June 12, 2020

Reception for the Culver City Chamber of Commerce held at the studio of Poon Design (photo by Culver City Chamber)

In my high school days, I worked at the Gap. The sales training stated this golden rule, “The customer is always right.” But in the business of architecture, is the customer always right?

Architects are hired to deliver a design that will suit the client’s needs. But an architect is also retained for a creative vision, and such a vision, often a personal one to the architect, could be at odds with the client’s wishes.

My first employer, the Gap (photo from adweek.com)

Years ago, for a husband-wife couple in Brentwood, I designed (what I thought was) a perfectly proportioned window for the dining room. During the window installation, the clients stated that they wanted a bigger window.

I recommended, “No! Reasons why: 1) A bigger window be out of proportion with the room. 2) The glare would be too much. 3) The view is only towards an unattractive concrete wall a few feet away. 4) You would lose privacy.”

The client disagreed and paid for the construction to be torn apart and a new window ordered. When  installed and completed, the clients were befuddled, “1) Why is this window so ridiculously large? 2) Why is there so much glare? 3) Why am I looking towards a side alley? 4) Why can my neighbors view into my formal dinners?”

The client was wrong, and I was right.

Not the actual Brentwood project of mine, but you get the idea. (photo from cantanwindows.com)

During the fireworks of this one customer debate or which there are many, I wondered how hard I should apply my Gap training. Is the client always right, even when I know they are wrong? What about my years of architecture education, professional apprenticeship, job training, etc.—not to mention my awards, client references, and articles? The Golden Rule from my youthful days of sales training may be tarnished.

We architects are in a client service industry, but we are also experts. Some might say that architectural design is subjective as in art. So why wouldn’t a client be allowed to chime in with their ideas? But the client did not attend architecture school and is not licensed by the state. Architects work not only with aesthetics and abstract thinking, but life safety, engineering and building codes.

Hill of the Buddha, Sapporo, Japan, by Tadao Ando Architect & Associates (photo from Hokkaido Fan Magazine)

Additionally, architects have a personal vision for the world. Sometimes the vision is explicit as in Tadao Ando’s poetic concrete structures or Richard Meier’s modern white buildings. In these cases, you hire the architect for their creations. You probably don’t argue that you, as the customer, know what is better for the architectural composition, or that you think the columns holding up the roof should be thinner.

Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy, by Richard Meier & Partners Architects (photo by Scott Frances)

Sometimes I want to exclaim to a frustrating client, “Hey, if you think you know what is best, if you want to design this yourself, just go ahead. I quit!” But I never have been so exasperated and discouraged as to forget that business is business. There are clients that listen to the expert that they hired, and there are clients that despite their lack of experience, think they know best and end up being their own worst enemy. And our client business is made up of the entire spectrum.

© Poon Design Inc.