Bob Borson — February 23, 2010 — 113 Comments
Top Ten Reasons Not to be an Architect
1. The gene pool that is your social life will not have a lot of diversity
Architects are friends with other architects. This is either because they are the only other people you see because of item #3, or your interests align closely so you run into the same people (because architects don’t stop being architects at 5:00pm). I know of about 10 married couples where both are architects. I don’t know any lawyers married to lawyers, or doctors married to doctors – certainly not the extent that architect marry one another. Really, why is this?
2. The pay and benefits are not as good as they could be
I have not tracked this information but rather basing it on what I know from colleagues working at other architectural firms. A majority of architectural firms do not offercomprehensive benefit packages that would be considered standard in other professional industries. I am talking about 401K programs, dental and vision insurance, availability to get long term disability, flex spending accounts, etc. I have already written about the pay structure for architects (you can find it here). I am one of the lucky ones because I work at one of the rare (rare like finding a live platypus in your toilet kind of rare) firms that offers almost all of these things and we only have 6 full time employees. The fact that we do it here is evidence that other firms can do it as well if they made it a priority. There are occasions when my wife comes home and I imagine how things could be different if I worked in a “real” industry that cared about its employees over the long haul. Maybe that should be a post – do architectural firms really care about their employees? As an industry, we seem to value the experience that comes from someone who has moved around- we just don’t want to foot the bill while training someone else’s future employee.
3. The hours you work are long and under-valued
The time you spend working on a project, in many regards, is proportional to the quality of the end product. It is very difficult to separate out the desire to create something with the business of how much time you have to create it. As a result, architects tend to work late hours developing scheme after scheme to evaluating possible solutions. Most of the time, so much fee is burned up during schematic design and design development when the people with the highest billing rates contribute, that the production period of the project is compressed down into a calendar deadline, not a fee-based allotment of time. The difference is that the company doesn’t pay you more for working a 8 hour day versus a 16 hour day – but they do pay rent on the space you occupy, the computer you use, the software on that computer, etc. If there is 200 hours of time allocated to produce construction drawings (at your billing rate) and you work 8 hour days – that 25 work days of time. If you work 16 hour days, that’s slightly more than 2 weeks and all the overhead associated with a person working in your position has just essentially been cut in half. Great for them, sucks for you -it’s hazing for adults.
4. Your ideals don’t really matter
Your clients hire you to give them a product that they want, not necessarily what you want. We basically go to school to learn how to learn – architecture isn’t a trade. As a result, you should be equipped to design projects that aren’t in the style of architecture that you would like to do for yourself. Most projects are developed for profit and despite the fact that good design equals good solutions which translates into a form of measured success, everybody wants more for less. There will be times when you are told to do something that you know is terrible and the absolute wrong thing to do. Based on your need for the work, or the force of your personality, you will make concessions that will make you want to die.
5. If your ideals are important to you, you will lose work
Because architects are opinionated, they will argue for points that the client has clearly stated that they do not want. You are probably thinking that a clearly stated result, while demonstrating the error in the alternative, will win out. It doesn’t always work that way. I have been fired by a client, while trying to fire them, because I didn’t want my name associated with their project. They didn’t know that I was trying to get both the husband and wife into the office so we could give them the drawings, wish them luck, and then kick their sorry butts out the door. So while I was trying to schedule a meeting with both of them, the husband got mad that we “weren’t listening” when the wife said she could handle the meeting without her husband. We really needed them both in this particular meeting. Ironic really.
6. Not all architects have fun jobs
Maybe glamorous is a better word than fun. I am sure that 95% of the time you spent in your design studios at school was about design and not about construction detailing or project management, or communication, shop drawings, billing, etc. Very few architects 10 years down the road into their careers are “designers”, most are project architects. The role of project architect can be very rewarding but there will be aspects to that job that you never imagined could be so tedious and boring. The only analogy I can currently think of to describe it is building a car so you can drive down the street. A lot of work goes in to creating buildings and very little of that time is spent on design.
7. The house you live in will depress you
This is an easy one because what I know is far from what I can afford. I have lived in 5 houses during a 15 year stretch and have spent almost as much time fantasizing all the things I could do to make them better as I have fantasized about winning the lottery. The good news is that the light at the end of the really unimaginably long tunnel is your future ability to change that situation. It just takes patience.
8. You will live with terrible decisions
The nature of architecture includes, and sometimes require, experimentation. As a result, you will make decisions that are really bad and you will have to live with knowing that your terrible idea is ruining people’s lives all day, every day. The good news is that buildings seem to be disposable now and it will only be a matter of time before your mistake is corrected by someone else. Oh yeah – the projects you do that are good will also be disposable and shortly torn down to make way for yet another branch bank.
9. Architecture requires a lot of work and dedication
Architects go to school for a long time, take a lot of demanding tests, and have to work for years to gain the experience to call themselves an “architect”. There are a lot of other jobs that if you were to put in the same level of time and singularly minded dedication, you would be much further along in your development. Please note that I didn’t say that you would be making more money because we have already rung that bell. This is about putting your time in and paying your dues to develop the skill to practice architecture. I’d like to think that most architects are pretty bright individuals and if they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer they could have. If you want to be a lawyer, go get a 4 year degree, then 3 years of law school, graduate and take a test. 7 years and you are in! It took me 6 years and 207 degree hours to get my Bachelors degree in Architecture and I studied abroad during that time. I worked for 6 years before taking the Architectural Registration Exam (passed them all on the first try btw) and was rewarded with a healthy raise of $0. Point is, you had better really want to be an architect – I did and I knew it when I was 5 years old. Then again, 5 year olds don’t know much yet so re-evaluate from time to time.
