What does one have to do to actually be someone who spends most of their day designing?


I love designing architecture, and quite frankly I don't want to sit in an office doing drafting, or other mindless work for hours on end for a small wage.

I know most people end up doing something like that, HOWEVER, obviously there are some people who do actually get to spend their day (or at least the majority of it) designing buildings, getting ideas etc. What do they do to reach that position? What do they have in common? What's the best route to take to achieve that?

Jan 12, 20 10:39 am

2 Featured Comments

All 18 Comments


The only way that is going to happen is if you start your own company and are in control of you own time, or become a creative director at some other firm, but even in those cases, architecture is about 5% design and 95% management of said design "mindless work".  

Other option is to be independently wealthy then you can spend your time however you want in a paper architecture practice.  

Jan 12, 20 10:50 am
Chad Miller

Not true. I did that right out of college. Within two years I was the firms lead conceptual designer with nearly all large built projects being my design. I was an anomaly though. The firm I worked at hired me specifically for my design talents as the rest of the firm was really good and producing CD's and managing projects. While this may sound odd this situation wasn't the best for my career development. While I did do CD's and assist in CA I was lacking in that department when the great recession hit our area in 2010. I spent years after 'caching up' in the areas that I was deficient in. Ten years later I think that I'm now a better architect and designer for learning the 'mundane' drafting and spec writing skills. Project management still gives me a headache though. 8-)


any advice or tips you can give?


Get a black cape

Non Sequitur

a black cape and a fur hat.

Chad Miller

The process is quite simple, the execution is not. Be a really, really, good designer.


ego much?


Seems like he has the experience to back the statement up.

atelier nobody

Read the second half of Chad's response - getting fast-tracked to design does happen, but it's not a very good idea if you ever want to be an actual architect.

As far as how to get there - get into a school where your design studios are led by one or more "starchitect(s)", then impress said starchitect(s) enough to get internships in their firms, followed by letters of recommendation when you go out in the real world. It also helps to win some student design competitions.

Non Sequitur

See previous discussion on easily accessible sprinklers in high-school designs.

Chad Miller

Actually I'd recommend going to a school with professors that have actually worked in the profession. Nearly all of my professors where retired or semi retired architects with 25+ years licensed architectural experience.  That was my personal experience at least. 

The rest of atelier's comments seem to be spot on, at least in my situation.  Especially the part about letters of recommendation. One of my professors used to be a partner at the firm I was the lead conceptual designer at.  

Oh and NS - it was a fast track, 100,000 sf  Middle School project and only one sprinkler head was easily accessible.  8-)   

Non Sequitur

they reach that position by being awesome at the other 95% of the profession. Sorry kid, everyone loves and wants to be that superstar designer. You’re not special. 

Jan 12, 20 12:07 pm

FWIW, I would hate being that superstar designer. Give me some details, specs and RFIs to work through any day.

Non Sequitur


This is also why I fundamentally disagree with the lone designer focus in architectural education. It takes all sorts of architects to get the job done.

Chad Miller

Very true. It's a team effort for each phase of every project.


I'm not really interested in becoming "superstar designer", I just want to know what avenues Architects take that land them jobs that center on the 5% rather then 95%. I'm sure those types are rare, but they have to exist.

Non Sequitur

Ahmedj, what you’re looking for does not exist unless you open up your own shop. Pure design roles are earned by those who are exceptionally skilled or, are given to disposable 3D monkeys.


Disagree. Open your own shop and you don't have any time for dee-zign.

Non Sequitur

Tintt, I never said they had to open a competent shop.


From what I've seen mid-sized and large firms have employee designers and principles are more of the business type/technical type there. The designers have come from a background of always focusing their efforts on early project efforts, instead of being the BIM monkey they are the RFP indesign monkey or SD/rendering monkey. A fair amount of sucking up to the designer and slowly inheriting larger pieces of responsibility in that role and being really good at weaseling out of drafting anything beyond DD. I personally think this firm set up contributes to constant budget overruns and loss of importance and responsibility of architects as the design team has very little practical knowledge and puts out nonsensical crap for the CD/CA team to deal with but that's not what you asked about. Essentially if a firm finds you good at drafting and CD production you'll stay there and become a PA/PM. If you are extremely helpful to the designer and can intuitively pump out sketch up models matching what they are thinking they'll keep requesting staffing to put you on their efforts.

Jan 12, 20 1:31 pm
( o Y o )

Without a doubt one of the stupidest questions ever asked on Archinect.

Jan 12, 20 1:39 pm
Chad Miller

No it's not.


It's the stupidest if one assumes that the original poster has ever worked in an architecture office before.

Chad Miller

It's rather stupid to assume things.

