Why leading a design firm should not be all that different than leading a factory

How many factory owners go and work the floor covering all the tasks? Yet most clients expect the leader of a design or architecture firm to be involved in absolutely all the work.

In a way, this is quite obvious why it is so: unlike in a factory, they do not hire you for the managerial skills but for your talent. For how you can build their “vision.” Actually, this is an antiquated, untrue fact about what they should be looking for.

Constructing a building or an interior is as much about managing the work as it is about design. I would actually argue that it is more managing than design.


Think about it: you’re given a problem, you come up with the idea, you have it all sorted out, and you generate a complex solution. This may include how to divide a space, what colour to use, and what items to put where. You consult with the client and, together, refine that solution until you’re both happy with it from both a client-user point of view and your professional point of view that reflects suitability and other criteria that the client has hired you to consider.

At that point, the client thinks you’re ready when, in fact, this is where the production work begins.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that you not only need to brief the client at the beginning and explain to them what to expect at each step. Even if they nod in agreement and are themselves convinced that they understand 100% what you’re talking about, you should know better.

Think of when you are presented with new material you do not know about. A doctor’s office comes to mind. We’ve all been there and been given results to tests, conclusions to diagnostics and medications for diseases. Now imagine that instead of being given a medicine that’s been tested, designed, manufactured and packaged and ready for you for a specific condition, you have to go and make that medicine on your own.Β 

The treatment plan for a diagnostic is the end of the design process and the start of the ‘manufacturing’ process.Β 


In design, manufacturing refers to a set of documents, instruction manuals really, that explain what you want to build and how to put it together. They contain lists, product photographs and cut sheets, visualization documents such as three-dimensional views and coloured renderings, and construction drawings. All these together allow the contractor to understand what they need to do and what goes where and instruct them how to put it all together.

Designers of ill repute or low qualifications have unfortunately polluted the profession to a point where those outside the construction industry still think that the contractor is the one that figures everything out.Β 

If you take now the factory example, think of the designer as the assembly line designer. They figure it all out, then draw it and tell you how to build it for it to make what you want to produce.Β 


The contractor, at that point, is the one that assembles the crew and builds it based on your documents. They are also the ones that, if something gets damaged, will jump on it and fix it. Thus yes, there are still quite a few things for them to figure out after the design documents are done. But in the grand scheme of things, that is around 10% of the figuring out. Because all the science, math, aesthetics and how all is achieved is done and done by the time the documents get to the contractor.

That’s why you’re able to get an accurate quote for that work at this point in time.

A good designer is 65% production, 15% talent and 15% a great communicator that puts everything together and keeps everyone on the team clear on what is happening.

Image courtesy of Dochia Media

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