E.B. Min had such a bad experience at her first architecture job that she decided to become a doctor instead. “I got a job that was a terrible fit for me right after I got my master of architecture, so I applied to finish my premed degree,” Min says. “But luckily, I was laid off from that job, and it was the best thing that ever happened.”
Her exodus from architecture didn’t last long: Min got a job while waiting to be accepted into the premed program. Hired at a landscape design-build firm, she ended up loving the job. It actually led her back to an architect’s career path—and her own successful architecture firm in San Francisco called Min | Day.
Min’s early career experience isn’t uncommon. According to the Equity by Design: Knowledge, Discussion, Action! report—a survey conducted by AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design (EQxD) committee, which focuses on issues that impact women in architecture—about a third of people who enter the profession leave it before reaching the four-year mark.
When people enter the architecture profession, they often feel dissatisfied creatively because they are engaged in seemingly menial tasks, such as drafting bathroom elevations. This initial phase of their careers can last for years and is often chalked up to “paying dues.”
According to Robert Yuen, consulting architect and cofounder of Section Cut—an online research resource for the design profession and an venue for in-person workshops with notable academic institutions—there’s a lack of progression in the architecture industry as a whole. “The profession hasn’t evolved quickly enough to allow for millennials to participate at a high-capacity level,” he says. “And young designers end up moving into positions with limited growth.”
But instead of getting frustrated and leaving the profession during this challenging period, people can find creative satisfaction by pursuing parallel alternative paths. Even if an alternate route doesn’t seem aligned with the conventional practice of architecture, connections can be made between them, and those alternative interests can become huge assets in a successful architecture career.
At the landscape-design firm, Min felt creatively engaged and stimulated, even though she was just starting out. “It was an amazing education,” she says. “I learned about materials and fabrication and how to get a client to agree with your design ideas. Working there taught me that doing interesting design work can be a normal thing.”
That positive experience prompted Min to stay in the design field. Eventually, one of the principals of the landscape-architecture firm referred Min to a project on her own, which ultimately led her to start her own firm—one that she’s had now for 13 years.
Min says that when she took the job in landscape architecture, some of her friends questioned her decision. They didn’t see how working there could possibly advance her architecture career. But Min stands by her choice. “Not following a conventional process often opens up opportunities that you wouldn’t normally see,” she says.
Min has once again taken an alternative path by expanding her practice to include furniture design. For her, this most recent “digression” bolsters her architecture work, much like her experience at the landscape-architecture firm. “Furniture design is part of our architecture projects and process,” Min says. “Figuring out furniture helps us refine how the architecture works.”
Like Min, Yuen’s own career is another great example of following an unconventional path. He started Section Cut with three friends after graduate school. The website began as a way to share resources around architecture and design, and it was initially targeted toward students. It has evolved into a larger operation that is used by both people in academia and in the practice.
While developing Section Cut, Yuen also cultivated his architecture career. After he graduated from the University of Michigan, he stayed in school for one more year to study robotics in architecture. After that, he moved to Chicago and worked for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Then, he relocated to San Francisco and found a design job with a prefab company called Blu Homes. Now, he consults for design-build companies while spending about a quarter of his time working on Section Cut.
And Yuen has yet another venture he recently launched called Big Fluffy, touted as “your friend in the cloud.” It helps architects and engineers redefine the meaning of “workstation” in their professional practices by allowing them to work remotely on a small laptop using the power of a $10,000 supercomputer in the cloud.
So there are all kinds of different avenues to take related to the architecture profession. Yuen advises young architects to talk with their employers if they are interested in pursuing something in addition to their architecture work, and he reassures them not be worried that it will detract from their primary work. “A lot of people are afraid to do an extra thing,” he says. “It’s okay if the thing you want to do is not aligned with traditional practice.”
In the end, a slight “detour” may lead to a more fulfilling architecture career. In fact, that zigzagging career path may just be the fastest route an architect can take to success.