Complexity is Beautiful: Ashley Bryan on Working in Strategy, Moving to the West Coast, and Connecting with Others
By Julia Gamolina
Ashley Bryan is an architectural designer-turned strategist, working to understand and empathize with the systems that give our lives meaning. Her work explores holistic experiences that combine architecture, environmental branding, and qualitative sociology. She is currently a Senior Strategist with Rapt Studio in San Francisco. Previously, she worked with A+I in New York as the Director of Design Communications. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Ashley talks about finding the value of strategy and leaving New York, advising young architects to think creatively about their careers.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
AB: An interest in putting things together and pulling things apart came before any idea of what architecture was. I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and part of growing up on a farm means that things break all the time [laughs]. A big part of my childhood was spent fixing things around the property with my dad, spending hours in a workshop learning about process and how I fit into it.
Then when I was eight years old, my parents designed and built our house. My parents always invited my brothers and me to be a part of those conversations, and I remember very specifically some of my parents’ philosophies for how they imagined raising their kids in this home. I remember less about the materiality and construction of the home, and more about how the social system of our family would be supported in space. Shortly thereafter I was pouring over architecture books and magazines, designing bookshelves and animal habitats - that’s where it all started.
What did you learn during your time in architecture school?
After my third year in undergrad I knew that I didn’t want to be an Architect, but I knew that I was still committed to studying and understanding architecture. I didn’t want to build, but I wanted to talk about buildings and why they were meaningful.
I was largely influenced by Professor Darla Lindberg at Penn State. Darla helped me see architecture as a relational system - for example, a floorplan can be seen as a series of relationships that the designer combines with social and behavioral constraints to create experiences. I realized that all the things I learned in school – to think critically, to think spatially, to communicate clearly – are really applicable in understanding how people, companies, and institutions work, and how decisions are made. Once I realized this, I began to want not to build buildings, but to build systems that had a requirement for space.
Having realized this, what did you do after you graduated?
I worked for JFD Studio, a hospitality design firm in Brooklyn. That was a really cool experience and also trial-by-fire in terms of seeing how things actually get done in the real world, especially at the pace of New York. You couldn’t have put me in a more different place from my Master’s program. I spent two years sitting around a table sipping coffee and talking about feminism, and then I’m in Bushwick making major design decisions on site with a labor team that doesn’t speak English [laughs].
At JFD, we were turning restaurants over in three months, which became incredibly hands on, incredibly analog, and was a huge opportunity for me to understand a side of the industry I hadn’t yet been a part of. I learned that I really liked working on hospitality experiences and that I liked working on public spaces that I could come back to and watch people live in.
How did your time there lead to A+I? Your time there seems like a really significant moment in your career.
A+I took a big chance on me – they were basically like, “You don’t really know how to build anything, but we like the way you talk about and represent ideas.” They hired me as a Marketing Coordinator at first, but I also kind of worked as a junior designer. Then I met the Director of Strategy there, Peter Knutson, and something clicked – I remembering thinking, “Oh - strategy! That perfectly articulates how I’ve been thinking about things this whole time.”
Peter taught me a lot in terms of how to monetize critical thinking as a service, which was fascinating to me. Early on, I wanted to do everything that Peter did, so I did. I was jumping onto all the projects that he was on, putting in the hours, and volunteering for the work that I wanted to see done – luckily, A+I saw value in this work. I basically invented this position for myself and thankfully the business needed it, and could support and benefit from it as well.
What is a spatial strategist in this industry? How do they add value to the design process and for a client?
A strategist thinks at 30,000 feet above a project, and tries to accommodate the constraints beyond traditional architecture; all the constraints that might direct the experiential design output. We look at behavioral patterns, incentives in stakeholder decision making, and methods for defining and building brand affinity. We try to back out of the assumed need for architecture and ask why.
Architects are trained to answer the “What” questions, which give you a list, and the “How” questions, which give you a process, but strategists really go for the “Why”, which gets to the motivation behind why we build in the first place. I truly believe that tapping into that early on in the design process produces more relevant, useful, performative, wonderful, and delightful projects in the end.
By the time you left A+I, you were the Director of Design Communications. Can you tell me what this position entailed?
I quickly went from being a designer and working a little in communications, to then being a strategist with Peter, to then becoming the Director of Design Communications, a title that we thought up together and which nobody still really gets [laughs]. The title basically meant that I was responsible for setting up systems that helped teams talk about their design ideas, whether that was in presentations, installations, pop-ups, sketches or diagrams. I was essentially positioning all our design work – as seen in the first five slides of any presentation [laughs].
