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Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

Archive for November, 2012

Sharpening Your Saw

Many of the time management and self-improvement programs I seen recommend devoting time to “sharpening your saw” – preparing your tools for action. In architecture, our tools are varied, from CAD programs to colored pencils to the design process itself. How do we find time – between marketing, accounting, and doing the work itself – to sharpen our skills. For me, I found a client that requires me to do just that.

In 2010 I was hired by Wilmington Friends School to design and build the sets for their plays and musicals. While at the time I took the job mostly because I needed something to bring in income, the job matched up with my skills and experience. And while I thought that working there would be a marketing benefit, I’ve found that the job brings additional benefits to my practice, so many in fact that I’m now working hard to make sure I can continue to work for them even when I”m busy with other projects.

Set Design and Construction is a unique process. It’s much more like school projects than a typical architectural design project. You have a short amount of time to understand the principles and unique elements that will convey to people the mood or era or feeling of the production. You have to document the design enough that the production team can understand what you’re envisioning so they can react to it. So you find yourself making pencil renderings and using SketchUp to make models. And then you have to work out the details and select colors and document it enough that you know what materials you will need.

Then once that is done you still have to build it, with the limited resources (time, people, money) you have available. And the deadline is fixed and immovable. So the pressure can start to build to just get it done, and in that pressure the design gets focused as you decide what things don’t really matter to the overall vision.

This abbreviated process means that there is a lot of design that happens during the construction process, which puts you into the Master Builder mode as you shape the set to match the vision in your head. It’s fun and invigorating and also a lot of work-physically and mentally. Add in the management of the many volunteers, and the teaching of skills like painting and using screw guns, and it takes on the appearance of a very busy job site.

And when you are done, that happy glow of satisfaction is short-lived, because in about a week you’ll be taking it apart and cleaning up and getting ready for the next one.

So why am I still doing this? There are several reasons, chief among them that the immediate satisfaction of imagining the design and then seeing it real in such a short time is a real rush. The other is that when the whole production team is clicking, and everyone sees the same vision, the collaborative process is so powerful. And I’m exercising my vision muscles – seeing the whole thing in my mind, and being confident in making decisions.┬áJust as answering questions at the market gives me confidence in my interactions with clients, set design gives me confidence in my designing abilities.