When an owner is looking to start a project, conventional wisdom holds that the smart choice is a large, established, “big name” design firm. To do so would seem to take the risk out of the design process, whereas hiring a smaller, “boutique” design firm might seem risky. Conventional wisdom, in this case, is wrong. Hiring a talented and experienced small firm will help is the best way to assure a project’s success. This is especially true for retail architecture, mixed-use design, town center design and destination master planning. There are six primary reasons this is true:
- Your project is important to you, be it large or small. It is the focus of your efforts, energies and attention. Your project should be equally as important to your design firm. If your design firm is small to mid-sized, your project will be large and consuming to them, the focus of their efforts, energies and attention. If the design firm is large, unless your project is as high profile as the Beijing airport or Olympic Stadium, your project is just one of their many projects. If you hire a small design team, your project will be designed by their best team, perhaps their only team, certainly by their “A” team. If you hire a large firm, you will likely get their “B” team or their “C” team.
- Large firms often “bait and switch” – introduce you to their top, most experienced design team and lead you to believe that these designers will craft your project. Yet once work starts, owners often find that the actual design team is much less experienced and accomplished. When you hire a smaller firm, the team you hire is the team that will design your project.
- A project is designed by a lead designer and a team, not a firm. When you hire a boutique design firm, a firm owner is the lead designer, and the firm is the team – the highly qualified people who will help you translate your vision into reality. When you hire a large firm you are at their mercy. If your project is extremely high profile on an international scale, you might be provided with an experienced team. If not, the team designing your project will likely be young and enthusiastic, but with limited experience in your project type or environment.
- A large firm has large overhead – expensive office space, admin teams, marketing and legal teams, a large group of expensive current and retired principals. Much of your fee necessarily must go to cover these costs. With a smaller firm, you will realize a more efficient use of your money. Your money will go to the design of your project, not to cover the firm’s overhead.
- It does not take a large team or large firm to design a large project. Not in the concept and early design stages. The best way to design a large project is to hire a small, skilled and experienced team with a well qualified leader and experience working together. Hire the team you believe in, not a “big name” without a face.
- Hire a designer, not an ego. Small studios love design and are building a reputation. Your project will help define them. If you succeed, they succeed. A “Big Name” firm is often much more interested and invested in protecting their name than in the success of your project. When your vision and their reputation collide, you lose.
A large firm adds risk to the design process, whereas a smaller yet talented and experienced “boutique” design firm greatly increases your chance of success. Hire the architect that will help you succeed, not the “Name” you think you need.