The Ultimate Guide to Figuring Out What to do When Your Architecture or Design Career is Unfulfilling

How to Get More Creative Work, Social Impact Design, and Purpose in Your Architecture or Design Career

We spend the majority of our waking hours on work, and so we want to feel like our work makes a difference. If your architecture or design job doesn’t provide you with a sense of purpose or accomplishment, you might have a hard time staying engaged. 

You know you’re feeling it when you start dreading going to work because you feel like you’re wasting your life doing something you no longer care about.

Are You Bored in Your Architecture or Design Career?

Many of us chose architecture or design as a career path because we are creative people, and we wanted to do creative work that was useful and made an impact. But sometimes, the reality of the day-to-day hits us, and we feel like we’re doing the same thing over and over again or solving the same problems in the same way, and it no longer interests us. We feel like the challenge is gone in our career, and we’re not learning anymore. 

We can feel trapped in our career and not know what to do. When we feel bored in our jobs, we feel less and less engaged, and it starts to show up in our work quality.

Do You Wish You Could do More Socially Impactful Design or Purposeful Work?

Or sometimes it’s not boredom we’re facing, but a desire to do work that makes a bigger impact. It may feel like our work isn’t responding to the most important social or environmental needs of our time—or is even actively creating harm.

I used to run a research collaborative on business models of socially impactful design, so many of my coaching clients come to me with an interest in making a larger societal impact through their work. I’ve helped many clients find ways to increase equity, make more of an environmental impact through their work—whether that meant pivoting to a more explicit social impact design role or finding opportunities to integrate more social impact design into their existing work.

Is Your Architecture or Design Job Giving You a Midcareer Crisis?

We can get nervous when we hit midcareer and feel bored with our work or that we want to make a bigger impact because we don’t think we’re “supposed to” feel this way. We think we’re supposed to be specialized experts by now, and it runs counter to our desire to have more variety in our jobs or to keep learning. We also feel more jaded about “the way the world works,“ and have less faith in our ability to integrate social impact into our work.

But while in early career we just need to “follow directions“ and learn the ropes, at midcareer new opportunities for creativity, growth, and even social impact open up for us. We have more experience, business insight, and access to opportunities and decision making—and if we leverage those assets, we can find the fulfillment missing in our careers. 

You don’t have to “blow up your entire career and start a nonprofit” to make more of a difference—whether that’s finding a special client group or issue you want to focus on—like my client Taylor Davis who integrated a passion for Aging in Place into her work. This slight repositioning also allowed Taylor to find a new vista for learning on the job as she steps into greater expertise.

Get Clear on What a More Fulfilling Architecture or Design Career Specifically Means to You.

It is possible to contribute to the world in a more meaningful way or to use your gifts in a way that lights you up. 

But here’s the thing: You have to get really clear on what you do care about or want to do more of in order to figure out how to integrate it into your work. I’ve seen clients who thought they wanted more social impact, but it turns out when we got to the root of their dissatisfaction, they really wanted to stop doing mundane tasks and get to dive into creative problem solving more.

Process for getting clear on what a fulfilling career means to you

Sometimes what you really want is getting more variety in your work. Or making a difference in your field on a specific issue. Or raising the level of scale or complexity that you work on so you can have more of a sense of challenge and accomplishment.

When you’re really clear on what a fulfilling career means to you, you can actually figure out how to integrate it into your job. So before you quit your job to become an artist, start a nonprofit, or become an alpaca wool farmer, here are a few things to try:

5 Things to Try before You Leave Your Unfulfilling Architecture or Design Job

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Fulfilling Career Growth on Your Own Terms

Find Opportunities to Pursue Your Interests, Passions, or Social Impact Design Through Your Projects or Responsibilities

There are so many ways to integrate the work you love to do or the values you care about into your work. You can use one of your projects as a way to learn a new skill. For example, you might ask to run the community meetings for your project if you want to become a more ace facilitator. 

