Mid-Career Advice

Not sure where to begin on this topic so please bear with me. It’s been awhile since I’ve been on here but I’m glad to see some familiar names still posting. I figure you all might have some helpful advice.

I’m approaching a big step in my life in a few weeks. I’ll be leaving a job I’ve been at for the last 6 years. I’m moving half way across the country to the New England area with my long term girl friend. She’s going back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant and I am switching over from Healthcare Architecture to Retail and Hospitality Architecture.

The job I’m leaving has been a great experience where I’ve learned a lot about myself, what I like and dislike, how to lead small project teams, work with clients directly, manage projects and all of the other aspects of the design and construction processes. It’s been a good job. With that said, I’ve been extremely bored of the work.

I’ve been on auto-pilot for the last few years due a variety of things and have really let my career aspirations slip. Not sure if this is just part of getting older, or making due with my situation. I’ve been wanting to switch jobs/careers for the last few years. Just when I was about to leave the area my mom developed breast cancer, then my cousin developed brain cancer. I’m not close with the majority of my extended family, but these two I’m extremely close with. Needless to say, I put parts of my life on hold to deal with these situations. Once those situations were resolved, my GF started applying to schools around the country and that leads us to the move in a few weeks.

I’ve always been extremely intrigued by design in all aspects. I’ve been fascinated with the design of toys, products, furniture, interiors, architecture, transportation, etc… I love design on the human scale. Architecture has always pushed the size limit of what I’m interested in designing.

I’m excited about the job I’m moving to. I will be working on some smaller scale architecture projects as they mainly deal in national retail chain design, branding, restaurants and other smaller scale architectural design. I’ll be leading a small team and getting to deal with clients on a one to one basis to help them understand their needs, guide them through the design process, and create a solution that gives them the best space possible for their needs.

What I’ve found I love from working in architecture to date:

  • Working with clients to create solutions for their needs
  • Teaching coworkers process improvements
  • Leading projects
  • Helping people visualize solutions
  • Creating holistic design solutions
  • Design Reseach

There is a whole other list of stuff I don’t like, but I’ll save that for another day.

With this upcoming life change, I’ve had a little bit of a reawakening with trying to figure out what exactly it is that I want to do with my career. I should have said this earlier, but I have a Masters in Interior Architecture and Product Design. The main emphasis of my education was on the architecture and furniture side of my degree and less so on the product design side. As I said earlier, I love design on a human scale. I’ve really been considering trying to start a path to move over to the furniture or product design side and more away from architecture. I’ve seen some smaller design firms where they do both architecture and industrial design, but those firms are few and far between. The more I’ve thought about my future I feel that working for a design consultancy would probably bring me the most intellectual and creative happiness. The combination of design, business & branding is pretty intriguing to me.

This leads me to my current list of questions and concerns.

  • Do I need more schooling in order to get my foot in the door somewhere? Living the north east part of the US brings a ton of opportunities for great design schools compared to living in KS. Not sure if more debt would be worth it though. I have considered at some point going for a PhD in order to open up teaching as a late career option. I’ve been guest lecturing and filling in some at my Alma Mater to keep my foot in design education.

  • My sketching skills have slipped due to lack of use. I need to concentrate on this skill set no matter what. Tempted to take local art classes or get training videos to help with technique.

  • Should I still work on getting licensed as an architect (a year of studying and testing) even though I am tempted to change career paths?

  • Would an Art degree or MBA be beneficial at all?

Basically at this point I have two years to try and figure something out. I just need to get going on something. I’ll gladly listen to any and all advice. Heck, if you are in the Hartford, CT area, I’ll gladly buy you a drink/coffee to sit down and chat.

Just my .02, but I wouldn’t pursue any additional education unless you have a clear objective.

If you are interested in the business end of new product development, an MBA may be useful, especially if you are interested in M&As or directing business strategy.

Same can be said with any additional education, MFA, whatever. Don’t do it just to do it. Unless of course you like it as a hobby. I know a couple of folks like that.

As for the license, I can’t say, but if it is low-hanging fruit for a better ROI than the other education, it makes more sense to me.

