Communication in Collaboration

Engineering News Record recently shared a great article promoting importance of teaching and encouraging collaboration in the education of architects, contractors and engineers. Full article here.

We couldn’t agree more with the points made, namely “The bottom line is simple: Students who enter the workforce having been exposed to broader and more collaborative curricula will be far better equipped to handle the myriad challenges they will face, regardless of their chosen discipline. We ask that our partners in engineering and landscape architecture join us in making a similar call to the academic community. ”

Designing Strategy wishes to underscore that lessons in empathy, trust and collaboration can already be found within rhetorics and communications programs on college campuses. Some universities are even actively engaged in Writing and Communications Across Curriculums initiatives, such as this one at UNCG.

Science and business have long been aware of the importance of rhetorics and communication. These disciplines have influenced writing and general education curricula to reflect writing course offerings that are specifically catered to their industries. It should come as no surprise that such programs often have less trouble winning funding for research.

One of our favorite mentors, Steven B. Katz, co-author of Writing in the Sciences: Exploring Conventions of Scientific Discourse, has been influential in helping scientists better leverage their gifts and proliferate findings via academic and non-academic journals. Wouldn’t it be nice if future architects, contractors and engineers had the option to take a design writing and communications course?!

Title Envy

We Love the recent article from It’s Nice That: “Designers are from Mars, Consumers Want Snickers: Let’s stand up for the value we create.” The article caught my eye because the title kind of suits my dissertation, however is much more clever and catchy than, “Ubiquitous Libidinal Infrastructures of Urbanism.” I was immediately envious.

In short, the article suggests that designers need “to work harder to prove its worth.” 

I agree 110% that designers and architects need speak up about the value they create!! So do poets, artists, musicians, mothers and caregivers. But, designers are some of the hardest working people I know. I’m not sure if they can work any harder. They may be able to work smarter, and of course, I believe the missing link has to to with Rhetoric and Communication.

Designers, a lot of them anyway, lack audience awareness. There are currently not enough opportunities in architectural education for students to engage with diverse audiences. Architecture students are habituated to talk about their value only to other’s who understand it (fellow students, critics and teachers). It is hard the make one’s design ideas matter to someone who does not understand complicated vocabulary about geometries or spatial joints, for example. But, if a student has been coached to think about communication at each stage of the design process, from the inceptive moment, to the development of ideas ant through various instances of the delivery of those ideas, then they will be better equipped to integrate this thinking into their process and practice. They might become forces for change.

I’m biased because I love language. I also love poetry, and arguing both sides of an issue until I understand it more deeply. Yet, I believe our educational system needs to teach how to creatively communicate with non-designers/makers of all kinds. We need to emphasize communication in general. We need to know what is being taught in English101, and reinforce those ideas in the classroom. Universities offer writing courses specific to business, science and technology… so why not design?!

Rhetorical Invention, Design Processes and IDEO

It may surprise you that rhetoric is a richly creative discipline! A large part of rhetoric surrounds methods of invention. The common topics of rhetorical invention act as templates or formulas used originally when crafting arguments for a debate or speech. In sum, they help traverse that sometimes difficult inceptive moment of “getting started” with design, writing and creativity in general. The first section of our forthcoming Routledge publication, Communicating Design, is devoted completely to distilling ways rhetorical invention techniques might benefit designers.

Along these lines, we recently came across an exciting and generous Design Kit that IDEO via generously provides here for free! The site is broken down into three useful categories that will help you confidently and creatively break through the inceptive inventive moment in your projects. The Case Study and Methods section demonstrates how and where the inspiring global firm IDEO have successfully executed creative human-centered wins. And, their Mindsets offer stories from within the firm that offer a window into their philosophy. They suggest that “how you think about design directly affects whether you’ll arrive at innovative, impactful solutions.”

We love that!

One of the Mindsets highlighted, for example, comes from founder of IDEO David Kelly, who provides insight into creative confidence!

Explore the Design Kit for yourself:


Women and Rhetoric(s) Getting a Bad Rap

I recently read the following article, which has been making the rounds on facebook. I found the article more than worthy of highlighting here, and not only because author Alexis Hancock has used the word Rhetoric in her title.

