Why Opacity Matters
This essay was originally published in 33.3 This Point in Time, the fourth publication in HDR’s Opacity annual design review. The Opacity design excellence initiative invites outside critics to assess a portfolio of work from our offices around the globe. This essay is written by Doug Wignall, president of HDR's global architecture practice.
As I reflect on the Opacity initiative and its significance to our design practice, I am reminded of these words by Darren Petrucci, professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University and a participant in one of the earliest iterations of what has since become our global Opacity initiative: “Design excellence comes from making yourself vulnerable.”
That simple phrase sticks with me because it so succinctly summarizes the essence of what Opacity is all about: Our relentless pursuit of achieving design excellence in our work and our willingness to expose those efforts to outside peer review for judgment.
Like many architecture practices, HDR commits considerable resources to awards programs each year. We submit our project work to be judged in terms of innovation, technical mastery, and creativity. We do so because awards programs honor the exceptional strengths and outstanding achievements of our practitioners — and the enduring outcomes of their efforts.
Awards programs also offer the chance to compare ourselves against our peers and to help us raise our own standards and expand the definition of design and technical excellence. This was a significant impetus behind the origins of Opacity design reviews and why we invited leaders from outside HDR in the fields of academia, architecture, media, graphic design, interiors, and landscape architecture to review our work and provide candid feedback. At the beginning, our intent was to use these design reviews to foster an atmosphere of collegial competition and to select projects worthy of submitting to external design awards programs. In hindsight and, I believe, more importantly, Opacity serves as an annual litmus test for where we are and where we need to go as a growing, global design firm.
For anyone who has read The Tempest by William Shakespeare or visited the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., the phrase “what’s past is prologue” may be familiar. Its meaning, while cloaked with nuance, essentially says that the past is a prelude to the future. In other words, our past work — both distant and near — has a hand in shaping the present and informing the future.
Opacity has been a fantastic tool from which to learn from the past to grow for the future. Jury deliberations provide an abundance of sometimes uncomfortable moments of insight and introspection — along with moments that are joyfully validating. It takes a lot of work to frame and articulate meaningful constructive criticism, and it is equally difficult to keep an open mind to listen, process, and be inspired by it.
At times, we have been subjected to harsh criticism and some comments have struck a nerve or two. Yet, we have benefited greatly because I can point to concrete accomplishments and progress that have resulted from it. We didn’t ignore it, we didn’t walk away from it. Instead, we made changes to address our shortcomings.
I would speculate that we probably learn as much from the work that judges didn’t select as we do from the work that they did. Personally, I am always intrigued by their selections. Projects I was certain would be selected, were not. And vice versa. In a few instances, judges have seen something in projects that we didn’t see ourselves.
This process has now become part of our evolutionary DNA, and every juror who has contributed their time and intellect are a part of it, too. Sometimes those contributions are nuanced and sometimes they are readily apparent. All are profound, and all are greatly appreciated.
Can we precisely measure Opacity’s influence? Perhaps not quantitatively, but the effects are real. Opacity lends a tremendous credibility to our work as a result of the fair and neutral judging process. It also helps to confirm and celebrate the reasons why we’re in this profession in the first place.
Mostly, though, I believe the significance of the Opacity initiative relates to our own sense of purpose in the world. This initiative, and in particular the books published each year, provide a greater sense of permanence to the magnitude of what we have accomplished. These books are tangible evidence that we can look at, reflect on, and understand that the work we do is impactful.
Through the Opacity initiative, we are demonstrating our commitment to being the best design firm we can be. This continual outside critique of our work is also essential for our practice to stay relevant in a changing world. By “work,” I mean everything that we design: buildings, sites, interiors, graphics, ideas, experiences, communities, and products. I am a firm believer that great design culminates in influence. And influence, in turn, opens the doors to opportunities that can magnify the power — and purpose — of our practice in ways that ignite our collective imagination of what the future can hold.