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    The psychological impact of labeling: 'architect' vs 'designer'

    Nicole Fichera
    Jan 11, '12 11:38 AM EST

    Lately I've been noticing a trend.

    When I introduce myself, I usually say something like "I'm a designer at Hacin + Associates."

    Then usually I have to explain where the office is, the kind of work we do. And very often, after a minute or two, people will respond with something like  "So what do you do there? You said interior design?"

    At which point I have to say, "No, architecture. I'm an architect...well, almost an architect. I'm not licensed yet, but yeah, I work on architectural projects."

    I mentioned it on Twitter, and got this response:

    I can understand that. I responded thusly:

    Then, I was reading this Archinect discussion on what we're allowed to call ourselves when we're unlicensed and found this lovely tidbit:

    Followed by this excerpt from NCARB's policies:

    Wow. So I guess it's pretty clear that the word 'architect' and all of its permutations, is totally off limits until you are officially and incontrovertibly licensed.

    So this begs the question--what do we call ourselves? How do we send a message to ourselves, and to the world, about the realm of our experience?

    In December, I posted about my roundtable discussion on the future of the profession: I met with a group of young architects [well, designers still--unlicensed] to talk about the issues our generation is facing. One of the big topics was licensing.

    No one at the table, despite being fairly advanced in their young careers, was a licensed architect. Some didn't ever want to be licensed at all. Some were ambivalent. Some were on track, but didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about it.

    As we dug into it more, it seemed that the main reason for wanting to be licensed was to be able to call yourself an "architect". Sure, there were other reasons, but somehow that one was the most salient.

    But in our heart of hearts, we know that we are architects. We know that what we do every day could not really be called by any other name, that it still smells like architecture no matter what name we are 'allowed' to assign to it.

    So despite the fact that we live and breathe architecture, we are 'designers' [I'm personally not crazy about 'intern architect', and I know some unlicensed folks who are seasoned professionals, so intern does not apply]. And, in my recent experience, this has led to some awkward clarification in small-talk situations.

    But what if it has more of an effect than simply making cocktail party introductions even more awkward than they are already?

    After I thought about this question for a while, I posted this response on Twitter:

    Is it possible that if I call myself 'designer' often enough, the scope of the way that I define what I do can inadvertently broaden itself, because I am forced to define my identity in a way that is not specific to my chosen field? Maybe, since I call myself a "designer" anyways, it's not such a stretch to work on interior design, or graphic design, or web design, or furniture design. It's already part of my label, and the way that I'm perceived externally. It's not a far reach to internalize that description.

    Maybe that's ridiculous--what someone else calls you should not define what you believe you are. But in observing the aspiring architects in my age group, I've found a strong aversion to specificity. No one wants to be defined as only one thing. My website and the websites of many of my peers show graphic design work, web work, photography, branding, artwork, interiors...not architecture. Designer is a much more appropriate word for the things I'm allowed to do in my own time.

    But at my office, I am engaged in architecture. Resident doctors are called 'Dr.' despite the fact that they are still technically in training. Are we not undergoing a similar process? Post-graduation, but pre-professional. The fact that even 'architectural designer' is technically off limits seems a bit ridiculous to me.

    So here's my question. As aspiring architects, we seem to have a naturally-occurring identity crisis as it is. Could this aversion to specialization be--at least partially--a function of the fact that we are not allowed to use the label for which we were trained?

    If I cannot call myself an architect, is it easier to lose confidence that I am one?

    I'll end with this other precious tidbit from the Archinect thread on job titles:


    • MUDEO

      I'm glad this discussion of title is continuing here on Archinect...

      So, NCARB is telling us we can't call ourselves architects. I think one of the major problems of NCARB is that they assume everyone working in architecture takes the path from student, to intern, and licensure to become an architect. But as we've discovered recently, some young designers aren't interested in being licensed, and furthermore, some of the world's most renowned architects have never taken the ARE's and are not registered architects.

      Another issue with NCARB, to get back to the Model Brief to Enforce Laws Prohibiting Architectural Practice by Unlicensed Persons that was mentioned above, it states...

      The [Model Law] expressly prohibits unlicensed persons under the statute from directly or indirectly engaging in the practice of architecture, from using the title of “architect,” “registered architect,” or “architectural designer,” and from using “any words, letters, figures, titles, sign, card, advertisements, or other symbol or device indicating or tending to indicate that such person is an architect or is practicing architecture.”

      In the Appendix of the same document, they define Architect as Any person who engages in the practice of architecture as hereinafter defined and they define the Practice of architecture as Providing or offering to provide those services, hereinafter described, in connection with the design and construction, enlargement, or alteration of a building or group of buildings and the space within and the site surrounding such buildings, which have as their principal purpose human occupancy or habitation.

