What is the purpose of being multi-disciplinary?
Recently, in a rather shocking moment followed by an intense brow-wrestling session, I was told by a fellow faculty member that architects are not designers. In architecture college, I have always studied and taught as many different kinds of subjects as possible, ranging from landscape design to product design, to physics, sociology, visual communication, philosophy to what not. All this gave us an impression that an architect is some sort of a master designer, a la Howard Roark who can work in a quarry and come in the city to design high-rise buildings in the city, who also knows how to design a logo for his own office or choose the correct sculptor for his projects. The idea of designing from a screw to a city was imbibed so deep in us, that we always hated the professionals like project managers and other consultants, who took away even an inch of control over the project from our hands. Last year I attended a lecture by Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish Architect and educator, where he presented a long lecture on how he was crafting metal door handles at his office. Hence, post sending a passive-aggressive email to the aforementioned gentleman with links to 5 different definitions of an architect as described by various internationally prestigious authorities, I decided to explore the validity of the statement.
We can start by questioning, what is the difference between the job of a designer as against an architect? To put things in simple words, an architect is the one who designs buildings. But all designers mostly design something specific, so how does one create this hard-walled distinction between the two professions? In the oldest book on architecture, “De Architectura”, it’s author, a Roman Architect called Marcus Vitruvious Pollio (80BC- 15 BC) lays out principles and plans for designing things ranging from cities to buildings, and bath-tubs to clocks. Many Rennaissance Men were architects, indulging in medicine, aerodynamics, and architecture at the same time. Even How then do we separate the two disciplines? Perhaps the answer lies in something deeper.
So what does a designer do anyway? I remember reading a now untraceable quote “Designers Design the Designs through Design”. A little cyclic right? Even the root word “design” can be used in multiple ways, as a noun, verb, or even an adjective. But on a very pragmatic level, we may differentiate designing from execution. So a designer is one who plans the execution of production system. To do this, the designer has to be aware of the place and purpose of the resultant product in the pre-production as well as the post-production environment. At this fundamental level, there is no difference between any designer, be it of built environments (Architect), or clothing (Fashion Designer).
However, the kind of skills that are required to plan the execution of production, vary from product to product, with some overlap. An Architect needs working understanding of the strength of materials while a graphics designer needs to be thorough with their color theory. An Automobile designer can’t do without an understanding of combustion engine, while a fashion designer must have a thorough understanding of the textile printing technique. Even the design principals for designing a comfortable lounge chair have little in common with the one’s required to build an Android mobile app. Even though the source of knowledge like History, Theory, Psychology, Ergonomics etc. are common in all design fields, what they focus on seldom perfectly overlaps. Hence, an Architect is as little of a designer as a Fashion Stylist. I.e- we are all designers with particular expertise. It does not mean that we can’t design things which we don’t have academic expertise in, but that the knowledge base of one needs to be expanded while addressing other disciplines inside the field.
Thus, for designers it becomes important to develop an acquaintance with other disciplines in their field, for it will lead to a richer understanding of not only the design process but also help them communicate better in the contemporary working environments, where multiple designers from various fields work on the same project, collaborating through their specific expertise. The purpose of being inter-disciplinary in one’s academic and professional approach is not really to be a “Jack of all trades”, but to develop better and more engaging work environments and subsequently better products.