2.5 Designer Selection Process

What Type of Designer?

Once you are clear on your vision, you will need to hire a design team to realize it. But before that, you need to be clear about what type of design consultant should lead that team. For most projects a complete design consulting team will include a number of disciplines ranging from architecture, landscape architecture and engineering to lighting, soils, irrigation, environmental, and so on. But a key question before you begin a project should be “what type of consultant should be the lead designer – who should assemble and lead the team and set the tone and direction of the project?

The answer to this question will vary depending upon the type of project you plan to design and build. For example, an architect may be the best primary consultant for a new public building such as a library. For a park or plaza, a landscape architect may be the best design leader. Civil engineers may be best qualified to lead the redesign of an urban street. In all cases, the other consultants will also be on the team but they may play supporting rather than leadership roles. For the library, a landscape architect working for the architect will design the site. Similarly, for the park, an architect may work for the landscape architect to design a concession building or toilet facility. And for the street, a landscape architect may work for the engineer to help design landscape and select trees and plants and there may even be an architect designing structures such as bus shelters. Despite these generalizations, however, architects have designed plazas, landscape architects have designed streets, and a variety of other arrangements are possible.

Indeed, when it comes to urban public realm projects, there is so much overlap that sometimes, multiple disciplines want to act as the lead consultant and the team and selection panel can become confused by proposals from different types of teams and firms. And while you should remain open minded about alternative approaches and team structures that you have not thought of, at the same time, there is probably no one who understands better than you what type of designer should lead in the specific instance. You can change your mind if you get a really compelling proposal from a team with a discipline that you hadn’t anticipated in the lead. However, if it is a largely engineering driven project, you may not want to hire a landscape architect as the lead. By the same token, if you want sophisticated urban design and a real sense of place, you probably do not want a civil engineer leading the design. Whatever type of project, the leadership team and the project team together should have a clear idea of which type of consultant is most appropriate to lead the specific project before starting the consultant selection process.

Three Typical Processes

There are three typical processes used for the selection of a design team for a public project. Each process presents a different set of opportunities and constraints. A really thorough, three-stage process may be good for transparency and building consensus, but it is administratively complex, more time consuming, and more costly for proposers. For smaller and more routine projects a simple, one-stage “request for proposals” or “RFP” process may suffice. Similar to knowing which type of designer you want to hire, you should also have an idea of how public you want the selection process to be and how time consuming and costly a process you are willing to administer. For a large project or one that will attract great public interest, you should err on the side of maximum public participation and transparency. For a more routine project, you may not need to meet the same standard.

Request for Proposals (RFP) One-Stage Process

There are several different ways to select the designer but because public realm projects are typically produced by and owned by governments (city, county, state, and federal) the process is typically some kind of competitive process that allows multiple proposers – most typically a Request For Proposals (RFP) process. The Request for Proposals (RFP) process is the most typical process and it is used in government and the private sector for small to medium or routine project types. The RFP process has pluses and minuses but in the end, because it is such a standard method for so many governments, the best approach is to embrace the positive qualities of the RFP process, which generates competition and proposals that are easy to compare and evaluate on a side-by-side basis. You can do this by carefully crafting and tailoring the text and content of the RFP to show potential proposers that you know what you are doing, know what you are looking for, and that you are serious. The RFP illustrates to potential proposers how well the owner understands the project and process, and how committed they are to helping ensure success. The worst thing from a potential proposer’s perspective is a standard, fill-in-the-blank, “boilerplate” RFP that shows how little time the owner has spent considering the problem. An owner that does not know or care what they are doing is a risky client and the potential for misunderstanding is increased because such clients assume that they can pass off all responsibility to the designer. A good client shows that they have a stake in the success of the project and that they will be a willing, collaborative, and active partner to the designer.

An RFP typically does two things: First, it explains the project to potential proposers, including background, need, anticipated uses, scope, schedule, and budget. Second, the RFP describes the requirements for and the contents of a complete proposal including submission method and date/time. The proposal will include a written text that includes the proposer’s understanding of the project, approach, team, examples of relevant work, resumes of key team members, an organizational chart for the team, a schedule, and fees broken down by phase, discipline, firm, hours, and including hourly rates for individuals for use in negotiating changes to the scope and fees later on, after the contract has been signed. A well-written proposal takes time to prepare and assemble and a serious firm spends a lot of effort and money producing a good and responsive proposal. Less serious firms produce more boilerplate proposals that are less relevant and customized and/or that largely regurgitate back the language in the RFP. For those who write RFP’s it is always interesting to read the proposals and see if they are original or if you are just reading your own words again. A proposal is more time-consuming and costly to produce than a qualifications package, which is the first part of the two-stage process that we will consider next.