The OP's post is filled with assumptions.


Not even the stupidest question I've read on Archinect this month.


Be able to draw and express an idea quickly and accurately. 

Jan 12, 20 1:59 pm

I spend 1/2 time designing and 1/2 time building/managing and 1/2 time talking about weird shit with my subs.  

Jan 12, 20 8:07 pm

150% brah


I work in an office where design is in a "gated Community" none of us "grunts" will ever get in - So I do design anyway, on my own time, and enter competitions - If you're in production like I am, and 90% of us are. Do design anyway, make up a project and go for it - it's your time

Jan 12, 20 10:11 pm

wear black and stylish glasses, talk with big architecture words and carry a moleskin with you at all times, sketching ideas - then you will be picked for the design stuff

Jan 13, 20 12:33 pm
atelier nobody

Nope, tried that, still doing mostly production.

atelier nobody

I still carry a notebook with me at all times - it is full of to do lists of technical tasks (mostly overdue RFIs), with a handful of design tasks (mostly tricky details).

atelier nobody

No offense to Chad, but in general (there are exceptions), it is almost impossible to be any good at the 5% without solid knowledge of the 95%.

Jan 13, 20 12:55 pm

That's proven true in my experience, yet it doesn't prevent those people from being lead designers almost everywhere.

atelier nobody

Sigh. At least it's some job security for those of us who have to clean up their messes...

Chad Miller

Aterlier, I'd say that's more than generally true but universally true. 


chad made renderings and somebody else figured out how to put the building together.

Chad Miller

Actually no. I did things up through at least DD on every project including detailing of the major parts of the building including MEP and structural systems.

atelier nobody

Also, why do people think that detailing != design? That's a very narrow concept of design.

Jan 13, 20 1:03 pm

^ Pedantic. lol

I've found that most people involved in the profession are cognizant of this but this didn't seem like a distinction the OP was looking for.


The details *are* the design.

I don't know that I'd go that far tduds. Perhaps the details *make* the design. Plenty of people say Rem's Seattle Public Library is design ... I would agree from the macro-level, but the details are terrible. Some good details in that building could easily have made the design.


"The details make the design" is a better phrasing. I was overstating a little. I think we agree... it's always disappointing to me to see a clearly brilliant concept marred by half-assed detailing.

Sorry if that came off wrong, I wasn't thinking we disagreed. Ditto on the brilliant concept marred by half-assed detailing ... that's one of the reasons I can't stand the SPL anymore. It looked so good on paper and in the photos in school ... then I visited it.

atelier nobody

Agreed on all points (including the dig at my pedantry).


haven't been there. which details are terrible?

Koww, the quickest way to describe it is that it feels like a lot of the necessary and functional details were simply tacked on as after thoughts rather than carefully considered and integrated into the design. It's been awhile since I've been there so bear that in mind ... but I recall the railings being particularly odd to me. Where they are meant as guards at overlooks and changes in level, they are a really chunky grating or something that is turned on its side and bolted together. In areas where they are meant to keep you from hitting your head on the sloping walls and columns, they weren't too bad, but not a very thoughtful approach to solving the problem. There was also a rather large concrete column coming down in the main auditorium that ends up right at the edge of the aisle and it was like no one thought it would be awkward to have a 3-foot wide column on the stairs. The railing is on the wall leading up the aisle, hits the column and does a few 90 degree turns to circumnavigate it, and then continues following the wall. If you're unlucky enough to be in the upper part of the auditorium you're open to the sky essentially looking through a low opening to see to the front. The rake on the seating up there is so steep that the aisle has these little landings that are maybe only two treads deep. It makes it very awkward to navigate. I'll see if I can find some pictures to show what I'm talking about

Here you go...column and railing in lower left (added bonus, some coiled cord for the motorized door hanging down from top of photo)...

Upper auditorium seating with awkward aisle...

Chunky guard rail...

Awkward cane detection rail at bottom of sloping column...

I hadn't noticed before, but in the chunky guardrail photo above you can see a column that comes down at the edge of the elevated area with the desks ... then the column pokes its little toe out to trip you as you walk by.


These are fantastic photos, thanks!

^ I can't claim any credit. These were all found using the Googles. I think the last one is from Arup's website.


there's a lot of design involved with CDs and RFIs - it's not wowie zowie sketchup renderings 

Jan 13, 20 1:09 pm
so it goes

Work at a small firm so you can be a big fish in a small pond, but never act entitled. Never expect anything to be given to you just because your professors at school thought you were the second coming of Frank Lloyd Wright. No one cares.

