As Designers, Where Do We Find Purpose?

With the Great Recession behind us, design professionals find themselves in an interesting state of change within the economy. The billings indexes for architecture and interior design firms are surpassing previous landmark months in 2007. Unemployment is extremely low, and there has been a clear shift to an employee-driven marketplace in which hiring those with 10 to 15 years of experience often requires a negotiation. Clients’ interest in sustainability grows in the midst of crises, including the California drought and other market pressures. And, we have seen a huge jump in interest in what is known as public interest design, or design for impact.

Now is the time to ask ourselves: Where do we find purpose? Or specifically, how are firms going to become exemplary in a new purpose-filled economy?

The purpose economy, as outlined by Aaron Hurst in his 2014 book, The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth, and Community is Changing the World, is: “The emerging economy defined by the quest or people to have more purpose in their lives. It’s an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers—through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community.”

Hurst builds a strong case for the growing presence of the purpose economy. He defines the new economy as the next big economic development following in the steps of the progressive changes that moved us from an industrial economy into an information-based economy. The purpose economy is often associated with both the public’s demand to increase transparency in the operations and human resources practices of companies as well as in an increase in pro bono/volunteer efforts across industries. The purpose economy is also prevalent in the desired change from automation of broad systems (including education and healthcare) back to human-centered and community- driven experiences.

So why, as designers and architects, should we care about the movement? One reason is because many recent design graduates—the future leaders of our profession—are highly interested in public interest design. The purpose economy already has a strong presence within the profession with humanitarians and nonprofit organizations increasingly at the forefront, including Habitat for Humanity, the alums of Architecture for Humanity who are now doing a variety of public interest design work, the Rural Studio, and Public Architecture (Contract magazine’s 2009 Designer of the Year). In 2011, Ideo launched with a vision of “Designing a Better World.” Autodesk launched its foundation in 2013 with the mission to “invest in the most impactful people and organizations using the power of design to create a better world.” This year, Portland State University launched its Center for Public Interest Design to “investigate and promote design practices that are a catalyst for social, economic, and environmental change needed to serve the growing needs of communities both locally and worldwide.”

Within each project sector, the purpose economy is evident in the changes associated with the types of interior environments we are currently being asked to design. Libraries have become a renewed place for communities to gather, not just repositories of books and resources. Healthcare has placed a greater emphasis on preventative medicine and holistic environments that actively assist in healing patients. Education interiors have become more multidisciplinary at both the K-12 and university levels, exchanging fixed furniture classrooms and lecture halls in many instances for smaller data-enabled seminar rooms and maker spaces. Hotels have reimagined their public areas and service offerings, becoming all-in-one places to stay, work, eat, and play as destinations for locals and tourists alike. And the workplace continues to evolve with greater integration of community and collaborative spaces, as well as places for individuals to relax.

What do these changes mean to business strategy within a design industry? Clients will expect more from the firms they hire, and employees will have greater expectations for the companies they work for. Survival in the purpose economy will require design firms to continue to adapt. In my column next month, I will describe the various factors driving the purpose economy, how to integrate them into practice, and how to utilize them to potentially grow your position in your vertical market or position yourself for new market sectors.