In this corner, the designer…

A few weeks ago, browsing through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick. As I was flipping pages, one statement jumped out at me, to the effect that engineers are interested in things in and of themselves, while architects are interested in how people interact with those things. The author did not elaborate, but, for me, he didn’t need to: after my fifteen years in the architectural field working with architects and engineers on a daily basis, I could totally relate to this.

But I could also relate to it from the theatrical viewpoint, where there is often an undercurrent of… shall we say… competition between set designers and technical directors, carpenters, and shop staff. The set designer wants his pieces to “look” and “function” as he intended, while the tech people often want to simplify the construction by using stock pieces and materials. In my experience, this desire for simplification is generally attributed to budgetary reasons such as not enough money or not enough time. And sometimes that’s a valid point.

The sad part, however–and I’ve seen it many many times–is that sometimes simplification is viewed as an “us against them” statement. It gets personal. It becomes a win-lose situation, where either the designer “wins” or the shop “wins.” But one of them, by definition, “loses.”

The solution: a win-win-win

Back when I was working at a major scenic studio and estimating jobs sent in by designers or production companies, we often came up with a price that was higher than what the client had anticipated. Sometimes it was a minimal increase, but other times it was a huge difference. The way we dealt with it was to sit down with the production company (often the technical director and designer) to review the drawings and point out where the problems were. It was totally business. We made suggestions as to where expenses could be reduced, and the tech director and designer responded, often with their own suggestions. In the end, sometimes after two or three hours (or several sessions), we arrived at solutions that served the production itself, the design intent, and the client’s budget.

It was a win-win-win. The production company wanted a gorgeous set and got it; the designer wanted a portfolio piece and got it; and we were able to build it on the client’s budget and schedule and still make a profit, so we too got what we wanted.

But what made it work was that communication process where everyone came to the table with the same goal in mind. We were all on the same page. We all wanted to do our best work and have something to show for it.

In the end, that process would have never worked in an environment where there’s no leadership: no one to say, look, we are all on the same team here. It’s not “In this corner, the designer,” and “In that corner, the techies.”

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