"Market power is critical to the future of design firms. There is neither time nor the resources for design firms to know all they need to by themselves. Who do they look to? They look to Kerry Harding for support, thoughtful ideas, useful advice, and coaching...he offers a complete tool kit of ideas for professionals."

James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA
Chairman & CEO
The Greenway Group
Norcross, GA

The Missing Link: Why Good Students Lose Great Jobs

November 1, 2001
by Kerry Harding

During a recent career day at a prominent architectural school, representatives from firms all over the country had assembled to recruit “the best and the brightest” for intern architect positions after graduation. To their surprise and dismay, most of the students made tactical errors that doomed them to failure before they had even begun the interview process. Most showed up wearing shorts, t-shirts and sandals; many were ten to fifteen minutes late and had given little thought as to how to present their body of work to date or anticipated what kind of questions might be asked during the interview itself.

Most design schools do an abysmal job of preparing their graduates to enter the professional world. While most have sufficient graphic and technical skills to enter the profession (though many do not), unlike other professional schools such as business and law, with a few exceptions such as the University of Cincinnati, there is no additional training offered by design schools on the mechanics of landing a job in a design firm.

Much of this training is assumed to be provided by the institution’s career counseling office. In reality, most design students have little if any contact with this for two reasons: prospective employers do not work through it to identify candidates, and most college career office staff are unfamiliar with the nuances of securing an entry-level design firm position.

Much of what students need to know about the fundamentals of the job search process is, available, and should be mandated in some form as a precursor to graduation. While it may have been or should be the parents’ responsibility to teach the fundamentals of business etiquette and table manners, the “social graces” have not been high on list for many Generation X parents who are, themselves, products of the anti-establishment “Sixties Generation.”

One firm principal of a mid-sized, East Coast firm was so appalled by a candidate’s lack of fundamental table manners at a luncheon that he terminated the interview before he had even reviewed the student’s work. Some basics of any job search process could and should be team-taught by the design school and placement office—how to dress appropriately, be on time, send a written thank-you, anticipate questions, know something about the firm doing the interview—all standard procedure, yet frequently overlooked by inexperienced design students.

The next oversight is the preparation and packaging of the student’s portfolio. In the early 1980s, one accredited Midwestern design school required a class during the program’s fifth year called “Portfolio.” During that semester, all graduating students learned to select, package and present samples of their work and related experience in a way that was professional, straightforward and graphically consistent.

In recent years, the gap between the clued-in and the clueless has widened considerably. As part of a recent student design competition, background credentials received ranged from a resume written in long-hand on paper with clouds in the background (and eleven misspellings on the first page alone) to Adobe Acrobat® files with handsomely designed pages, to self-launching Power Point presentations burned onto CD ROMs.

Ours is a business which relies heavily on the visual representations of abstract ideas—their omission, or worse, badly executed examples, can be deadly to a career search.

Finally, students need to understand the importance of communication skills. How they talk, how they write, body language—all are important components of the interviewing process because, ultimately, these become part of the design process. Those who are considered great architects today are not only great designers, they are also great communicators. People like Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Renzo Piano, Alan Chimacoff and Bill McDonough have been widely acclaimed for being able to “sell the sizzle” of a design concept and, as the song goes, “realize the power of the dream.”

When confronted with a prospective candidate, firm principals and recruiters are thinking to themselves, “Does he/she have the potential to lead teams? Meet with clients? Present to a Planning Commission?” Job seekers are thinking “next fall” while firm representatives are looking ten years down the road.

How can design schools better equip their graduates to be effective, attractive candidates? One creative approach has been implemented by Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning through the creation of its Indianapolis Center. There, students have sustained urban experiences as a part of their design education, with closer proximity to the offices of potential employers, as well as establishing joint programs with the College of Business to better position students to understand the financial factors of development projects. Joe Bilello, the College’s new dean says, “I believe that professional preparation is a shared responsibility involving education and training done in school and the office in inverse proportion to one another.”

Teaching students not only the importance, but the mechanics of effective written, verbal and graphic communication as well as ensuring the framework is there to understand the “selling” process, whether it is themselves or their design concepts, remains one of design academia’s greatest challenge. May next year’s school survey reveal that at least some of the participants have risen to meet it.