecture, exhibition design, installation and object.

Christine Barber, director of research for Gensler worldwide, enlightened attendees on how solid design research can help a firm develop expertise in various market segments, inform specific design solutions, and enhance the value of design to clients.

Tom Sargent of Equity Community Builders, Steve Farneth of Architectural Resources Group, Stanford Hughes of BraytonHughes Design Studio, and Marsha Maytum of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, all in San Francisco, participated in a panel presentation on the complex and visionary sustainability story behind the development of Cavallo Point, and the remarkable collaboration that brought it to reality.

Nick McClintock of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania; Mia Scharphie, a recent graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Design; and Gilad Meron, a graduate student in Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, spoke on Social Impact, and discussed their research on how design leaders can proactively develop projects they believe are valuable, rather than simply waiting for what the market brings them.

Claire Weisz, a principal at WXY in New York, spoke on engaging multiple stakeholders in design processes and outcomes that improve public life, influence public policy and demonstrate the benefits of putting design and designers in a leadership role in society.

Facilitator Lori Stohs trained attendees on the concepts behind Interface’s strengths-based culture, which embraces the notion that we all have different individual strengths, which will help yield successful results when applied to our personal and professional endeavors. A strengths-based approach to work also fosters a collaborative spirit, as the goal is to “Know yourself best, and surround yourself with the rest,” according to Stohs.

In the end, attendees came away inspired by the beautiful setting of Cavallo Point, and with a more clear understanding of how design might be used as a positive force for social change, economic gain, and environmental restoration—and excited to use their personal strengths to influence change in their own firms and in the industry at large.

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Doug Wittnebel, a principal and design director in Gensler’s San Ramon office, attended the 2013 Why Not? Conference at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Calif., and lent his particular talents to “illustrate” the proceedings and content of the event.

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