      If I were to interpret NCARB's own definitions of what an architect is and what practicing architecture means, I'd say most people working in an architectural office would be considered architects.


      Now, while I understand that some level of enforcement needs to happen so that unlicensed architects are not harming the public by creating buildings that are unsafe to occupy, this policing of titles needs to stop. We shouldn't be afraid to call ourselves architects and we shouldn't have to beat around the bush when we talk about what we do.

      I'm an architect and I practice architecture (but I work under a licensed architect). There. I said it. Handcuff me.


      Jan 11, 12 3:05 pm  · 

      Perhaps the loophole in the title restrictions is how you define practice. if it's whether or not you enter into contracts with the general public, governmental agencies, or enterprises to provide 'architectural services' versus being a professional working as staff or independent contractor under the supervision of a 'licensed' architect, we might have a solution. A license should specifically allow you to enter into contracts/run a business selling your services versus performing the work for a salary the issue would be cleared up. We could all call ourselves 'architects' from the moment we graduate.


      my current work around is being a registered landscape architect. I'm now letting my AIA membership lapse and thinking about throwing in the towel with NCARB too.

      Jan 11, 12 3:29 pm  · 

      Excellent point, Barry. When it comes down to it, this is all about the proper diction. As a governing body enforcing the professional practice, NCARB should more clearly define what it means to "practice architecture." It doesn't seem quite right to define it as entering into a contract to provide architectural services, but I do think a licensed professional should be required to oversee the execution of architectural projects -- which is why we have architectural stamps.

      As I mentioned to Nicole on Twitter a moment ago, I think the distinction should simply be Architect and Registered Architect. Since NCARB defines Registered Architect as An architect holding a current registration, doesn't it seem fitting that an Architect would be a person practicing architecture that does not hold a registration? Problem solved.

      Jan 11, 12 4:32 pm  · 

      Great points made all around. The root of the problem is that you have a biased decision maker. If architects are responsible for protecting the title 'architect', then of course it stands ot reason that they will seek to exclude those who have not been property initiated under the same requirements as they themselves were forced to meet. It's essentially a beauracratic dictatorship. Those in charge make all the decisions without election by those they oversee and govern, and of course, they are governing over their own interests.

      Quite simply, our English language defines all of us as architects. Regardless of what NCARB and other architects may want to believe, you can't change the definition of a word to suit your tastes. According to the dictionary, I'm an architect. Now, if you want to legally protect the term, that's when designations are necessary. "Licensed", "Registered", "Chartered", etc. all make a distinction between two persons who have the same qualifications save for a legal advantage or obligation. That's why we have such distinctions: to differentiate between two persons who perform the same duties, tasks, responsibilities.

      I recently wrote a lengthy post on this topic that describes the problem and offers the simple solution of legal designation "Registered". I invite you to read it and brainstorm with me as to how we can get this problem fixed. I'm tired of just talking about it - are you?

      Jan 11, 12 5:15 pm  · 
      o d b

      i don't really see what the big deal is...if you want to call yourself an architect at a cocktail party, go ahead, no one is going to sue you for that.  for layman it's the easiest way to convey what you do every day.  as long as you don't advertise yourself as an architect, use it to get work, or create a fake stamp i don't see a problem with it.  i'm unlicensed, my official title is 'designer'  and i wouldn't say i'm an architect on anything official or claim i can offer the full services of an architect, but i don't see a problem with telling people i work as an architect in unofficial settings, it's just easier than dealing with that awkward convo at the bar.

      and if you want the full benefits of being a professional architect, then bite the bullet and take the exams.

      for me the problem isn't people like us calling ourselves architects in those types of settings but protecting our profession, and the public welfare, against joe schmo who has never studied architecture or worked in architecture from claiming to be an architect.

      Jan 12, 12 12:12 pm  · 

      odb beat me to the punch. really, the distinction (and it's very important imho) is when the line gets crossed into someone thinking that you are registered when you're not.


      to nicole's point - using 'architect' and 'registered/certified/whatever architect' to me doesn't work because just plain 'architect' is already too ingrained. imagine if your doctor had to start calling themselves 'licensed doctor' on everything because of a similar situation. would you chance using a mere 'doctor' (and not a licensed one)? how easily would you be confused by the difference?


      i personally didn't take it as a slight when i was an intern; that's probably just me. i used the term 'designer' (and for some of the expansive possibilities you listed) at the time. honestly, 'designer' may end up being a better title over the next 10-20 years anyways... 

