DesignIntelligence Media Group

Celebrating Success: 25 Years of the Design Futures Council

by Jim Cramer

Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine and also my friend and collaborator, once said, “I feel that the greatest reward for a job well done is the opportunity to do more.” We have taken this to heart with Design Futures Council, and I believe this mindset has been the reason for its success over the past 25 years.

In the early 1990s, after 16 years at the AIA, I felt a desire to start my own firm that was both a publishing company and a management consultancy. I felt there were going to be disruptions in the A/E/C industry, and that architects should be the ones to anticipate and embrace the change. There seemed to be an extraordinary leadership moment for the profession on the horizon, coming from the people who were graduating from traditional architecture and engineering schools. These leaders were interested in providing solutions, not just designs, and some really extraordinary possibilities were about to unfold.

I first met Jonas Salk at an awards presentation that was given at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he spoke about design, architecture, and the Salk Institute’s mission. We came to understand that we were soulmates; we had much in common and we wanted to do many projects together in the future. This led to one of my committees meeting at the Salk Institute, which turned into one of our first think tanks that would ultimately be named the Design Futures Council. Jonas was really interested in improving the human condition, and he believed that design could do that, but he was also interested in technology, sustainability and business management. We believed we could intercept the future, anticipate and embrace change, and provide new solutions.

Even though he wasn’t an architect, Jonas Salk was a patron and passionate believer in the mission of the DFC. He said there were better ways to satisfy architects, clients, and people living in cities, and that architecture would be designed for human use. When he talked about human use, he was really talking about an elevated new reality that could exceed expectations. And truly, there would be no Design Futures Council without Jonas Salk (and some others).

Over time, we were able to bring many people together who made vital contributions to the Design Futures Council. I was excited to continue to work directly with architects as kind of a cohort, raising the bar to make performance and speed a new reality. We could see trends that were changing, and we began to track them with their metrics. We were so passionate about the DFC, its mission and what was happening that we would have done the work for free—in fact, most of our early initiatives were guided by volunteers.

During our fifth year, 3M company became a sponsor of the DFC, and Autodesk and CNA doubled their sponsorships. Steelcase continued to generously fund DFC think tanks, including the first summit on sustainability along with Interface Carpets. Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Nebraska also joined us during this time as institutional affiliates. The professional partners of the DFC also included The Beck Group, Communication Arts, Frankel & Coleman (a design boutique firm in Chicago), Gensler, Perkins+Will, and Stubbins Associates. There wouldn’t even be a Design Futures Council without the Salk Institute, Steelcase, the University of Nebraska, Autodesk, and Construction Market Data Group.

The original mission of the DFC
The original mission of the Design Futures Council—which I don’t think we ever drifted away from—was to explore trends, changes and new opportunities in design, architect, engineering and building technology; to conduct research to lead industry focus groups; and to facilitate conferences on topics related to value and added innovation, strategic change and competitive fitness. Incidentally, when we talked about being competitive and competitive fitness, we were not trying to create a different competitive environment within the A/E/C industry; instead, we were trying to create ways that people could collaborate together to reach higher performance to, in turn, raise the bar in A/E/C and be of more value to our industry.

Over the years, when DFC members attended the think tanks, they always appreciated the genuine, sincere sharing among the members with the belief that we could create a new reality and improve performance. We challenged headon all of the mythology in the profession, such as “architects are not respected by their clients,” “architects’ fees are not fair,” or “architects don’t make much money” or “they don’t care about sustainability.”

It has been very affirming to see so many firms energetically participate in the mission of the Design Futures Council. Jonas Salk would say, “To raise the bar on new success, study the definitions of success today and build on that.” We looked at the success models of the day and time in A/E/C, which led to our belief that the firm members and the university members would be top 20 percent caliber organizations, and that they were going to be the new inventors of the profession’s future. Most of the Design Futures Council’s goals have been achieved, then reset at a higher level, then achieved, and then reset at a higher level.

When I think about the mission of the Design Futures Council and what might lie ahead, I know it will continue to anticipate and embrace change, to bring the thought leadership around technology, sustainability and business management, and to define new ways to prove the value of design—how design can not only make the world a better place, but it can set us free to expand our definitions for what is possible in this human condition.

Jonas Salk believed the Design Futures Council would be relevant for many years to come. I believe that, too.

Editor’s Note: 2019 marks the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Design Futures Council. For 25 years, the DFC has been focused on the future of design and the design professions.


Jim Cramer is the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Design Futures Council. He is the author of four books, including Design Plus Enterprise: Seeking a New Reality in Architecture. He is also the founding editor of DesignIntelligence and former CEO of the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C. He has retired from active practice, but spends part of his time writing and teaching at Georgia Institute of Technology.