The owner’s team reviews all of the proposals, decides which to discard and which to consider. They may ask a “short list” of firms to come in for an interview (highly recommended) and they may also ask for clarifications to the proposal and the fees. After the interview the selection team will make a final recommendation and the project staff will negotiate a design contract with the winner. In the private sector an owner may invite some number of hand-selected firms to submit proposals but in the public sector an RFP process is almost always an “open call” which means that anyone can submit a proposal.

Request for Qualifications (RFQ)/Request for Proposals (RFP) Two-Stage Process

The RFQ/RFP process is a two-stage version of the RFP process described above. This process is used for larger and more unique projects, as a way to attract big-name designers from farther afield, generate more competition, or accommodate interest from a lot of firms. The way it works is that before firms are asked to submit proposals (above), they are first asked to submit a package of their “qualifications” through an open call or a “Request for Qualifications” (RFQ). The RFQ should be as well developed by the owner as the RFP in terms of showing project objectives and expectations, but the qualifications packages that the owner expects to receive – the “statement of qualifications” or “SOQ” – are easier, quicker, and less expensive for a proposing firm to produce and submit. A statement of qualifications typically includes a cover letter and brief statement of interest but the rest is boilerplate project experience and resumes – marketing materials that all firms have on hand for this purpose and that require little customization. The RFQ process allows a lot of firms to compete in the first round and gives the owner a larger pool from which to begin the selection process.

The selection committee reviews the qualifications and then develops a shortlist of firms that are invited to submit more detailed proposals – an “invitation only” list as opposed to an open call for proposals as in the standard RFP process. The second stage is very similar to the RFP process described above, leading to a smaller number of proposals, a short list for interview, and a single recommendation of the firm that the selection panel wishes to hire. One benefit of this process for the owner is that you can learn from the qualifications round and improve, refine, and better target the RFP before sending it out.

RFQ/RFP/Design Competition – Three-Stage Process

The competition is a two-stage or three-stage (or more) version of the RFQ/RFP processes described above. In addition to a proposal, the invited teams produce conceptual design ideas and images and present these to the client as a part of the interview or in a separate/discrete design presentation that may be held in public. A design competition requires significantly more work than assembling a qualifications package or a more detailed proposal, so firms short-listed to participate in the competition are usually compensated with a modest stipend to offset the firm’s costs. In reality, firms that compete in competitions usually overspend on labor hours in the hopes of out-designing their competitors and winning. The risk for firms is that it can easily become an arms races as firms spend some of their marketing budget, plus the stipend, plus they may also spend a little more as they get excited about the project, and it can be difficult to control the spending. Many designers are ambivalent about competitions, because while they may lead to recognition, most competitions are poorly compensated or uncompensated and they rarely lead work through winning or to increased fees for firms later (because of increased exposure). [1]

Competitions offer a unique set of pros and cons. On the pro side, they can help to generate interest and excitement for a project and begin to build the political and funding support required to complete a major project. The project can be used to attract media attention and public support by hosting open interviews that draw the press and the larger community. On the down side, media attention and public participation can bring significant risks. For example, if a competition is public, there is the risk that the public likes one firm when the selection committee prefers another. The information possessed by the public and the selection panel is uneven because the selection panel has spent months on the process, developing the principles, writing the RFP, reviewing qualifications packages, reviewing proposals, analyzing fees, and attending interviews. But the public may only see a thirty-minute presentation and slide show in an auditorium.

What, then, if a charismatic presenter with compelling renderings makes a better show than the firm the selection panel prefers? What if a quiet and reasoned approach explained in an interview feels like a better fit than a great showman or woman on stage? Once the process becomes public, there likely will be an expectation that public opinion should influence the final decision. And even when that is not the intent, a strong public response can sway a selection panel, rendering all of the other work and information moot and leading to a snap decision. Experienced designers are rightly fearful that a long, costly process can easily turn into a “beauty contest” at the end and that the stated criteria for the final decision will be cast aside in the final, heated moments of the process.

There is another risk to the people running the process, which is that it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of the competition, which is to select a team you want to work with – not to select a final design. The competition design entry is meant to help the selection panel pick a firm but it will not be the final design and you would not want it to be. Indeed, the designer has not yet come to know or understand the design problem, the client, or even the city if they are from elsewhere, and is not in a good position to propose a realistic design. The public or key individuals, however, may be attracted to a design or a feature of a design and, once those images and features become public, people can get attached to them, even if, in the end, they are not very practical or likely to be realized.