How The Rhetoric of Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech

The article, which focuses on imbalanced and unfair treatment of women and minorities in the tech industry, offers invaluable insight into the oppressive environments minorities and women also face in architecture. Hancock paints a picture I have unfortunately experienced first hand.

Hancock’s words, “with the cloud of imposter syndrome hovering over me, I convinced myself that I did not work hard enough to deserve a moment to relax,” painfully mimic my experience as an assistant professor of architecture. In my case, layers of oppression and assumptive prejudice were also marinated in a bitter, elitist cocktail that did not mix well with my state-school education and southern roots.

The article, while difficult for me to re-live, has helped me to focus on a more productive analysis of the external and institutional factors that push people (most often females and minorities) to physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion. Identifying the “microaggressions, low pay, and other tactics as what they are: systematic oppression,” may help to establish new narratives, vocabularies and strategies to overcome such oppressions.

However, like Hancock and so many others, I reached a breaking point that altered my engagement with the situation I was in. I, too let go of the prevailing imposter narratives and “found a more sound hope in not blaming myself anymore.” Like Hancock, I grew to see my working environment as sick. I let go of caring to fix it, recognizing I had not caused the illness. Sadly, I don’t think this story is uncommon. It seems one can only objectively analyze situations like this from a distance, and after healing. Reflections and awareness may offer alternative outcomes to others.

There isn’t much more I can add to this truthful article regarding oppressive work places. One final insight comes to mind, however, which leads me back to Hancock’s use of Rhetoric in her title. It is very important to stress that rhetoric is not an inherently bad contortion of language. Yet, more often than not (outside of rhetorical scholarship) the term is used in the way Hancock has done so here, to suggest a negative manipulation of language. Understanding rhetoric more generatively may help us move forward more productively. Naming something can often provide strength and confidence for gracefully standing one’s ground, staying the course and not giving up power. This is something I am only now able to see in hindsight.

My favorite definition of rhetoric comes from Thomas Ferrel, by way of rhetoric scholar Jenny Rice in her book Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the subject of Crisis. Rice tells us that Ferrel defines rhetoric as “the fine and useful art of making things matter.” This is to say, rhetoric is a creative force! As with all powerful art forms, rhetoric requires analytical strategies, the development of a process, and most importantly a lot of practice.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that emphasis is not placed on critical and vital humanities disciplines such as rhetoric in either tech or architectural education. Such topics are covered in “general education” credit courses, which are vastly undervalued and under prioritized (at least in architectural education). I’d love to see architectural educators more aware of the lessons and curricula in English 101 or Intro to Ethics! If even a fraction of what is learned in those critical courses were reinforced within design studio (using parallel vocabularies between courses for the sake of the student), I believe we’d see a serious shift in the next generations of designers–women and men alike.

We can easily find tools to abstractly analyze the power dynamics and oppressive forms of communication occurring in our working environments. These lessons can be found within the study of rhetoric and communication. Finding time and energy to bridge the gap between someone who is already established in the tech or design industries, and a book like Rice’s Distant Publics (mentioned above), is unfortunately very daunting. For example, Rice’s book is written with future/other college professors in mind as an audience, rather than a web developer. Alexis Hancock would likely not have found solace in studying a scholarly book on rhetorical invention. Yet, I have hope that I will find the middle ground! I have an interest in striking a strategically targeted and tailored rhetorical chord for the design industry! Hancock has helped identify a pain point–one which I’m personally invested in–to direct my effort and years of research.


Ma Ry Kim, RIBA Selected Person To Watch 2016, Hawaii Business

Ma Ry Kim, RIBA, co-author of our publication in process, Communicating Design: Using Rhetoric as a Framework for Understanding Design Processes (Routledge, Accepted) has recently been selected and featured by Hawaii Business as an Emerging Professional. Locally Owned, Hawaii Business selects 20 emerging leaders each year, “who have already made major contributions to Hawaii and whom we expect to have an even greater impact over the next two decades.”  Check out the full article here! Great work Ma Ry!