I would also look for firms that have a studio organizational structure - meaning that the same team stays on board the project from start to finish. This is different from that most people are describing here. They are describing what is more of a departmental structure, i.e. the project gets passed onto new teams after every major phase - RFP/proposal work -- Concept/SD -- DD/CDs -- CA.

Jan 13, 20 2:46 pm

As others have said: You're not going to become a good designer without understanding the rest of the work that goes into Architecture. You want to be an executive chef without being a line cook first. The hierarchy isn't all about "paying your dues", it's about learning how to build your imagination before being allowed to let your imagination run wild. Otherwise what you imagine will be unbuildable garbage.

Jan 13, 20 4:19 pm

I have worked at design-led firms where nothing was taken post SD. Usually designers came from top design schools' networks and the design director was someone who had worked at several starchitect firms (inc. Foster). 

My background and interest in architecture is more technical and I am wondering what type of firm would be the best environment to experience projects consistently throughout all phases, without getting pigeonholed or compromising on project quality and size (I enjoy large projects more).

Jan 13, 20 4:23 pm

My firm has inherited some projects at "50% DD" (aka 75% SD) from these types of firms and while I can't speak for my whole office I personally find them undercooked, underconsidered and more work than it's worth to bring to realization.


Unfortunately your end is the difficult part of the work. We had a dedicated technical team but only for the projects we wanted to maintain the quality on
Myself I am in favour of integrated design process, but as I mentioned I am curious as what type of firm I could get this experience at without compromise.

Look toward medium- to large-sized regional firms. Too big, or too global and everything seems too silo-ed. Too small, and they don't usually get the larger projects you want (or they only take it so they can come up with the concepts if they're more boutique/design-focused). At least that's what I've seen, YMMV


tduds, I got one of those and you couldn't exit out the building. what are even supposed to do with that?


@Tduds !!! The entire industry needs to take a hard look at what deliverables and milestones should be thought through. A large portion of our work is contracted as "arch of record" and everyone seems to haggle over 50% DD or 50% CD. Both firms want "a piece of the commission for these phases. Then it lands on my desk and I'm looking at an SD package, functionally...

Featured Comment

"What does one have to do to actually be someone who spends most of their day designing?"

Master the "Cover Your Ass" e-mail.  I'm serious.  You must create a paper trail of what was discussed, when, and with whom, because then and only then can you fully articulate and defend a design from mercurial/crazy/forgetful clients, owners, and team members.

Anyone can sketch a concept.  Creativity is not design.  Design is the translation of concept into reality and the only way that can occur is if you cover your ass.   

Now, if what you're really asking is: "How can I show up at 10, do napkin sketches, have a boozy 2 hour lunch and leave just after 4" the answer is "found your own firm, have rich friends who support you, or be rich yourself.  Hire a bunch of staff to whom you provide nebulous direction, only providing feedback at the 11th hour before a deadline, at which point you explode in an infantile fit of rage before proceeding to micromanage design processes which you barely understand".

Jan 25, 20 11:15 am
liberty bell

⬆️⬆️⬆️This checks out.

atelier nobody

Sad, but true.


This bit of advice is from a beloved professor (think Rutger Hauer delivering that memorable soliloquy in Hobo With A Shotgun):

The A students will become the designers in firms.

The B students will find success in other fields.

The C students will become government employees.

The D students will form the firms that the rest of you will apply to.

A students: be kind to the D students. Your future depends on it.

Jan 27, 20 2:19 pm

Ahbmedj, you want to do design and design only? Apply to a big firm like Gensler, only accept an offer if it is for a designer position and be explicit that you believe you are best suited to do concept to DD level work, then proceed with the rest of your life as a designer. In fact, a firm of any size that structures itself into a division of labor between "technical" and "conceptual" will give you the same results. But again, you can only accept an offer from those firms if it's on terms that are favorable to your goals.

It's hard to know from your original post if you are currently at a job where you are assigned to more of the technical work, and you don't have access to the conceptual work. That's a different story, and a bit longer and more complicated...

Jan 29, 20 9:37 am
Featured Comment

Also, as noted in everyone's comments above, be careful what you wish for. The path you wish for yourself has more chance for failure in both the near and long term. 

Unfortunately, I have seen talented designers in there 40's, 50's or early 60's who suddenly find themselves unemployable, and those years would otherwise be their highest earning years.

Chad Miller

That is exactly what happened to me but in my early 30's. You really need to be a well rounded and experienced architect to have any long term stability in this profession.


If you want to do design and only design, you had better be good enough to be the go to person, sooner rather than later, some hot shoe straight out of SCI-Arch, GSD or DAPP is going to take your place.

Start out in design, then transition to production, build a long career there - I know way too many "designers" that are in and out of work

Jan 29, 20 12:01 pm

Glorified art students that's what those schools produce.

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: