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Design collaboration: envisioning a more client-friendly process

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

As an architecture student, my classmates and I were encouraged by our design instructors to each pursue an individual vision.  Our role models were creative geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Gehry (yes, this was decades ago).  We almost always designed our studio projects on our own.  Our “clients” were hypothetical and we designed what we thought would be best for them. What we thought that we knew would be best for them. As designers, we knew best.

After graduation, we carried this focus on individual vision into professional practice. 

As we began to serve real clients, we discovered that real clients have their own vision and their own needs which sometimes might interfere with our own vision.  To cope with this, we were advised to conceal our design process.  “Never design in front of the client.”  “Don’t let the client see what we are designing yet.”   I still sometimes hear, “The less the client sees, the better.”

When I joined a project team designing a major project for George Lucas, I was warned that George was a problem because “he thinks that he’s an architect.”  Then we met with George, and I discovered that he had some pretty great design insights that were worth listening to. 

Not a problem. 

Sure, not every client is George Lucas.  And after all, we gravitated to architectural design because we had some extra talent and then we honed that talent in school.  But was the best model to develop designs independently, like we had been trained, and leave the client out of the design process as much as possible, even when it’s George Lucas?  What if clients were welcomed more as collaborators in the design process? 

To be very fair to my own profession, more and more architects choose to embrace the client in the design process.  This is especially true where the client is knowledgeable about design and where the project has complex functional aspects--for example, designing a hospital for a health care client which has a team of expert facilities staff. 

One of the obstacles to making the most of this collaboration is that it’s difficult even for these clients to visualize the entire design as it is developed.  Although the architects try to show the clients images of what’s important at each step of the way, most of the design information is left out of the canned fly-throughs and the still-image renderings.  The unfortunate result is that clients often discover problems when it’s too late, when it’s expensive to revise the design or even when the project is under construction and changes are super costly.  And often, the client ends up simply having to live with the problems, dissatisfied with the architects who had tried so hard.

At Geopogo, we sat down to solve this problem.  We needed to find a way for clients to visualize better so that they can collaborate better with architects, even when the clients are not part of an expert facilities team and even when they don’t have a project as complex as a hospital. 

By talking with a wide range of clients, we learned that a 3D model is the easiest way for them to understand the design. 

A 3D model allows a literal view and eliminates the confusion caused by the abstractions of professional drawings and the limited view of renderings.  Real physical 3D models are expensive to build and modify, so they have typically been replaced by 3D digital models which can be created directly from architectural software like Autodesk Revit.

What if the client could routinely collaborate by exploring a virtual 3D model of the design with the architect and not be limited to canned fly-throughs and selected still-images?  What if the 3D model was interactive and the architect and client could experiment together with different spatial, furnishing, finish, and lighting options in real-time?  The client could know what was being designed, request modifications before they were costly, and make well-informed decisions. 

The architect (and the builder) could save time and money, streamlining the design process and satisfying the client.

The one thing to add to this vision is that the virtual 3D models would be so easy to create, navigate, and modify that the client could even be a co-pilot with no special training. 

At Geopogo, we built a design tool to fulfill this vision.  With drag-and-drop and simple controls, all the client needs to collaborate is a computer with a touchpad or a mouse.

Now the design process can truly be a participant sport rather than a spectator sport.  But the design process is different than a game.  The design process is a very serious matter involving great expense and lasting consequences. 

We can’t afford to leave the client out and make mistakes.

Yes, not every architect or client will choose to collaborate together. But now they can.

By David Alpert, CEO, FAIA

May 14th 2020

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