      Jan 12, 12 12:20 pm  · 

      of course, we could end this silliness by simply re-inventing the education system so that, much like the lawyers, you can sit for and pass the exam directly after school (ala that dreaded evil, socialist empire...'europe'...) eliminates the 'awkward' phase altogether....

      Jan 12, 12 12:23 pm  · 

      I agree.  Like I said before on other threads, IDP takes control of our own destiny away from us and puts it in the hands of other professionals (our competition)  and market forces.  This is crazy.  I think it stunts creativity and progress by keeping out newcommers who may have much to offer the profession.  For example, my sister is a lawer.  She graduated 2 years ago, passed the bar, and started her practice which is now one of the biggest of its  kind in the state, beating all the older firms.  Why can't we have this opportunity for moblity? 

      Jan 12, 12 1:45 pm  · 

      this is the only profession where our competition controls our ability to compete. 

      Jan 12, 12 1:54 pm  · 

      j. - two completely different issues: title nomenclature is not the same thing as what you're describing. the medical profession absolutely controls the ability of a graduate to enter into the internship equivalent (residency). you can go through all your schooling but not be good enough to get in. if you can't, well, hope you have a plan 'b'. 


      you do have mobility options - get the exam done as soon as possible. and push like hell to have IDP be changed from an 'ass in class' model to demonstrated competency (the aia was actually pushing this with the emerging professionals companion). 


      finally, remember that ncarb has ZERO legal standing in all this - now, they do create model legislation and have made a killing by offering to take the responsibility for 3rd party verification off the states' hands. but, there's absolutely nothing stopping someone from starting a rival company, with a different approach. if it were me, i'd sue ncarb for conspiracy to constrain interstate commerce (the 3 year IDP, which hinges on experience that may not be able to be gained through no fault of the intern) and get the time based component of IDP eliminated. do that and there's an opening...

      Jan 12, 12 11:10 pm  · 

      G.W,  good points.  didn't know that ncarb had zero legal standing. 

      Jan 13, 12 10:27 am  · 
      spaceman spiff

      like most power structures that protect their own, the motivation for change does not exist unless forced by to define various titles has nothing to do with it, and we could discuss the options all day long without being any further ahead...

      it may be interesting for americans to look at what the canadian provinces have recently done to get out from under the all-pervading influence of the NCARB ARE a small country, we adopt a lot of things from the US rather than create our own, and the ARE's are no exception...the plus side is that it gives us reciprocity to register in US states...

      however, the lack of any meaningful ability to give input and shape the exam to recognize current realities of practice motivated several provinces to create their own canadian exam based on contemporary practice...all except one ( and they are moving towards it also) province have now adopted it as an equivalent examination for registration for recognition  in Canada...

      furthermore, after a few years of study, a couple of the larger provinces have concluded that the lack of younger practitioners becoming registered was becoming a a significant problem...long story short, we are moving towards a new model for IDP where 2 years will  be the new standard, with new broader categories for accumulating experience that are more realistic, and a new incentive for mentors in the form of continuing ed credits...

      change is happening up here in Canada and it's been a long time in coming...sure, NCARB has been making some moves in terms of modernizing the administration of the program, but what's happening up here is wholesale change by comparison...enough to make me rethink whether i should do it or not...

      Jan 16, 12 10:14 pm  · 

      Is NCARB a monopoly? 

      Jan 17, 12 12:39 pm  · 
      spaceman spiff

      it's a de facto far as i understand, and as gregory above says, each state or province's registration board/professional institute is free to adopt whatever standards they wish as qualification for practice within that just happens that NCARB offers the easiest third party solution for a jurisdiction to state wants to stray from the tried and true even if it's not ideal...

      in some states, arizona for example, there are alternative paths to registration that don't require an accredited degree...that accounts for historic precedent and local practices...that means the onus on passing judgment as to whether a candidate is qualified to proceed in the registration process falls on that state's board - potentially a lot of work to do for a handful of people...the ARE's are still required however in this case...

      the new Canadian exam (ExAC) is a real alternative to the NCARB standard in this country, and i don't see why the right group in the US couldn't develop their own competing Canada, the two largest provincial institutes (accounting for about 60% of the population) started the new the US, california alone could run their own standard if they wanted...the only obstacle would be having pockets deep enough to fend off the inevitable battle with NCARB...

      Jan 17, 12 1:21 pm  · 

      This is why IT has stolen the title.  There are so many restrictions in using the title "Architect" within the field of Architecture that now IT finds it convenient and has taken over.  Isn't this ridiculous!?  NCARB, are you listening???

