KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

May 14 2010

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A new model of design practice

Designers are inventing new ways to redefine the design profession

On Earth Day, I was in Seattle to speak to the students at Seattle University. While in town, I had the chance to meet with someone I had been admiring for a while.

John Morfield is the founder of Architecture 5 Cents. John was your typical 20-something architect when he was laid off from two different firms in the space of a year. Instead of digging around for another job, he redirected his loneliness and frustration into doing something tangible. He followed his desire to be around people and built a booth to wheel into the Ballard Farmers Market in Seattle. The sign above his head reads simply, “Architecture 5 cents.”


While certainly John is a symbol of the current economy, he is also part of a small but growing movement of designers who want to embed sustainable and social values within their own work. Anyone can go up and ask John a question about design and architecture by simply dropping a nickel into his tin can. John donates those nickels to the Ballard Food Bank. He gets to speak passionately to real people about design. For his part, John is donating his time and knowledge to educate the masses about the value of design. Occasionally, some of those questions turn into paying design jobs. Everyone wins.

Morefield’s idea brought him a fair amount of media attention, from CNN to NPR. Most surprising are the waves of anger and criticism against John and what he is doing. When Architectural Record ran a story about his great work, the comments on the website ranged from polite disdain to outright hatred. Many accuse him of devaluing the profession, while others simply don’t understand what he is doing, mistakenly thinking he is giving away his services for a nickel.


Personally, I see him as a modern day Marcus Aurelius who is helping to undo a hundred years of snobbery by our profession. For the last century, architects & designers have notoriously preyed only on the wealthy. In the process, more control and decision making was handed off to contractors, who were more than happy to provide service to their clients. The American Institute of Architects was placing full-page advertisements in Forbes and Golf Magazine when they should have been reaching out to the public and showing them what we architects can do for them.

John’s real crime is in targeting those people typically ignored by the profession: everyone else. He can’t devalue a profession that has largely ignored the homeless, allowed the automobile to shape our cities and tell clients their budgets are too small. As John and I spoke, we discussed great things we could do for clients with budgets as little as $1000.


All of this leads to a new type of practice model, a new paradigm for how we designers run our business. For the last decade, a non-profit organization called Architecture for Humanity has been providing architectural services to those in need all around the world. This isn’t design as charity; it is design for the majority of the population who have been overlooked by the design profession.

As designers, our skills are more in need then ever before. We cannot fix our current problems without a radical re-questioning and redesign of the built environment. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from John and start a conversation with the man on the street about design.

To ask John a question, or simply to donate to the Food Bank, visit Architecture 5 Cents.

To get involved in your local chapter of Architecture for Humanity, click here.

For more on Architecture 5 Cents:

Eric Corey Freed is an architect and author of four books, including Green$ense for the Home

This entry was posted on Friday, May 14th, 2010 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Business, Green. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1.  physical therapist |

    found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later