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  • Carolyn Moore

Why are you here? A common question for a non-architect working in architecture

Michael Bierut's book, How to
Michael Bierut's book, How to

I am not an architect, or an interior designer. I'm an identity designer, who for most of my career has worked within architecture.

For the past ten years I worked for PDR, an architecture firm known for its high-performing corporate workplace interiors. While at PDR I worked my way up to a leadership position that shaped architectural design efforts from the perspective of brand identity and human experience.

My path to senior-level cross-disciplinary collaboration was never easy, even when surrounded by people with good intentions. One memory stands out because the Why are you here? question was clearly directed at me in a room full of clients and colleagues.

Back in 2015, a client stopped our kick-off meeting for the design of his co-working space to ask me, point blank, "Why do I need a brand strategist?" It was a fair question! This was an architecture firm, after all, and not an agency.

My heart may have skipped a beat, but I wasn't very phased. By this point I was used to fighting for my seat at the table. I believed I belonged there because I was the only person thinking about his co-working space like a product people should want to buy, use, and tell their friends about.

I believe buildings are products for people—the kinds we inhabit rather than hold. I was interested in who it was for (personas), what those people needed from it (purpose), and who else is vying for attention (competition).

My colleagues were there to present test-fits and preliminary space plans—feasibility studies with technical inputs and outputs. I was there to begin the process of answering why and how his product should exist—why people should care about it.

I answered him by channeling one of my design heroes, Michael Bierut of Pentagram. He famously wrote, "Dolly Parton's advice to young singers is also the best branding philosophy I've ever heard: 'Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.' " My role was to help our client define the identity of his business—of his built product—and make sure the project team rallied behind that vision.

Our client listened and nodded. My answer seemed to suffice. A teammate wrote "Good job," in his notebook so I could see. He underlined it for emphasis, which was touching—a very corporate HOORAH!

I may have carried the torch for brand strategy in that moment, but I was soon pulled onto something else at the firm. The remaining team of very talented consultants, identity designers, interior designers, and architects brought the project to fruition as Headquarters.

The only credit I feel I can claim for Headquarters: I kept Brand Strategy at the table, which helped the project flourish.

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