The power of conscious decision making

“I believe this has the potential for change in our daily lives.” When Marina Bos-de Vos, researcher at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology, talks about the results of her research, her eyes light up. “Creativity can have a tremendous impact on society. But creative professionals often lose themselves along the way. If they can start to make conscious decisions about their business, their position will only get stronger. And then all those creative solutions, user-friendly designs and sustainable buildings will have an even bigger positive impact.” This is precisely the reason why Marina wants to open up the conversation about choices in business models for creative projects.

Tekst: Marc de Kool
Visuals - Moniek van Adrichem (www.megamoniek.nl)

Working in the creative sector can be both hectic and inspiring. Creative professionals develop solutions for everyday problems, but often struggle to prove their value to their clients. Their working environment is characterized by the changing and sometimes conflicting wishes of clients and users. At times it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. Marina knows all about this. She started working as an architect right after her university studies in Eindhoven. “That is where I developed a fascination for the commercial aspect of creative projects, and especially for what I call ‘value conflicts’. Tensions between conflicting values often remain unspoken and implicit. Important choices about how to balance the interests of clients, users, society and yourself are often made instinctively. This can have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences. After a while, I wanted to know: how does this work exactly? And how could we deal with this better?”

Choices and consequences

What do we mean by the term value conflicts? Because it is certainly not limited to a question of right and wrong. Besides moral ideals and convictions, value can also refer to the worth of something. Marina: “When we think of value in the economic sense, we differentiate between the use value (i.e. perceived utility and/or quality) something can have, such as the healthy indoor climate resulting from the design of a building with large opening windows; and the financial value: in other words, what you earn from your design. What is often overlooked when looking at creative projects from an economic point of view, is the crucial role that professional values play.”

What does this mean? “It is commonly known in the creative industries that a focus on building a strong portfolio, increasing your status within your sector, developing your knowledge further, maintaining a good relationship with your clients or just having fun with what you do often inhibits a healthy financial margin.” This means you have to make unwanted concessions.

There can also be a conflict between the use values of different parties in a project. What do you, for example, do if your client benefits from using cheaper materials, while you know this means the product will not last as long - to the detriment of the use value for both the user and society? Thus, thinking about values from an economical perspective is often intertwined with ethical dilemmas.

The problem is that many designers and architects make these decisions intuitively, without looking at the possible consequences. This can turn out well, such as when a young company grows into a household name by investing in the right projects. But it could of course also go into a totally different direction, when a seemingly attractive project pulls you into a business sector that does not suit you. Marina explains: “I wanted to know why business choices in the creative sector are so hard, and what we can do about it.” Marina started her research in the Future Architect (FuturA) project, in collaboration with Radboud University Nijmegen, the BNA and several architects and clients. “It turned out that the consequences of long term decision making were hard to foresee due to the diversity of values. Also, almost no time is devoted to thinking about it together before a project starts: Why do we collaborate with this client, but not that one?”

Nothing is standard

During her research Marina discovered that consciously and actively thinking about your business model for each project is crucial in solving these problems. She talks about how this leads to smart choices that you can justify to others: “A project business model helps you find the right balance between all the values involved. What will you do for others and what do you want to gain from this project? But is also tells you how to achieve that balance: What do you stand for? What is your forte and with whom do you collaborate. Thinking about where priorities lie and which risks you wish to avoid while the project is already underway, is too late.” These challenges are to be found throughout the creative professions: from game-developers and service-designers to fashion-designers and film makers.

Thinking about business models is captured in the Business Model Canvas. The canvas represents a relatively simple business model: you have a product to offer that has a value for a customer. This customer in turn gives you money for the product. You just have to figure out how to do this in the best way, but after that you’re pretty much set. For designers and architects, this picture is incomplete. “In the creative industries every project is unique, every problem, every client and user is different. All choices are linked to each other, come into conflict and constantly change.”

This is why Marina, together with the FuturA team, developed the Project Value Modelling Blueprint. By filling this in step-by-step, creative professionals are shown where (sometimes tough) decisions will have to be made. It helps you determine, project-by-project, what value you will offer and what you want in return. What you are prepared to invest and what level of risk is acceptable to you. With whom do you have to collaborate and which agreements will be crucial.

A design approach for your business model

As a true designer, Marina tested her solution in the field as quickly as possible. Via workshops and classes the blueprint was put to the test by architectural firms for their projects. “A lot of the feedback I received was: We should do this more often! We have to look at what we want to accomplish, together with our project partners and then articulate this, so that we can deliver a better project by collaborating”, Marina says. “It helped structure discussions about topics that were often spoken about individually, but never in relation to each other. By placing ideas about these topics side-by-side, relationships, opportunities and threats emerged that previously went unnoticed. Another outcome was that participants often assumed to agree on many things, but turned out to disagree quite a bit more than anticipated. The moment they had to get more specific a lot of uncertainties and discussions emerged. These would have previously remain unnoticed until they would cause problems in the project.”

It was only through this blueprint that many creative professionals were confronted by the interaction of the choices they make for the first time in their careers. “I really believe that this aspect of life as a creative professional has to be reflected more in the education of future designers, architects and others. This blueprint is one solution, but there are others. The most important lesson we can teach is: Be aware of the choices you make.”

This project was made possible by FuturA and the Delft Design for Values Institute,
with contributions by 
Thijs Asselbergs, John Heintz, Frido Smulders, Nick Sturkenboom, and Marc de Kool.