You can also often find strategic opportunities to bake your values into your work. For example, one of my values is hiring artists and creative professionals. When I was a design consultant working with the Americans for the Arts on a toolkit, I proposed hiring an artist to create visual icons for our project. While my client was initially hesitant (it was less straightforward than just working with me), I suggested we commission just one icon as a test. They loved it, it made the project 1000% better, and it allowed me to live out my values of contributing to the creative economy and collaborating with creatives.

There are so many different ways to integrate your passions and interests into your architecture and design work—and if you’re at a loss as to what you can do, read a magazine, scroll LinkedIn, or find inspiring stories of other designers doing interesting things to inspire you and ask, “What’s my version of this project or initiative?”

Ask to be Reassigned onto More Fulfilling or Creative Work at Your Architecture or Design Firm

Sometimes it’s not about reinterpreting the projects  you’ve been given, but asking for the work in your company that allows you to practice the skills you’d like to use or the values you have.

It might be as simple as transferring from one sector to another to work with education clients instead of healthcare clients. Or working on the back-end of a project and actually getting it built because you like being on-site instead of working on the front-end of a project behind a desk all day.

Propose a New Business Strategy to Your Firm so you can Work on Creative and Impactful Design Projects

In some cases, if opportunities to be reassigned are not readily available, you might need to propose a new approach to your employer—whether that’s serving a new potential client type or proposing an “add service” (an additional service) that you can offer to clients such as community engagement or furniture selection.

Your request to your company will be a whole lot easier for your company to approve if you’ve brought a plan with some specifics and some business arguments. This is why in my coaching program, we have a sample “business memo” that our clients can use to make a business case for anything they’d like to propose to their company.

For you, this could be a one-pager on the additional service you’re proposing or your strategy of how you propose getting your first work with this new client group—and why it will benefit the company as a whole. Even if you get the details of your proposal wrong, the plan demonstrates how serious you are and allows you to get into the details with the leadership you’ve proposed your idea to  instead of just hearing a quick “no.”

One of my clients, Jess, was on a real estate project manager track and realized she didn’t like the work. She was able to identify she loved research and cared a lot about health and equity. She was able to bring a grant into her company to work on healthy materials and ended up being promoted into Director of Healthy Housing.

You can propose changes to the services your company provides or the clients it works with. You can also propose internal changes or initiatives within your company. One of my clients who works in business development initiated a project to better match staffing on projects with staff’s interests. 

This alternative approach to staffing was a way to boost employee engagement but also allowed my client to spend more time doing something she loves: finding out what drives staff and helping them maximize the time they get to spend on work that fills them up.

Propose Your Architecture or Design Job Title so you can Work on Creative and Fulfilling Projects

You might even find an opportunity to propose a role in which you can maximize opportunities to do fulfilling work and the company moves forward as a business. For example, my client, Cindy Kaufman, was promoted to Director of Interior Architecture through discussion with her bosses so she could focus more on what she loved which was design quality.

Participate in Industry Groups in Architecture and Design to Fulfill you and Build Your Personal Brand

Building your visibility through profile building activities like panels, or industry group committees like your local AIA chapter, can give a sense of purpose and creativity to your work and make you more valuable.

Building your visibility is one of the most important long-term things you can do to boost your value in your career. Every time you boost your profile or build your personal brand, it’s like you’re making a deposit in a bank—the bank of your reputation in your field. And if you ever get laid off or need to find a new job, that external reputation will help you.

But when it comes to using visibility opportunities to improve your day-to-day career fulfillment, there are so many opportunities to be creative. Want your organization to start working with a certain type of client? Get on a panel in that client’s industry where you can share your expertise—and bring potential clients into your firm. 

Want your organization to take on a social impact commitment? Join an industry effort like the Open Architecture Collaborative, or even do a one-time project with your coworkers and use that to set the groundwork for a formal commitment to a program like the Open Architecture Collaborative.

Visibility-building tactics don’t have to be top-down or all about you as a talking head who everyone else should listen to. They can be collaborative and interactive. When I was a design consultant, I wanted to do more work that focused on issues of equity. I planned to attend the PolicyLink Equity Summit as a professional development and networking opportunity.

