As designers, we look for the needs and problems facing clients and communities then unpack them through the project, translating and distilling them into suitable typologies, writes Jonothan Cowle, associate principal at Rothelowman.

The genesis of this translation process begins in two words: “working ugly.”

Working ugly is a core value I have cleaved to throughout my 14 plus years in design. It is a philosophy I have instilled in the Rothelowman team as part of our DNA.

Some architectural practices refer to it as the ‘rough sketch,’ phase but for us, to ‘work ugly,’ is more than a draft. It is about establishing a courage and creative space within our practice – one that is non-hierarchical or siloed - where designers of all stages of experience are invited to play with ideas from the outset of a venture.

When I see the subject heading “working ugly…” appear in my email inbox, I know I am on the precipice of an idea that will challenge my existing beliefs, open me up to new ways of thinking, and extend my ability. 

To date, I have worked on more than 100 projects at Rothelowman alone.

In each of these, I have seen how working ugly enables our team to achieve the best possible results for our clients.

Here’s how.   

  • Evolution as opposed to solution.
    We seek to provide more than mere design solutions for clients. Our goal is to actively lead the evolution of design through the typologies we explore.
    Working ugly allows us to continually evolve across the project timeline, and to see each project as a vital part of the evolution of our practice. It equips our teams with the tools to break open outdated types and challenge the bounds of what we are capable of achieving at any point in the design process.
  • A generous eye for life.
    We want our designs to be embraced by their communities and elevate the urban fabric of their locale. To achieve this, we must approach each project with a generous perspective for how people will engage with them.

This requires stepping back from our work and asking, ‘is this place designed for living?’ and at an elemental level, ‘are our practices designed for designing in?” Working ugly means our teams can extend themselves.

It creates space for us to grapple with messiness and problems to create new, and beautifully designed order.

In a recent hotel marina project, we saw exactly how working ugly could reshape our approach. For this, our project team explored architecture as a way of framing public space instead of simply creating private spaces.

The night before submission, a graduate architect in my team came to me with a ‘working ugly,’ idea. She believed the building needed to face a new perspective in order to yield its best performance. Better yet – she said she could turn the plans for it around overnight.

Working ugly, we encouraged her, and to her credit as a designer – she turned around beautiful, workable plans within the given timeframe. This successful submission showed us that in order to create projects of the calibre we aspire to, must lean deeply into the design problems that face us rather than run from them.

Without the bravery of her design, and the foundation of play and creativity it was born of– we wouldn’t have been able to find a new typology for the project. It is because of this we could achieve such a such a strong result for our client.

One of the great designers of our time, Rem Koolhaus said in a university address that the key to a truly iconic building is approximately “10 small decisions.”

I want for the key to our iconic projects to be 10 small emails or conversations that begin with “working ugly: what if we tried this?”