Competitions are risky for firms, too, because the presentation styles of the presenters matter more – during the selection process – than their actual skills, experience, working style, or approach to the process. What if the public likes one firm or design and the selection panel likes another? In the worst case, the project leaders will be questioned about their transparency and the criteria for the selection and there may be suggestions that the selection process was “rigged” from the beginning, the winner was already decided in a backroom, or there was some favoritism in play because, after all, the clear winner – in the public’s eyes – lost.

In addition to uncertainty, competitions also present financial risks to design firms, so when the economy is doing well and firms are busy, they will avoid competitions because it is easier, less costly, and less risky to obtain work. In good times – when it is a seller’s market – it may be harder for an owner to generate interest in a competition from the design community. Firms usually overspend and lose money on competitions so the project has to be really unique and/or the firms have to be really “hungry” because the economy is weak and work is scarce. Competitions also attract new and young firms that are seeking to make a name for themselves while more established, qualified, and experienced firms (the type you may want to hire) will stay away because they don’t need the work. When the economy is really strong, most firms are in a position to turn away work that does not promise to be profitable – whether it be less desirable clients or non-paying or low-paying competitions.

Last but not least, many designers have had a bad experience with a competition and may be leery of a project in an unfamiliar place. If you are competing from a distance, then you do not know the key actors and the local culture, so you cannot tell if the process will be fair. Last but not least, a competition can take a long time to implement and the longer something takes, the better the chances that something funny will happen or a strange twist will occur. For example, the economy can improve and reduce interest from the design community. Or an election loss could take out a key project promoter (or bring in a new official opposed to the project). Even worse, a project could be turned into a campaign issue itself. Or a legislative bill could fund or defund a project. Developers like to say, “time kills all deals” or, alternatively, “speed is life.” Timing matters and if you miss the window because of a long process, your project may just evaporate.

As an example, for Nicollet Mall, the entire process from conception through the final interviews and decision took seven months. The RFQ resulted in 21 qualifications packages. The project team and selection panel together narrowed those down to four firms that were invited to submit proposals and participate in the competition. One firm dropped out (they won another big commission and were no longer interested in the work). Each of the three teams were required to visit Minneapolis for a tour of the Nicollet Mall with the project team and, later, two project team members visited the three finalist’s offices in their home cities and toured their local projects. All three teams came back to Minneapolis for two days, during which the selection panel of thirteen interviewed all three firms privately, one at a time for 1.5 hours each, all in one day. That same evening, each firm presented on stage at the Guthrie Theater at an event that was open to the public and advertised through the media. Approximately 150 people attended as well as all of the newspapers, TV stations, and Minnesota Public Radio. The next day the selection panel met again and made its final decision. Immediately after, project team members called the winner and the two losers to deliver the news. Each team was paid a stipend of $30,000 to help defray their costs, which included design time, meeting time, and airfare, food, and lodging for the two trips to Minneapolis.

Selection Criteria

One of the most important things to do when creating a selection process is to determine the criteria that will be used to make the final selection. This helps create a common frame and some guardrails for all of the people on the selection panel – each of whom brings a different perspective. For example, some people are swayed by pictures, and other by words, ideas, and numbers. The finance person will care about fees, the design person will care about the qualifications, experience, and reputation of the firm, and the promoters will be excited by the idea of having a big-name designer or “starchitect” doing the project. Because there will be such diverse perspectives, agreed-upon selection criteria – including a simple rating form – can be used to quantitatively measure and rank the firms. In many instances if the process is run well, the winner will be self-evident although for unusual projects, there can be differences of opinion that require more discussion. No matter how you measure and evaluate the proposers, there are a few basic criteria worth keeping in mind.

First, are they really qualified? Proposing firms must be qualified and capable of doing the project for which you are hiring design services. They should have successfully completed several projects of similar scope, scale, and budget for similar client types. You do not want a consultant learning on your project – you want them to be focused on the project itself. For example, consultants who have never worked for government face a steep learning curve. They may not understand the amount of time it takes, the number of meetings required (many more), how politics influences design decisions, and the way public projects are funded. You want a team that has practiced on others first – and who won’t be practicing on you. The project will be difficult enough with the right team. You want a firm that already understands how government works, how community engagement works, and how to work with the key stakeholders, the public, and the media. They need to know how to talk to and get along with elected officials and business leaders as well. And, of course, you want them to have talent, vision, capable staff, and great team members and collaborators.

