5 Missteps Design Professionals and Architects Make with Clients

As an Architect and former owner’s design representative with Walt Disney Imagineering who has worked on both sides of the fence – as professional design service provider and as the client representative who hired and managed design professionals – there are several missteps I consistently dealt with. Here are my top five:

Misstep and Mistakes

1. Do Not Underestimate a Sophisticated Client

Sophisticated clients and seasoned owner representatives should know their end-product, and what it takes to deliver a successful project more than the design professionals and general contractors they hire.

Too many times I have heard the phrases, when I was the client and interviewing design professionals or general contractors, “We’ve designed many schools across the country so we are the experts on delivering themed attractions.”  Or my favorite, “Well, we have built and designed dozens of hospitals over the past ten years, so we know how to design and build theme parks.”

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Design professionals that are trying to break into new building types should consider demonstrating their firm’s successful design processes, how they successfully manage their design team during difficult or complex projects, and define how they will serve the client’s needs and project program requirements. If the client deems you qualified enough for an interview for a new project – even if the firm does not have a laundry list of that specific building types – the client most likely believes your technically qualified for the project.

Be confident, but be humble that you’re not the only expert in the room during the interview. Specifically demonstrate your firm’s expertise at delivering quality design documents and managing the design process specific to the project and specific to the client.

Most clients who have a healthy capital spending program are constantly looking for new or multiple design teams to deliver their projects; not having a portfolio of their specific building type does not always disqualify you, your firm or your design team from getting the job.

I also suggest going after a smaller project to get your foot in the door. Going after the client’s largest, newest project is a difficult path to prove your prowess.

Establishing designer-client trust on a few smaller projects can often lead to a long-term relationship and larger, more complex projects down the road.

2. Lack of Design Team Consistency

During the interview phase of a design team, the client’s design manager should request as a portion of the Request for Proposal deliverable a specific list of and resumes for the design team members being proposed to be utilized throughout the duration of the project.

The client’s design manager should retain this list of individuals once the design contract has been awarded. In many instances, it may be specific individual design professionals on a winning design team that sealed the deal. The design team’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ players that were proposed for the duration should remain on the project for the duration as required.

When I was the client’s design manager and design teams would internally poach their own ‘A’ and ‘B’ players early in the design phases for newer projects, I as the Design Manager had to call out the design team or firm in question. It was my responsibility to remind them that we the client contracted a very specific team, with specific talented individuals we knew could get the job done.

I have personally been on projects where this took place and I saw the flaws and inconsistencies in the design documents to prove my point. As the client’s design manager, I had to work with the contracted design team to get the talented team members we as the client retained back on the project.

3. Follow-through with Promises

Item No. 3 works in tandem with Items No. 2. If a design team begins to show a lack of consistency in within their design team’s ranks; if ‘A’ players are being shuttled to new, different projects; if design team members state clearly they will address specific Code issues with the Authority Having Jurisdiction; etc.

It is the client’s design representative’s or client’s design manager’s responsibility to make sure the design team is following-through with their promises. A Design Manager should be attentive enough, experienced enough, and a subject matter expert on similar projects to see and react to the early signs of his/her design team’s actions that may indicate lack of follow-through and lack of adhering to their contractual requirements.

4. Poor Design Documents

As we all know, poor design documents can lead to a multitude of issues both during the design phases and during the implementation or construction phase.

Poor design documents that do not meet the minimum level of completion that is both defined in the design team’s contract and defined by the client’s company standards may cause the following issues:

  • Failure to achieve early project estimates to provide project budgetary metrics.
  • May affect the design team’s design phase milestone payment value and schedule.
  • Missing design information in the early design phases will be amplified and compounded in the later design phases or even worse may be carried over to the construction or implementation phase.
  • Design documents with missing or partial information may affect project specific Code requirements that if not addressed early in the design phase will cause major design changes during construction.

To assist in avoiding these and many other issues not listed stemming from poor design documents, the client’s Design Manager should have regularly scheduled design reviews of the design team’s progress and milestone drawings.

Design reviews of drawings and documents can yield valuable design input, increase team collaboration, and is a forum in which the owner, client and/or stakeholders can engage the design process at a deeper level.

The Design Manager led design review should merely be a review to confirm all the previous design issue work sessions with the client or project stakeholders. If any new design issues come to light in the design review – which they will – the Design Manager should note those topics, and schedule future, specific work sessions to resolve the new issues.

5. Asking for new projects while the current project is falling apart

When I was the client’s design representative at Disney, one thing that would irritate me more is a design team that would probe me for new work while their performance on their current project was not going well.

Like most projects, even the most successful projects will have moments where the design process is riddled with issues, the design documents are not up to company standards, or the design team is not performing at its known maximum potential.

One of the worst times for a design team, an architect, and/or an engineer to market their client is during times of dissension regarding the design team’s performance on an on-going project with the same client.

I personally experienced this during my time at Disney. While I tried to be fair and understand why a design team was not performing well on a project and assist them in being successful and make corrections; an understanding of “good timing” is everything. During those few weeks or months when they were not performing up to my and the company’s standard’s was not the right time to ask me about upcoming or being short-listed on new projects.

If you would like to learn more about how to become a successful Design Manager utilizing real world processes, check out my online, self paced course: The Design Manager: Successful Management of the Design Process. This course incorporates my twenty plus years of successful A & E Industry design project team management skills and processes I used during my time as a Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering.

About the Author J. Daniel Jenkins, AIA, NCARB is a licensed Architect, Theme Park Design Consultant, and former Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering with over twenty years of subject matter expertise and design team leadership experience. Jenkins is the creator of themeparkarchitect.com who's goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment industry related topics. For nearly a decade, Mr. Jenkins has worked in the themed entertainment industry on new themed entertainment attractions, theme park lands, and new theme parks. Upon leaving Walt Disney Imagineering, Jenkins started his own Design Management Consulting company where he has consulted with and provided subject matter expertise and project leadership for new, confidential projects for several themed entertainment companies. Mr. Jenkins holds a five-year Master of Architecture degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and a Virtual Design and Construction Certificate from Stanford University.
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