Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Art of Procrastination

“There is no ‘try.’ Do or do not." – Yoda

There’s a fine line between waiting for inspiration and just putting stuff off. There’s a time to wait and a time to just do it. There’s a time for deliberation and a time for decisive action. Success might hinge on being able to properly identify which is the proper course.

When designing, a graph of the energy of my process is sometimes decidedly an inverse bell: starting off by immersing myself in the design problem – site, program, users, doing research on precedents – and then leaving it behind to pursue something else entirely, followed by a burst of production in the last part of the phase or project to document and communicate the solutions.

Some may say that’s just a symptom of an attention deficit, which is at least somewhat true in my case, but I firmly believe we have the ability to subconsciously process information in the background. I’ve spoken to designers who almost rely on this as part of their process, while others insist nothing happens unless they are actively (reading; writing; but for architects, typically drawing) attending to the problem.

There’s a great story about Frank Lloyd Wright involving the design of his 1935 masterpiece Fallingwater for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann. The story has been told often by the Taliesin Fellows who worked with Wright at the time. Kaufmann unexpectedly called Wright at Taliesin North in Wisconsin to advise he was in Milwaukee (at the time three hours from Taliesin) and on his way over to see the first drawings for his proposed creekside summer house in rural southwest Pennsylvania. Wright reportedly responded, “Come on over, Edgar; we’ll be waiting for you!” The Fellows panicked, never having seen one drawing of the house to date, even though Wright had had the site survey in hand for some time. Wright, hanging up the phone, sat down and within three hours had produced rough versions of the floor plans, major elevations and a building section of the three-level, stepped-back and cantilevered house. Kaufmann arrived, Wright shared the drawings and then took Kaufmann to another part of the house for lunch while the apprentices produced the famous colored pencil-on-trace perspective from a viewpoint below the falls over which the house is perched.

Is it possible that Wright produced the building completely in his mind before he ever picked up the pencils that day? I think most creative people would agree that it quite possible, though it’s unlikely to be very common.

Over my career in design, both in training and at work, I’ve experienced both scenarios wherein a design solution would be developed almost on its own with little conscious work while another project would only respond to constant attention and effort. I’ll say there is something quite satisfying in the flash of awareness that says “I got it now; I understand it completely – all I need to do is get it on paper!”

Of course, this process of latent development can be a problem in professional practice where concrete results and steady progress are expected by partners and project Owners. Billing cycles, banks, investors and markets don’t wait for flashes of inspiration. While we designers may be comfortable with what’s in our heads, clients only know what they can see and respond to.

This may well be why some architects are most comfortable in boutique practices with a more patronizing clientele. They aren’t being irresponsible or lacking in ambition; it’s more likely that they prefer to respond to their internal schedules and seek out clients more open to this kind of process.

As a project manager who sometimes produces the design solution himself rather than guide others I often struggle with the desire to process in the background while having to produce drawings and a report for the Very Important Meeting at 8 AM Monday. I keep wanting that Fallingwater experience but find that since I don’t own my practice and am not the World’s Greatest Living Architect (as Wright once billed himself), I don’t have the luxury of dictating my schedule or output.

To be sure, the solutions are not always Fallingwater-grade nor even aesthetic in nature. Sometimes the problem is purely functional – making space needs and adjacencies align to make a cohesive floor plan is a common issue – but no less important for it. A project requires dozens of similar moves; the solutions may arrive holistically or piecemeal and one solution will drive another. One has to be open to the ebb and flow but always keep in mind the greater overall theme – all parts must work toward the whole.

The challenge to a creative professional is in balancing these apparently oppositional needs. I believe it’s possible to manage one’s time and energy in a way that allows for both – processing subconsciously and making demonstrable progress. In a human-centered practice, it’s the most responsible way to act. Project Owners can either be educated to understand the creative process - or not - as they see fit. It’s up to the project team to understand the Owners’ attitudes and adjust its process accordingly.

One can make room in his or her project schedule and day to allow inspiration to happen. It often comes at odd moments anyway – in the car or shower, or in the middle of some other completely unrelated task or event. Sometimes the inspiration is triggered by something about the unrelated task; sometimes it’s allowed to come to the surface by the chore’s undemanding nature (washing dishes and mowing the lawn have worked for me on several occasions!). Maybe the answer lies in creating the time and space in which the serendipitous might happen.

However, the tasks of creating project milestones and managing fee and time budgets around this process are complicated and stressful, itself creating a barrier to truly creative work. This may be one reason why architecture is ranked somewhere near oil field work in terms of mental stress! That stress is also hard for others to understand, which has the unfortunate effect of adding yet another layer of stress in a negative feedback loop.

There’s no ready or easy solution to this problem, but firm and project leadership can do much to create an atmosphere that supports the team members’ personal work styles. It might involve including quiet spaces in the office or better even encouraging the team to leave the office completely to fuel reflection and creativity. Project managers can work with the team and project Owners to define milestones in a way that allows for flexibility in both schedule and presentation (we tend to box ourselves in by narrowly describing deliverables – X kinds and Y numbers of Drawings delivered by Z date in the stated interest of managing expectations and fees, though I suspect the result is often great ideas left behind in a young designer’s frustrated mind).

It’s interesting and a little sad that a profession that touts its creativity seems very disinterested in really exploring this gap between creative desire and practical professional needs. It’s not very different from its slowness to embrace the newest technologies and delivery methods that might have within them the keys to bridging this very same gap.

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