Second, who am I really getting? Often the name partner of the firm leading the team in the interview will become scarce as soon as the project has been awarded and the actual work starts. There is nothing wrong with this, but you do want to ask – and find out – who the real lead for the project will be and who the key people are who will actually be doing the work. In the RFP, you should make it a requirement that those key individuals be in attendance at the interview. You may also want to let them know in the RFP that their names will be written into the contract, as a way to signal that you won’t be happy if the presentation team goes away and a completely different team shows up for the first meeting. Starchitects can attract a lot of attention but whom from the firm are you really getting? Will the “great wo/man” come to any meetings after they get hired or will you get saddled with brilliant, very confident, young hotshots? You need to find out who will actually run the project, come to the meetings, interface with your key stakeholders, and do the work.

Third, can I imagine working with them – and getting along with them – for three, four, or five years? The most important part of the process is the interview. This is when you meet the people, find out what they are like, and imagine what it would be like to work with them. Sure, they will all be on their best behavior (and unfortunately, a very few are really good actors who will change once hired), but generally you should be able to get a feel for what the people are like. If they have gotten as far as the interview they are already well qualified and capable of doing the project. The purpose of the interview, then, is to learn more about how they approach and solve problems, what they are like, and if you want to work with them for several years. When you are hiring a designer for a big project, you should think of it as if you are getting married, because you are going to spend a lot of time together and you need to be able to build a trusting and collaborative team. One challenge during the selection process is that some of the key decision makers will spend little time with the team once hired, and may not value “chemistry” as much as the people who will manage the contract and the team on a day-to-day basis. Still, it is important and team chemistry can make or break a project.

Fourth, what do their previous clients think of them? One of the easiest, most important, and most often overlooked steps in the selection process is the actual calling of references. All RFPs ask for references but they are not worth anything if you do not actually call them and ask them pointed questions. Don’t just say, “how were they?” People don’t like to give negative feedback so it is easy to be generally positive. Better to ask, “what were they like to work with when the budget had problems?” Or “are they capable of balancing their own design desires with the user’s needs and budget?” If the firm has a reputation for busting the budget on every project, ask specifically about that. Some other firms are known to be difficult to work with – will that be worth it in the end for you? It can be easier for a private individual to work with a prima donna but a large government committee may not be able or willing to tolerate it.

Fifth, are their fees competitive? My number one piece of advice for owners is “never pick the winner based on fees.” Unlike construction projects, which are typically “low-bid” for governments, professional services contracts are often awarded based on qualifications and not on price, so the selection panel has the discretion to recommend a firm that does not have the lowest fees. The idea is that this is a more subjective area, so the selection panel should have some room for maneuver. The bigger point is this: The fees represent a relatively small share of the overall project budget – maybe 7%-15% on average. Even more important, the designer has a big impact on the rest of the project so it is foolish to haggle over design fees when the right firm will help you spend the construction dollars well. That said, if five firms propose and you want to pick the firm that has proposed the highest fees, say twice as high as the low firm, you may be able to do it, but you have to be prepared to explain publicly why you made that choice. If you want to pick the firm that is second low or in the middle because they seem best qualified, you can more easily justify that decision.

And sixth, have they thought about the project? The proposal should be a thoughtful, original response to the RFP. You want to see that someone understands your situation and has thought about how best to address it. The worst proposals are those where the words from the RFP have been scanned and entered back into the proposal response. In this case, the proposer thinks they are telling you what you want to hear but, what you really want to hear is new, original thoughts and ideas that you haven’t thought of yet. Don’t be easily flattered when the proposal repeats your own brilliant thoughts back to you, rather, look for new ideas and even comments or questions that conflict with or challenge your original vision. These are the signs of a serious proposer who is trying to figure out the client and the project.

Pick the Firm – and the People

Last but not least, one of the most important but undervalued aspects of a design firm that a client should take very seriously is that of fit – with the project need but, as important, between the design team and project team members. When selecting a designer, you should remember that you will spend a lot of time with them over several or many years – so you need to be able to get along. Think of it like you are getting married for the next five years. Can you get along? Are your values similar? Do you communicate clearly and effectively with one another? It is all fun and well at the beginning, but when the first big crisis happens (and it will), will you be able to work together to resolve it, or will you retreat to your corners and fight it out? Will you be able to trust each other when you need to?

Image showing both an outdoor project area and a couple in a restaurant with a baby.
Figure 20. Consider chemistry – you will spend a lot of time together. Nicollet Mall took six years to complete, during which time several team members got married and had babies. Photo by author.