I saw an opportunity to build community through inviting current and potential clients and collaborators to attend the summit with me as a delegation of “creative changemakers for equity.” We read a book together, met online before the summit, and had other people to attend sessions with at the summit itself. It solidified my reputation in the topic and built valuable relationships and business opportunities. 

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Fulfilling Career Growth on Your Own Terms

3 Signs You Should Change Jobs to be More Creative and Fulfilled in Your Architecture or Design Career

There are no Opportunities in Your Architecture or Design Career to Integrate Creative Work or Socially Impactful Design

Sometimes companies profess to be interested in supporting your interests, but you find that’s just not the reality. Perhaps you have a great conversation with your boss about getting to do more community engagement in your performance review, but the reality is that you’ve been given more projects to manage than you can even fit into your job. Those performance review conversations are starting to feel like an empty promise. 

While there’s a whole set of social forces at play that get women stuck in overwork at midcareer, it may also be that your job is constructed in a way that does not have the space to integrate the skills and issues that fulfill you. If you’ve tried a few tactics to free up your time to focus more on what fills you up and nothing’s worked, it’s time to go.

Here are a few specific signs that your job isn’t “tweakable” for more fulfillment and purpose:

You’ve Asked to be Reassigned or Proposed Business Opportunities in Your Architecture or Design Career and You’ve Gotten Nowhere

You’ve done all the right things. You’ve asked to be reassigned or to start a new initiative, you’ve proposed a new role, and you’ve made a compelling business case for your request. You’re hitting a brick wall. You’re not getting engagement on your requests to leadership. No one is responding and saying, “I like what you’re suggesting, but here’s the business challenge with that approach—what about X instead?” 

If you’ve tried “all the right things” to get your job to align with what fills you up and it’s not happening—and you’re not seeing any signs that your efforts are picking up steam—it’s time to look for other options.

Your Architecture or Design Company’s Business Model Doesn’t Support Work that is Creative or Fulfilling to You

If the work you want to do just isn’t at your job (or it would be like pulling teeth to make it happen), it’s time to go. Maybe you’re doing high-end residential work and you want to do public-facing projects. Sure, you could advocate to evolve your firm into doing that work and endeavor to build out the portfolio, but it might be easier to move to a firm where they already do the work you want to do. 

Many women get worried about their ability to land a job if their portfolio doesn’t show they have done that work before. But you’ll never know what kinds of jobs you can land until you get out there, talk to people, and start applying. Many of my coaching clients have been able to pivot into jobs that felt like a stretch to them at first.

And often, your experience and your soft skills will make you a competitive candidate. One of my clients who runs a design firm was hiring for a residential architecture role, but she ended up hiring a candidate with commercial experience because her top priority in the role was to find someone who had the experience, wisdom, and initiative to run a project.

When to Change Careers to Find More Fulfillment in Your Architecture and Design Job

Many times we jump too quickly into thinking we need to change careers because what we want to do doesn’t exist in our field. 

But it’s worth remembering that innovations happen all the time in fields. A number of years ago there was no such thing as a green building movement. Today, LEED buildings are widespread, and I’m getting my packages in compostable plastic. 

If the issue you care about or the skill you want to use isn’t in widespread use in your company and field, there is so much opportunity for you to be the innovator and to differentiate yourself through bringing this opportunity to your field and company.

Being an innovator can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be! Often you can link up with others innovating in the same way in your field. One of my clients, Alexandra Gadawski, banded together with a couple of other architects to launch a campaign to make manufacturers of a specific product more sustainable.

But sometimes it feels like you’re pulling teeth to get to use the skill or work on the issue you care about, and you just can’t find a way to transform it into a bigger part of your workload within your field. Being an innovator doesn’t always feel easy, and you’ll face some setbacks, but it should also feel exciting and fulfilling. If you’re only hitting brick walls and the pushing for the changes you want to see is not filling you up, consider changing careers. Life is too short to feel like you’re fighting an unwinnable war.

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Fulfilling Career Growth on Your Own Terms

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.