What I Didn't Learn in Design School


Education comes in many forms and while some lessons are taught, others are learned. Academia provides us a solid footing when entering the workplace but often the workplace itself has its own lessons to impart. In this new section ‘What I didn’t learn in Design School’ members of the HLW team share their lessons from working in the field of Architecture and Design.


In design school, students are typically their own clients, or work in small teams together to execute a given project.  Critique is given by professors to help students or groups of students achieve their vision.  As a student, I measured my design’s success in how happy I was with the result. 

I think perhaps the most exciting and rewarding part of being a working design professional is working with clients to identify and achieve their vision.  As a working professional, I measure a project’s success by the happiness of our clients and end users.  At HLW, “Our work tells your story.” 

- Kent McCullough, Senior Designer, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C

It’s not so much what we didn’t learn but what we didn’t stress.

It is imperative for us to recognize that this profession is a platform that creates exciting opportunities for those to realize, define, and present ideas; ideas that ultimately affect the people at large and the environment by which we work, live and play.  Those ideas are first conceived as our own but ultimately develop to be a collaboration of others.

The end product is not just a development of an idea shaped by critique.  Our education is provided to not only teach the fundamentals but also inspire creativity and imagination.  In the real world, it is quite the challenge we battle daily in integrating the two but there are many more layers that get mixed into creating the recipe for how we measure success.

The real world is much less about self and the end product and much more about the importance of understanding how to manage the parts and the people associated with the entire process.  Of course at the end of the day, we are all proud to walk by that building that we lived and breathed through the years during that process.  But there is no denying the fact that much of what we do involves networking, relationship building, consultant managing, and team building within.  It is understanding the firm’s collective values and learning how to best market effectively while balancing and managing the flow of information.  It is grasping how to balance time, striving for efficiency and recognizing the financial impact of what we do.  Some would argue that the exposure to these skills would depend on your position within the firm. 

I would reiterate the importance of understanding the complete process as a fundamental means of developing communities and buildings we are all part of creating.  Design doesn’t begin with an idea and end with the completion of that idea.  It begins the moment we interact with society, create dialogue with those we serve and collaborate with and it ends with the support of that idea with a team.

- Edward Shim, Director of Architectural Design, Principal

In design school, the focus is primarily on learning to hone your own personal vision and development as an individual. A skill that is very important in the professional world is the ability to work as part of a team. The large scale projects that we execute in the professional world have to be a team effort. This means learning when to listen to your team and change your mind as well as when to speak up or stay firm on your path. The success of a project can depend on being able to work well with the members of your in house design team, as well as your consultants, contractors, and client. In addition, building relationships with your peers and clients can lead to more projects down the line. As a design professional, I know the success of the project is what comes first, not me. Plus, work is always more fun when you get along with your team – clients and consultants alike!

- Katherine Richbourg, RA, LEED AP BD+C

Compromise.  One of the first things that is learned outside of the academic environment is dealing with design compromise that extends beyond programmatic needs, site constraints, and/or surrounding context.  We learn that successful design for our clients often lies within the spectrum of ultimate creative vision and actual feasibility.  In school, this reality is sometimes learned after-the-fact when the student may have already become wed to a concept just to be faced with a sobering critique that may directly conflict with their vision.  It’s when we learn to embrace this compromise to best realize our client’s goals that we truly discover good design within the spectrum I described above.

- Stephen M. Zuber, Senior Designer, Associate, LEED AP