10. You probably won’t be a designer
In my class, everyone thought they were the next super-designer. I mean every single person. The truth is, almost none-of them are now. I get to spend a lot of my time designing (in my office of eight) but I spend a lot more time doing other things. There is one person in our office that comes closest to meeting the definition of “designer” but even she does more than that. I spent time working at RTKL in the mid-90′s and there were about 120 people in that office. Out of those 120, probably 108 were being developed as project architects and they never talked to a client. If they were lucky, maybe they talked to a contractor but it took years to get to that level. the remaining 12 were the designers. Those 12 were made up of 5 who designed things that actually got built and the other 7 designed things that sold the work that the previously mentioned 5 designed. I was one of the 12 and I thought it was a terrible job. I never did see anything get built in person. I didn’t have to worry about how it was going to be detailed – that was someone else’s job. Eventually, they started putting me in front of clients because I am pretty good at talking in front of a lot of people and can think well enough on my feet to avoid saying something that will get us in trouble. At any rate, aspiring to be a designer isn’t as great as you might think it is.
Pros and Cons of a Career in Architecture
Should you become an architect? Is it worth it?
Architecture is not for the faint of heart. Becoming an architect is a long, arduous process and many complain about the pay and long hours even after they get their license. However, many people in the field wouldn’t consider switching to something else. Here are some pros and cons of becoming an architect.
Let’s start with the cons:
Architecture requires a long training period, comparable to professions in medicine and law. The minimum training period is 8 years, which includes a 5-year bachelor degree and 3 years of internship. If you opt for the Master of Architecture, add a year or two to the overall total. Also, IDP (Intern Development Program) is notorious for taking longer than 3 years. And then there’s the ARE (Architect Registration Exam). Hopefully you get can all 7 of these tests finished while you complete IDP, but if not, add some more time to the total.
Hours and Pay
One of the biggest complaints of architects is the pay. Its not terrible, but its much lower than other professions with similar training and licensing requirements. Salary.com puts the median income for entry-level architects just over $42,000 and the median income for a licensed architect with 12 years of experience at $113,000. Also, architecture requires long hours with lots of overtime. Even after you’re done with school, projects often require late nights as big deadlines approach.
Given current affairs, this list would not be complete without mentioning that the construction industry is very dependent on the economy. If companies are doing well and people are earning money, they want to build new offices, houses, malls, restaurants, etc. Being an architect is really great during these times. If the economy is bad, cutting capital investments will save a lot of money. This means less work for architects. Layoffs are common in architecture firms during hard times. Don’t count on job security.
Pros of becoming an architect:
Architecture is a passion
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, architecture is not for you. Your heart skips a beat when you find a beautiful new building while you’re exploring the city. Architecture appeals to your creative side, and you get a huge amount of satisfaction from making things. Being a designer appeals to you ego–you get to decide exactly how things will be according to your vision. You love being able to control every detail and make it perfect.
You won’t get bored
Architecture is a very dynamic field, with constantly changing trends and technologies. Although this means you have to do a lot of professional development to stay current, it also means that you will always be learning. Every project you tackle is different and you will constantly find new challenges. Even within individual projects, there are a variety of things you will be doing from day-to-day. One day you might be meeting with clients and working on design, while other days you’ll be visiting construction sites or researching materials.
You’re making a difference
Sure, you’re not making world peace, but what you do as an architect really matters. You’re making safe, healthy environments for people to live and work in. What you do can improve quality of life and human experience. You also have the responsibility to make sure that your buildings work and are structurally sound. Yes it’s a lot of pressure, but isn’t that the case with all things that are worth doing?
How do you tell good design from bad design?
I’d argue that it’s obvious to tell the difference between good and bad design. But if that was the case for everyone, then we’d enjoy a world full of excellent websites.
I believe there are obvious visual and emotional indicators of good and bad design. Let’s start by comparing and contrasting the visual indicators first.
We recognize bad design instantly when we can’t tell what the hell we’re looking at and can’t figure out where to go. When print or online media is jam-packed with information, images and icons, order and comprehension is severely challenged. Brand guru Marty Neumeier says, “A wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention.”
Bad design feels like an episode of Hoarders. Being forced to take in tons of conflicting content at once is jarring, confusing and repulsive. Having too many columns in your website will do this. Having too many colors will do this. Having a ton of animated stuff will do this. Having a ton of ads on the page will do this. Having multiple areas of navigation will do this. Doing all of these at once will make your visitors explode.
We follow clean design without any questions. We move from point A to point B gracefully and find our way back just as quick. Clean design organizes information logically and gives each piece its own time and space for attention. Clean design often looks attractive and professional.
Clean design creates a sense of understanding, respect and trust. Banks understand this; that’s why they are clean, organized and the tellers are dressed for business. Much like looking for a good place for your money, you want information on your website to be obvious, organized and trustworthy.
So how do you make good design? I would defer to Marty Neumeier’s advice on this yet again:
Good design reflects good virtues (honesty, clarity, courage, substance)… Bad design exhibits laziness, deceit, pettiness and fear.
I would argue that good design starts from and is based on your business’ virtues. Leaving all the cliche and competitor style behind, I would advice using your own virtues as the guiding light for your design. Beyond this, good design is usually gained by way of experience. Align your design with your virtues and then apply the necessary rules of design to make it readable, presentable and unique.
What visual and emotional qualities do we find in good and bad design?
Robust – lacking bugs and tolerant of external faults
Maintainable – easy to maintain and extend
Useful – utility, beyond the immediate need (due to flexibility and extensibility)
Scalable – ability to grow in capacity, not in features
Common Vision – direction, strategy
Agile – simple and “elegant” enough to refactor easily; flexible
Extensible – ability to grow in features or in depth
Responsive – performance now and after adding features or expanding scale