One more word on interviews and people:

In my own opinion, the best process is one that gives the owner multiple opportunities to meet and interact with each team before having to make a decision. This is more difficult to do with a standard RFP process, but for a big important project it is worth prioritizing. For example, the design competition process for Nicollet Mall took seven months and included numerous touch points with each of the proposing teams. In addition to phone conversations to arrange their visits and meetings, each team was invited to Minneapolis for a tour of Nicollet Mall, which gave them a chance to meet and get to know the project team and vice versa. When the City’s two project team members visited the three finalist firms in their own home cities of New York, Montreal, and Berkeley, they were able to tour the designer’s offices and one or two of their projects and then get to know them a little more over dinner.  City staff also spent a lot of time talking to the three teams and arranging schedules and logistics in the run-up to the interviews and the public presentations in Minneapolis. By the time of the final interviews, the two team members who had spent the most time with the three teams had a pretty good idea of what to expect, who they wanted to work with, and who they thought would win. They had had enough contact to see consistency from each team and had a pretty good idea of what they would be like to work with for five years. In the end, the design teams acted the way those two cCity staff expected they would at the interviews and the presentations. The selection panel saw what those two people saw (and asked for validation), and picked the best team for the project and for the City of Minneapolis team. That team won for a few reasons. First, their design ideas were the most pragmatic, in that they were flexible and based on adapting to the unknowns on the site. Specifically, they knew that tree planting decisions would be influenced in part by the locations of underground pipes and power lines. This design approach differentiated the winning team from the others by showing the city that they understand how important the role of the infrastructure would be in determining the final design. The team also won because their big name and their work on the Highline was impressive, but at the same time they were not egotistical and they appeared to be able to balance high design with practical considerations. Finally, the city team members liked and trusted their team members and felt that they would all work well together. In the end, all of those instincts and judgements proved to be correct, and the strength of the combined team was a big reason why the project was completed successfully and, frankly that it was completed at all.

Summary: Steps in the process and example durations

The typical RFQ/RFP selection process and durations can be broken down as follows:

  • Develop principles – Leadership Group and Project team (4-8 weeks)
  • Draft and Revise RFQ – Leadership Group and Project team (4-8 weeks)
  • Issue RFQ, receive and review Qualifications, establish short list (3-4 weeks)
  • Issue RFP and receive and review proposals, establish short list (3-4 weeks)
  • Interviews, decision, announcement (3-4 weeks)
  • Contract (2 months)
  • Begin Design
  • Total duration: 4-7 months

Example Durations of the Selection Process:

    • For Nicollet Mall, it took nine months to complete a three-stage competition through the execution of the contract with the winning design firm
    • A more typical two stage RFQ/RFP process takes four-six months
    • A simpler, one-stage RFP only process takes three-four months
    • In all cases, time must be included to allow for city review and approval processes (purchasing, civil rights review for minority business participation, legal review, City Council approval, Mayor’s final signature, contract negotiation and execution), which together can add months to the process

A final thought: “How you finish is how you start”

That says it all. If you think carefully about what you are doing before you start, you will develop a clearer picture of what a successful project will look like when complete, and this picture will guide all future decisions while reducing risks and variables. As former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed, there are both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” The more you plan for and mitigate the first type in advance, the more energy you will have later to address the second type, when they invariably crop up. Most important, how to conceptualize the project, assemble the project team leadership and pick the designer, will set the tone for how the whole rest of the project will go.

  1. My Personal opinion: As both an architect and as someone who has managed a competition for the owner, I am very skeptical about the usefulness of competitions. As the owner, it worked well for Nicollet Mall, which I attribute to a well-run process, lots of luck, and a qualified team that had both the experience and depth to win in the interview, and the images and charisma to win in the public presentation. In a different, more cautionary example, as an architect I once led a team on a competition for a project where we received a $10,000 stipend and then went on to spend over $250,000 on design time, renderings, and a scale model, only to come in second place. The design professions are ambivalent about design competitions and some see them as unethical as owners obtain ideas for low or not cost while architects provide services for little or no compensation. See for example for example, Arcilla, Patricia, “7 Takeaways from Van Allen’s Survey on Architectural Competitions,” in ArchDaily, April 28, 2015. Accessed July 5, 2019 https://www.archdaily.com/624647/7-takeaways-from-van-alen-s-survey-on-architectural-competitions


Producing the Urban Public Realm: Field Notes on Project Implementation Copyright © by Peter Hendee Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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