With so many new avenues for funding, have you thought about any entrepreneurial opportunities while doing your day job? Nothing like being in control to make you happy.

  • This has been my general thought since I haven’t had anything specific I would want to study
  • I’ve always had an interest in betting an MBA at some point. I’ve looked into programs that combine and MBA & MID, but again, see the point above.

  • When things are all said and done, I want to be knowledgeable enough and skillful enough create the best design solution possible while not wasting someone’s time or money. Eventually I would like to be in a position such as a Design Director or Creative Director where I can help lead but not necessarily be doing all of the “grunt” work.

  • I have always enjoyed the idea of Branding and how it applies to the design of products and architecture. I am a person who typically likes to look over the high level view of items to see things as a whole instead of individual parts.

  • The license is definitely low hanging fruit for me. It’s more a matter of time investment than anything else. Cost wise I’m looking at around $1500 which in the grand scheme of things is nothing. I could potentially boost my pay by 20k-30k in two years time if I get licensed. Again, this just comes down to time investment and whether or not I want to invest that time into switching career paths
  • I have really considered this option for a couple of different ideas. I would love to launch a small furniture line and see if I could get a few pieces to take off in order to launch my own larger line of furniture. This is where I would need another person with connections to the manufacturing world to help out.

I should list my dislikes of the profession of architecture to finish off my frame of reference.

  • Project time frames are too long for me to remain interested throughout the length of the project. the creative side is a small fraction of the entire project. Typically we are designing in the creative sense for only a few weeks. after that, we are manipulating the original design for the next 6-12 months and then working on the construction for typically the next 6-24 months after that.

  • Architects never seem to retire. This limits the upward movement within the profession. Unless you get lucky and one of the owners of a firm makes you their chosen heir then upward movement is extremely limited in small-mid sized firms.

  • We are typically over educated and under utilized. The structure of the architecture profession is completely backwards. Masters level designers are doing the work that someone with a 2-year drafting degree is qualified to do.

  • The majority of the owners we work with want just a functional design and nothing really creative. The divide between what you think you will be doing in school to the real world practice of architecture is tremendous.

  • I miss prototyping concepts and getting my hands dirty. Real world constraints typically don’t allow this to happen.

I’m sure there are other things that I’m forgetting. But this should give you a start to my viewpoint.

It’s always hard to try and make the switch from one discipline to another considering education, pay, experience, demand, etc.
My gut reaction would be to look into commercial furniture or exhibit design firms. Something like mashstudios.com/ where they create site-specific work environments. Based on your experience and education there might be an opportunity to work at a place like that without additional education.
Exhibit design firms also deal with interiors, product & branding and it’s fast paced. http://www.displaycraft.com/ in CT.
I’ll think about it some more. What do you dislike the most? Type of work, lack of upward mobility, pay?

Ideally this would be a part of my dream job. I’d love to work on both of those, specifically commercial furniture. Designing for some of the major manufacturers has always been a dream of mine.

I took a few classes in exhibit design and I did enjoy the flexibility and freedom of what you can do withing that area. I just would not want to only do that. I feel that after awhile it would be too limiting. But commercial experience in that area could be helpful and possible without much further education.

I think my main dislike of architecture would be the type of work. There are only so many things you can do with masonry, concrete, wood, steel and gyp board. You can do some amazing stuff, but the vast majority of your clients want things to be as cheap as possible. As I said above, the project length is also a detriment.

Pay and lack of upward mobility was also part of this. Starting salaries were horrid. If you want to work for a big name firm then your pay is even worse and the amount of hours they require should be against all labor laws.

One area of architecture that does have draw for me is high end residential work and entertainment design. I’d love to work as a Disney Imagineer
working on theme parks.

I was drawn to your original post as I have been feeling the same way as of late and was curious to see what others had to say. Maybe I’ll write up a similar post as well.

As I read through your posts and feedback I thought that exhibit design might be a good fit for you as well; it is fast paced, highly brand driven, high importance is placed on creativity, and depending on the exhibit firm you work at you may find yourself exposed to many different industries, brands, etc.

