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August 14, 2012, by Lauren Della Bella

What’s In Your Folder?

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that he was going to buy each of his grandchildren a clear plastic project folder for a holiday gift.  He knew they would be confused about getting a plastic box instead of one of the more exciting items on their “list”, but he wanted them to think bigger.  He told me that each plastic folder would include a message.  The message was, that starting today, it’s your job to write your own story.  The plastic box should hold your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams and anything else that defines who you are or will be.  Listening to him, I was so moved by what an incredible gift he was giving to his grandchildren.

In the design world we are writing our client’s stories everyday.  The projects we do are often a reflection of their hopes and dreams.  Often they are a reflection of our own as well.   Everyday, we struggle with the question of whose story is more important, the clients or mine.  A great designer balances both; a great designer understands that satisfying the goals of the client, with creative ideas and solutions is important to writing his or her own story.

When we look at examples of great architecture, sometimes we view them as designers and sometimes we view them as users.  Each point of view produces a different reaction.   As designers we appreciate the inspiration, the solution, the context and materiality.  As users we appreciate the experience.  The sensation we get when a place makes us feel something, when our senses come alive, when our reaction is visceral.  Not every space has to do that to be great.  Maybe the most important thing is that the occupants are safe, or dry.  Maybe it’s just a great place to live, or learn or work.  Maybe the environment is healthy and the occupants more productive. Maybe it came in on budget.

Personally speaking, there is nothing worse than a beautiful piece of architecture that blew the budget.  Not a small overrun, but a major budget bust.  It happens a lot in our industry and it is one of the reasons clients often don’t trust architects with their money.  It’s one of the reasons clients turn to contractors and construction managers to keep designers in line.  As an industry it’s not our finest chapter, as individuals it makes our story incomplete.  With every design problem, comes the responsibility to provide a whole solution.  If we don’t understand and meet our client’s budget expectations we haven’t really solved the problem.   Granted every good drama has drama, and every good comedy has drama too.  It’s what we learn from those experiences and how we use that information that shapes us and ultimately shapes our story.

As designers we have many storytelling tools.  What we choose to do with them is how our boxes will be filled and how our stories will be told.   If figuring out your own story is too daunting, there is always author Dan Pink’s challenge to answer the question “what’s my sentence?”  You can start by filling your box with a noun; a verb an adjective…how you answer the question is part of the gift.