January 2015

The ‘Cause’ Culture

A Millennial’s Perspective on Values-Led Design

The most uneasy struggle for any designer is not knowing how one’s values can be rendered into a constructed world. Today’s ‘cause’ culture has made this even more significant.

Dustin Smith


Dustin may suffer from acute OCD, don’t dare move his drawing pens.
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Oh EARTH – how has it come to this?  Your once-flourishing landscapes and in-tune settlements of times past have been imprisoned by the modern man – by me – someone fighting himself to understand the appropriateness of design to address your looming social and environmental crises.   For as little comfort as there can be when dealing with something of this magnitude, I’ve found solace in an unrelenting activism among millennials like me, which has incurred a shift in business models, the blurring of professions’ decades-long boundaries, and a wrestling within individuals to find a greater sense of purpose in the work they do.  We are in a new era.  An era I have come to call “the cause culture”, characterized by how our personal and professional worth is now so closely associated with the mission or cause we are devoted to.

So, what is a cause?  And if these have become an identifying form of who we are personally and a defining attribute of the places we work for, in what ways are causes to be managed and upheld?

Let me begin here.  Like many young, aspiring designers in the highly competitive and free-time draining profession that is architecture, I have imagined myself leading a creative and meaningful life with a grand, purpose-laden roadmap.  Designing the world out of problems and into a utopian living experience is the ultimate goal – hefty and hardly probable as it may seem, just study the lives of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.  And though I am admittedly unripe in my personal life as well as my professional one, my commitment to my own individual cause of sorts is mature.  That is, I have come to realize what I value about the stewardship of land and people and how I am to be professionally responsible.

We’ve all grappled with how our values translate into aesthetic, functional, and transcendent physical places.

The moment I became employed is the moment I became gradually more aware of this tussle and more so troubled about whether one’s personal cause and professional duties can coexist.  In order to help designers and their places of work remain fundamentally committed to meaningful social and environmental causes, and to reinvest in measures that aid the translation of values into design, here are a few strategies to consider for managing the “the cause culture”.

Stress Transparency

The first step is understanding the collective attitude toward design.  You and your firm are responsible to each other for sharing philosophies, values, and guiding principles.  Be sure that these are clear and accessible.  Preach them daily in all decision-making activities.  And while it may seem obvious that this should occur, we are often subject to quickly forgetting the meaning of our actions amidst the management of our daily tasks.

Develop the Collective by Advocating the Individual

The realization of a common cause begins, in part, with an investment in individual passions.  Be generous in allowing creative free time for tinkering, writing, and learning.  We literally need this time to feel inspired and valued.  In the end, the firm’s ability to remain flexible to personal causes will – with the help of the next strategy – result in an enhanced attitude for sharing and the fostering of innovative ways to approach problems.

Create the Roundtable Culture

A firm’s accountability to its cause lies in the peers who make it up.  The roundtable is an internal review board.  It has no definable size but is required only to be focused, creative, energetic, dynamic, and thoughtful.  While the discussions demand seriousness, the setting for them should be anything less than formal.  The best thoughts may be spontaneous.  Allow for these to manifest in individuals by encouraging morning chats over bagels and coffee or mid-day walks for creative relief and reflection.  When there is an agenda to analyze progress, keep it short.  Our most productive attention spans may last only twenty minutes — or less.

Be the Tough Critic, But Offer Guidance

Firms are regularly susceptible to trends that simply are not in-keeping with their work or work process.  (Apple’s new iPhone 6 for example, a product Steve Jobs would have detested.)  Carve out time from the daily grind to ponder the “larger picture”.   If you find the firm’s work is inconsistent with its values, blow the foghorn – it is time to refocus the lens.  The art of good criticism is always followed by good guidance.  Do not fear being the whistleblower when the firm is talking the talk but not walking the walk.  Just be prepared to justify your critique with constructive, actionable advice.

Protect the Cause at All Costs

Never forgo being the nagging advocate for you and your firm’s causes.  It can be tempting to want to lower your defenses and fall into line, but mull the consequences of what that means.  Will you be satisfied with disbanding your commitment to purposeful work?

I cannot tell you an exact method for ensuring your values and causes are visible in the work you do.  This in itself is an inherent challenge in design.  But I do hope I’ve given you a process to ponder when faced with that challenge.  Most of all, at least you know you’re not alone.

January 20, 2015

Dustin Smith


Dustin may suffer from acute OCD, don’t dare move his drawing pens.
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