Taking the First Steps in the Design Process

At Russ Berger Design Group, we take a personal interest in our client’s projects. Oftentimes, inadvertently, our clients will make it hard for us to help them see where they’re going. Just as it’s true that you don’t get an instruction manual when you become a parent, there’s really nothing that prepares a studio owner for building a facility.

It’s no wonder that a lot of clients are pretty bewildered when they first call us. The hardest part, the part that charts the course for the entire project, is getting started. What we need is a guidebook for taking the first steps in the design process, so that you ultimately get a successful working facility.

In building a new facility, most owners want to know ‘What do I do first?’ The front end of a facility project is probably the most important yet misunderstood part of the design process. There are steps you can take to make your project a success.

If you can establish reasonable goals, find a good site, and select a competent design team, the rest of the project will generally take care of itself. This requires that a lot of concentrated effort be expended early on in your planning, but it will pay off in the long run. Good decisions at the beginning of a project act like a fulcrum to increase your leverage to control the budget, quality, or schedule later on.

Most clients are keenly aware of the effect the designer or the budget or the building will have on the outcome of their project. Sometimes they overlook that their own input, actions, and leadership have at least as much impact on the results.

Before you can create your dream facility, it’s important to set clear project goals that reflect your operations, finances, technical performance, and target market. As you bring in other people to assist in the project, these goals help keep everyone on the same page. In architectural terms, as these ideas and expectations are fleshed out and refined, they become the facility program, a document that spells out what the facility is supposed to be and do, and serves as a reference for the design team with guidelines for their efforts.

The more information you can provide to the people you select, the more likely you will get what you want. They need to understand who you are and what your operation is about before they can effectively help you plan your project.

Write it down. If you find that you can’t explain what you want to do in black and white, you may not actually know what it is yet. Include as much supporting information as possible — photos, equipment lists, and sketches – anything that will help define where you’re headed.

However, don’t focus on new technology as the driving force behind design. Figure out how you want your rooms to function, then relate available equipment types to those functions. Remember, even when equipment changes, many other facility needs — acoustics, ergonomics, traffic flow, lighting, noise control — still remain.

It is hard to overstate the importance of good site selection. If you make a poor choice, you can spend all your money, time, and effort just dealing with the shortcomings of a building or location.

Pick a design team that you trust. Remember that these are individuals or firms who are on your side. This is not an adversarial relationship — design professionals aren’t used-car salesmen. In fact, if they have something to sell or prove, run (do not walk) to someone who has your best interests at heart.

Different studios have different needs. Every project is unique, and you should be wary of anyone who seems to have a “cookie cutter” approach to design, or implies that they know exactly what you need before you’ve even shown them around the place. This is your facility. Your design team is working for you, not the other way around. Their job is to provide you with ideas, recommendations, guidance, and alternatives based on their experience and expertise, but always directed by your desires and goals. The charge of your design team is to find creative ways to meet your needs, enthusiastically attack the problems at hand, find cost-effective solutions, make appropriate compromises and, as much as possible, make the process fun.

The design team can’t (or at least shouldn’t) tell you your business. No one knows your market better than you. The reason to seek out qualified designers is to help flesh out your ideas, figure out how best to get what you need, and find new ways to address old problems.

Effective communication is the lubricant that keeps a project moving. Miscommunication is responsible for more failed projects (and relationships) than any other factor. If you establish the form, frequency, and distribution of project information among the design team early on, the rest of the process will be much easier (and maybe even possible).

Much of what we read and even talk about would lead you to believe that new ideas, new technologies, new working relationships will determine how you need to prepare for the future. In reality, it’s rare that owners make significant errors in predicting the future, and much more likely that they make the same old mistakes.

I see the design of a studio facility increasingly as a holistic process. It’s not about good aesthetics vs. the budget, or good acoustics vs. aesthetics, or good architecture vs. anything else. For a successful project, all the elements – the acoustics, the architecture, the electronic systems, and the structure – must work in concert with everything else about the building. It is meaningless to champion “perfect” acoustics or architecture, because there is no such thing. There is only “appropriate” acoustics and architecture, and that has to do with a whole host of other issues besides the narrow concerns that most people associate with what a design consultant does.

Of course, there’s much more about the first steps in the design process that is important to the success of a project, but you get the idea. Just remember that the more you do to make well-thought-out, careful, rational decisions early on, the easier it will be for everyone else to help you get what you want out of your new facility.