      Jan 18, 12 5:56 pm  · 

      In my opinion, I think that it is necessary to take those exams in order to not only prove NCARB that we can be called "Architects" but also it is a prove to ourselves that we can perform in absolute everything an Architect is supposed and capable to do. It's also a protection because of such a huge responsibility an Architect has. If you are lisenced and work for a project that perhaps later on is found to have many errors, then you will get in trouble because you were supposed to perform a perfect job, right? You are responsible of the project; now if you aren't lisenced, you wont have to worry because your signature and stamp doesnt appear in the CD, lol, therefore you can be safe. lol! To each their own believe, if you want to call yourself "an Architect without being lisenced, you are cheating to yourself. Everything I this life requires effort and prove in paper, so just take the exams and go on. No need to waste time in complaining.

      Sep 7, 12 11:02 pm  · 

      I made the effort to call myself an architect. Along the way at social gatherings I labeled myself an intern architect. I usually had to follow with a brief description of what it takes to honestly call myself an architect. People were surprised at the requirements and never heard of an internship. They didn't consider an architect's knowledge of a building compared to a doctor's knowledge of anatomy. They didn't know an architect of record was responsible for the health, welfare, and safety of all occupants of the building. They found it difficult to see an architect as a conductor of a orchestra that brought various engineering disciplines and construction techniques into harmony. They thought architects were abstract artists that used buildings as a medium. For most people if you design a house, a computer system, or a corporate policy you can call them an architect. Many who use the label architect are unaware of the efforts of the few who earned it. NCARB, AIA, and state jurisdictions are not to prevent anyone from becoming an architect as much as making sure they are one. I'm proud to be a First Responder without wanting to call myself a doctor. I built a brick retaining wall and fireplace without wanting to call myself a mason. I think the problem is wanting to be thought as something you are not, either by others or yourself. Take pride in who you are and what you do, ignore the labels.

      Nov 16, 16 1:44 am  · 

      Designer: Someone who can visualize, who can solve complex non-linear problems, who can clearly communicate difficult abstract concepts with mastery in multiple mediums, who can evoke a feeling in those with whom they engage, who can turn a series of thoughts into actual things, someone with an eye for art and aesthetics and good taste.

      Architect: Can stamp your blueprints. Except the structural parts.

      Nov 16, 16 10:37 am  · 

      Great points. 

      For a lot of people, when a building or a space is "designed", it means that there there is some added aesthetic quality that elevates the project. Architecture is struggling today because of the glut of buildings and spaces that seem undesigned and unconsidered.

      Also, the word architectural designer hints at an awareness of design, as in graphic design, furniture design, object design, etc. I have met so many decent architects that have totally generic taste when it comes to furniture or decor.

      Nov 16, 16 1:09 pm  · 

      Software engineers wish they had the design skillls we all got.

      Nov 17, 16 3:08 am  · 

      I have a great T-shirt somewhere that I picked up in college at an engineering job fair. It was from a software company and said "real architects code, I don't know what those guys that design buildings are called" 

      Word for word. 

      I could throw 50+ people under the bus for calling themselves architectural designer on linkedin or wherever, and the less other people care the harder it is to be that oddball who is the only one who apparently doesn't do architecture. 

      Nov 18, 16 6:00 pm  · 

      dull-pencil, I'm glad you took the opportunity to try to teach people that architects have a high level of rigor and training in our profession. 

      Nov 30, 16 8:42 pm  · 

      +++tintt.   Design is the main value of architecture.  No one cares how their soufflé is made, only that it tastes good and doesn't cause them diarrhea.  

      Dec 1, 16 6:10 pm  · 

      Everyone gets a trophy!!!!

      Architecture grad/designer = art degree

      Architectural services / drafting = contractor made boxes / CAD drafting

      Architect = knowledge of life/safety, budgets, contracts and construction techniques and assemblies with their design background. They are able to perform as the owner's agent.

      There's a difference,  any contractor, recent grad and drafter should not be able to just decide to take a title that the public equates with a professional. The real world sucks, we don't all get trophies, if you think you have the same experience, take the exams. I know quite a few architects who said they didn't take the exams till their 40's but they pretty much knew everything besides the vignette software so it wasn't a big time commitment. The fact that studying for these exams, which are actually quite broad and basic, is such a big time commitment means you don't have the experience or knowledge yet. 

      Dec 5, 16 11:44 pm  · 

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We live in uncertain times. Let's use the uncertainty to redefine the way we are valued and the way we measure ourselves, to create the context for the change we want to make.

Twitter: @NicoleFichera

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