The Building Blocks for a Truly Multidisciplinary Practice

How do you define a multidisciplinary practice? When asked this question, individuals tend to fall into three different camps.

The two most common responses usually have something to do with a variety of different market sectors—such as the design of workplace, hospitality, education, or healthcare—or the delivery of a mix of design services for the built environment, such as architecture, interiors, engineering, etc. The third response is the one that most closely follows the dictionary definition of the term multidisciplinary, which is “combining or involving several academic disciplines or specializations in an approach to a topic or problem.” This third definition of the word also creates greater business opportunities for architecture and design practices to expand their service offerings for their clients. Firms that utilize individuals of various disciplines other than architecture or interior design on the majority of their projects bring a diverse perspective to the design process.

I realize that many firms partner with specialists all the time. Clients even ask that firms bring in specific consultants, ranging from security experts to curriculum development professionals. In those instances, consider the value that the different frame of reference and added knowledge and leadership provide. Could all projects benefit from greater input from professionals outside of traditional practice?

Granted, there is no way to clearly quantify the advantages of multidisciplinary teams. But putting these teams into practice is an approach that other sectors are using more frequently, and is an increasingly desirable approach for corporations pursuing a “design thinking” method of problem solving. There are lessons in the world around us, and architecture and design firms should take heed.

For example, earlier this year, consulting giant McKinsey acquired Lunar, a top design firm, to augment its portfolio of services and to integrate a design approach into its standard consulting services.

Which disciplines should architects and designers consider integrating into practice? In my experience at MKThink, our work benefits from a number of professionals in various disciplines within the firm, and we consult with many as well. Here are my thoughts on some key professionals in different disciplines:

Data analysts: These individuals are great at both organizing and finding correlations within data, whether it be BIM data or any client data that can be used in support of the design process. Client data includes—but is not limited to—schedules, point of sale information, marketing metrics, card/key swipes, and more.

Brand experience designers: Brands are increasingly trying to find ways to be a regular part of the lifestyle of their stakeholders and employees. Increasingly, marketing and brand firms have been hiring architects to join their teams to bring their vision to life. Inversely, architecture and design firms could employ brand experience designers to ensure consistency in brand recognition throughout a project and to potentially work with a client earlier in their brand creation process.

User interface designers: With an exponentially increasing growth of technology in every facet of our daily lives, the smart integration of technology into the built environment will become more important. A user interface designer can heighten the wayfinding experience and ensure greater use of technology interfaces within an interior.

User researchers: Analysts with this particular background become incredibly helpful at quantifying qualitative experiences such as stakeholder engagements, and are keenly adept
at the creation and utilization of stakeholder
survey information.

Organizational management specialists: Often, the result of the design services we provide requires some type of organizational change in order for clients to obtain the greatest benefit from the design. Those specializing in organizational management can support the transition of the user into a new space, as well as the development of operations and policies that ensure happier clients and better project outcomes.

How do you go about rethinking your multidisciplinary practice? The best way to understand which specialists and individuals work well on project teams is to start hiring them as consultants on a project-by-project basis. Be sure to bring them in as early as possible, before fees are structured, and potentially before the first interview with a client. Inevitably, you will find opportunities to expand upon your firm’s current services.