The Unseen Profession
May 21, 2007
When someone asks me “what do you do?,” I usually tell a lie. I mumble something about working for a construction company, which is not exactly true since I in fact work for an engineering design firm.
But I try to avoid saying that phrase or anything involving the word “engineer” because A) no one outside of my business knows what that means, and B) no one cares. The ironic part about my career is that if I could somehow get through the initial boring introduction to engineering and into some examples of my work, people would be interested-since I am fortunate enough to be on the design team for many architecturally significant projects in my home town of Philadelphia, and even a few further up and down the East Coast. But I never bother, because I am a member of the unseen profession, and I do not want any attention at all.
This is your attitude when you work for a profession where attention is a bad thing. Other professions in this category include IT personnel, Maytag repair people and bank robbers. This attitude matures after a few years in said professions because you quickly come to realize that the less I myself or my work is seen, commented on or asked about, the more successful my designs, and therefore, the structures as a whole have become. That is why I strive to professionally be the most invisible person as humanly possible.
A Perfect Example
I will give an example of what I mean. A few months back a colleague and I walked to an annual display of noteworthy architectural projects from Philadelphia called the AIA Philadelphia Awards For Design Excellence. These projects go on visual display to the general public in a large indoor shopping area in Center City Philadelphia before the organization chooses the actual winners from the dozens of projects nominated.
Many of the projects on display were ones in which my firm was on the design team. As I browsed through all of the poster boards on display, I was surprised to discover that the name of my company actually appeared at the bottom of one of the boards, and I quickly commented as such to my co-worker.
Looking back on it, the fact that the dozen or so projects we worked on received no recognition and did not arouse the slightest thought or comment is a great example of unseen profession membership. The one project that drew attention to our company was the one that attracted so much of our own attention. And attention is a bad thing.
The unseen profession comes about when you are in a profession where any attention at all is going to be overwhelmingly negative. A brand new building will function optimally and be considered a success when the systems inside the building are basically invisible. Just think of how many times you notice technical things around your own workplace. Now take away the times you notice them because you are having some sort of problem. There you have it.
Architects respect our work because we bend and form our designs around their designs, changing nothing about what they have already sculpted in their minds. After said design becomes a physical reality, no one utilizing the structure will notice anything that I have designed, except when it is not working properly or looks out of place as a part of some aesthetic. Any comment I receive from a client says as much, and usually involves me having to revise some finished product, or troubleshoot a system or construction technique.
I would rather hear nothing at all than anything, and this is my measure of success. In the unseen profession, “less is more”, to quote another more seen member of the design community, and I could not agree more.