Lessons from Bill II

Many of us were lucky to have our founder, Bill Little, as a mentor, and his lessons are still shared throughout our firm – but they were so helpful that I thought I’d start sharing some of them on our external blog.

I spent my first few years at Little as a very frustrated designer, wondering why my clients kept saying no to my best design ideas. Meanwhile, I noticed that Bill’s clients must have been a lot smarter than mine… because they always said yes to his ideas.

Bill knew what was happening, and he tried to explain it many different ways – “Phil, people buy for their reasons, not yours”… “Phil, people don’t care about architecture for its own sake, they care about what architecture can do for them”… “Phil, before you present an idea, ask yourself what’s in it for the other person”…

But it just didn’t take – until Bill brought in consultants to work with some of us on our presentation skills one weekend. I could not wait to show off. Bright and early on Saturday morning, I was ready to present a Continuing Education Center that I was really excited about, to a mock audience made up of faculty members.

Lights, camera, action – the video rolled as I described my (brilliant) conceptual metaphor and explained how the (awesome) project worked, and just as I was about to dazzle them with the model and renderings… they turned off the videocamera!? I could only conclude that I was either so good they just couldn’t help me, or so bad that they couldn’t help me; surely not.

The instructor asked me if I’d mind if he made my presentation for me, so I stepped aside and let him have at it. He stood up and looked directly into the eyes of those faculty members – people who had spent years teaching weary students after a long day at work, in boring classrooms at the end of dimly lit corridors after the other students were long gone – and he said “John, Linda and Pamela, you are going to be able to do things in your new classrooms that you have NEVER been able to do before, and I could not be more excited about helping you make that happen!”

It literally took my breath away. He wasn’t even an architect, and he didn’t know anything about design, but in a single sentence he had his audience eating out of his hand. While I was busy thinking about my design, he was busy thinking about how it would improve their lives. They would have said yes to anything he suggested.

I had wasted several years and a lot of good ideas, but from that day forward it was amazing how smart my clients became, and how much fun designing for clients could be. I’m lucky Bill didn’t give up on me.

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