I should clarify that I’m talking about trade show exhibit design and not necessarily exhibit installation design, however some firms do both in addition to retail, pop-up retail, and P.O.P. Trade show exhibit design is a niche facet of design, which means there’s almost always demand for good designers, the down-side is you can become pigeonholed through becoming good at it.

If this interests you I would recommend that you really research it, there are lots of facets within the industry like pop-up displays, modular, custom-modular, and then full custom, and experiential firms. Based on your posts I would recommend looking for an experiential firm that does a broader range of projects than just trade show design. Also key, and one of the cons of the trade show design industry is that the majority of design work is spec design and it is highly sales driven, that said there are some companies that take more of an agency style consultative approach, and these tend to be more designer friendly. Of course you can freelance in this industry, and you will be paid regardless of the spec aspect, but you really gotta know your stuff to make a good living.

There are a ton of exhibit firms out there. I understand not wanting to do it forever, but for a couple years it could be good. The projects are extremely fast paced and get built immediately… and then destroyed immediately… but don’t hate the player, hate the game on that one. An outcropping of that is retail design.

we have used a number of firms in these areas over the years, here are a few:


While I was in school, a potential “dream job”, was designing the entire interior space including furniture, fixtures, etc. After graduation I got to the point where I almost started my own furniture gig, but then I got a “real” job in medical devices. Still like it today.

Anyway, back to the furniture thing. In addition to starting on my own, I was planning on approaching 555 Fabrication, http://www.555.com/ . Coolest place on earth. I was building my portfolio when I got teh real job gig. Both a disappointment and a relief. I have a fear of when you make a hobby a job it becomes a job, if that makes sense. I have always had it in the back of my mind to someday work at 555. Maybe when I retire from the real job, when money is not an issue, I will work there as an apprentice for a decade or so.

Find yourself your own 555.

I’ve had disappointing points in my career. I try to concentrate on the positive, tell myself that what I’m doing is considered useful to my boss and try to do things on the side that keep me inspired.

Sometimes it is very hard to find some motivation to move forward, sometimes other people inspire me for strating grow in my carreer.

Just wanted to check back in and follow up some on this topic. I really appreciate the advice so far.

I have finished my cross country move and have started to get settled into my new job. Finally getting settled into to my new routine has let me get back to thinking about my options and such.

It’s funny how timing works out on everything. Maybe it’s life telling me I need to switch things up? Back in 2010 when I had just accepted the position I recently left, I had received a job offer less then a week after starting that job. It was for a position designing children’s furniture. That would have required a cross country move, and quite frankly, I wasn’t in a position to take up the job at that point. Fast forward to day #2 on my new position. I was received an email out of the blue and was offered a full-time teaching opportunity at a top 10 architecture program. Again, the timing is horrible. I just moved across country for a 2-year stint that allows no flexibility in making the teaching gig work. So I had to turn down this job which is something I’ve always wanted to do.

After being on the job for a few weeks I’m starting to feel that maybe I really do need a change in profession. The new job is going well, I have the skills required for what I’m doing, the people are all nice, project type change is nice, etc… I am just finding my heart is not in it.

So for now, In my free time I’m going to work hard on polishing up my sketching skills, relearn some software rendering techniques, do some reading on other areas of design and just see what happens. I’ll be ready to make the switch to something else by the time my significant other finishes up her degree.

Iab, 555… that’s like a dream type of setup. design, build, deliver all under one shop is pretty awesome.

There has to be more than one 555 in the world.

Track one down near to you. Stalk them.

Totally. There are a couple of shops like that out here. I’ve visited a few. I could see the zen in it… now if there was just a place that paid to make goofy videos of sketching… :slight_smile:

That’s what youtube is for right :wink:

I’ve been watching some Scott Robertson videos again lately. Man, that guy can really explain the reasons why draws the way he does. Some of the Core77 pros could probably put together some sketch videos others would be willing to pay money for…not sure if “good” money though.

Yah, I need to get my act together :slight_smile: