Authority versus agency in design


Who’s a design authority and what’s a design agent?

In any significant design program a fundamental strategy for controlling the design effort is establishing a single entity, independent of the ‘agency of design’ itself, in whom authority over the design resides.

As the name implies there are two aspects to ‘design authority’. The first is possessing technical expertise in the field of design interest. The second is possessing power over the design activity itself. Without both technical competence and the power to direct the design you don’t have a credible design authority.

As to why we establish design authorities in the first place? That hinges on their critical, one might almost say pre-eminent role, of being accountable for the design. When it all goes terribly wrong, the design authority is as the person or organisation who can be held accountable (1).

From this perspective the role of design authority is inherently one of corporate governance, and therefore is (in part) acts to reduce the adverse effects of asymmetric information upon decisions made in the design process (2) by the design agency. Appointing a design authority can also provide someone who is focused on keeping the top level (architecture) design concept on track and ensuring that the business needs of the project are met (3).

Now with responsibility goes authority and as a consequence design authorities should (if they have any sense) be actively involved in establishing design requirements, ensuring that the subsequent design complies with them and that the design effort is properly documented and recorded. There is of course a balancing act here between according the design agency sufficient freedom to develop innovative solutions while also ensuring that requirements are complied with. In many ways this is a reflection of a broader balance in any society between the rights of the governed versus that of the state.

In order to perform the above duties the design authority logically also needs to have a clear understanding of what the operational requirements are and be able to demonstrate that derived design requirements satisfy these needs. This is one of the reasons why the role of design authority has been traditionally played by large customer organisations such as for example NASA, the USN, British Rail, the UK MoD etc etc.

A design agency on the other hand is the organisation that can perform specified design activities, particularly those associated with design analysis and calculations. While a design authority can perform as the design agency, critically this agency work can be delegated to other organisations.

Thus a design agency only performs work as directed, under the supervision of a design authority. A design agency then provides the design outputs and evidence of technical compliance, as specified by the design authority, to the design authority for approval.

Within a large multi-player design effort the design authority can also get involved in ensuring coordination of the overall design effort through establishing a set of formalised responsibilities, interfaces (for design inputs and outputs), acceptance criteria and any necessary common procedures and standards.

All of the above is independent of whether the work is being conducted in house, outsourced or a mixture of the two. I’d add that in a large ‘matrix’ or IPT style organisation the role of design authority is a critical one. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with a different understanding of what a design authorities role is. 🙂


1. In terms of the theories of authority we classify design authority as being of the rational-legal type, using the definitions of the philosopher Max Weber.

2.  Asymmetric information problems arise were one part has more information than the other and an use this to bias the decision in their favor. Classic examples of this are ‘moral hazard’ and ‘adverse selection’.

Moral hazard arises when an individual, or institution, does not bear the full consequences of their actions, and therefore acts less carefully, while leaving another party to bear the consequences of those actions. For example, in design it may involve down playing development risk to minimise budget requirements in order to gain project approval. Here the DA as the one finally responsible for delivering the solution will tend to be more realistic in their estimates.

Adverse selection is a form of the asymetric information problem that occurs when buyers and sellers in a market have different (asymetric) information. In the case of design adverse selection can eventuate when designers hide or adversely skew information provided about a specific design option. The DA can here act as an independent arbitrator on key architectural decisions when they have wider ramifications beyond the project.

3. See Joel Cervelloni & Andre Michel Vargas’s blog on the role of design authorities in large scale projects.

2 responses to Authority versus agency in design


    Sounds similar to the role that “architects” play according to the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA):

    “The architect must be multi-skilled with some competent knowledge in all of the various aspects of building design. The total design of buildings today requires the involvement of a team of people with a range of relevant experience. It is the architect’s role to design the building fabric and to co-ordinate the input of the specialist consultants in the team.”


      Matthew Squair 02/09/2011 at 2:01 pm

      Very, the ‘architect’ archetype has been around for a long time and it’s interesting how many organisations have either explicitly or tacitly adopted the concept. The role of ‘system architect’ has come into vogue in complex systems design over the last decade or so as well, sometimes linked to design authority and sometimes not. Although I didn’t state it in the post, perhaps the greatest advantage of such a role is that it works to assure conceptual integrity.