What did you learn and how did you grow during your time at A+I?
I learned everything [laughs]. I learned how strategy is applicable to so many project types – from large scale developments to small residential projects to repositioning corporations. I really felt the value of what strategy was there. What was once this way that I personally related to architecture, I found a collective of people who thought the same. They believed in design strategy, and tried to make it profitable.
Personally, I found my legs there. I grew into someone who knew what they were doing – I came in with a lot of intuition around what I wanted to do, and at the end I was leading a team of people in the approach and execution of really strong strategy projects. A+I gave me a huge amount of confidence.
You are now a strategist at Rapt Studio. How did this come about?
I thought I wanted to work at a consulting firm – my main priority was to go and investigate strategy purely from a consulting side and free from the constraints of the intense budgeting and scheduling of architecture. I just wanted to chew on the conceptual development of things.
However, I ended up finding Rapt, and what’s really interesting about them is that they have their roots in architecture, but they have come out the other side as a creative agency that designs experiences. If you look at their website, you won’t even find the word architecture on there anymore – it’s brand, strategy, and experience design. I was really curious to see how this link from architecture to strategy was working out.
Talk to me about leaving New York and why you chose San Francisco.
In New York, I felt like I didn’t have access to a lot of recovery tools when, personally and professionally, I really needed them. I definitely have the impulse to get obsessed with work and give a lot of myself to it. If energy is currency, New York was very expensive for me. I’m a farm kid from Pennsylvania [laughs] – I need trees, animals, slow cups of coffee in the morning. I didn’t have a lifestyle in New York where I could recover, and I also wanted to take some time off and see my family.
As for why San Francisco – I had a pretty good feeling that the work I did at A+I would be valued there. There is a ton of strategic thinking that goes on in the Bay Area, obviously stemming from tech. I also have family here, so I knew I had a place to land, which made a huge difference. I came out here a few times for work, and found myself not wanting to leave each time! San Francisco has the most amazing trees, beaches, mountains, and trails and I knew that this was where I wanted to be. I slowly started selling my things, bought a car, took three months off, and drove across the country – without a job [laughs]. I tried to use this time to clear my mind and land in San Francisco with fresh eyes.
Looking back broadly now, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges has been trying to convince clients that strategy is something worth planning for within the design and construction process. Architecture is so based on deliverables, and strategy is very outcome-based. That’s a really important distinction. Strategists tend to work toward an outcome as opposed to a quantifiable deliverable. What I’m saying is that getting people to be confident enough to trust a process, instead of purchasing a product or a service, is a big challenge.
I’ll also say that it’s been a challenge as woman to attempt to grow as a professional leader. I wasn’t expecting that. Experiencing the reality of discrimination, and witnessing it among many female co-workers, has been a hard pill to swallow. I see it popping up more and more as I move forward. I can remember times when I’ve thought “Expand! Take up space! Own the room! Convince them you’re just like them and you’ll be listened to!” At the same time I think that some of my most meaningful professional moments have been when I’ve reached out and met people where they are. I feel powerful when I connect with people emotionally, like I’m really tapping into the world. I truly believe that this type of empathy, vulnerability, and femininity needs to have an important seat at the most influential tables. If not, I guess I’ll have to start making my own tables - high five to you, Julia!
What have been some highlights?
Some of the biggest have been when I’ve been able to win new business with our strategy component and approach. My teams and I have won projects with some of the biggest names in Tech. We’ve successfully packaged, sold and delivered holistic experiences. We’ve been able to study brand, culture, and space as one system, and provide environments that connect all three.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud that I’m doing what I want to be doing! I’ve found a slice of the industry that accommodates me, that I love, and that I’m really interested in. I still have moments when I think I’ll have to leave the industry for full creative range, to let me really live at that 30,000 foot level, but for now I’m around people who understand that if you can jump scales and move between conceptual reality and pragmatic reality, that light bulbs go off and things get more interesting.
Specifically, I’m really proud of Marshall’s Landing at the MART in Chicago, because that was a product of a very strategic investigation – a real-estate/retail/workplace/hospitality hybrid-concept that was derived from behavioral research. We fought tooth and nail for that strategy, and watching the space become a well-loved destination in Chicago has been amazing – people are now getting married there!
What has been your general approach to your career?
If I’m not having fun and enjoying the work, then I can’t get myself to do it. This is maybe why I’ve had a bit more of a bespoke outlook on my career and my role at these companies. I’ve always felt like this messed up architecture kid [laughs] - someone that doesn’t want to build buildings, but still be in the building community. My approach hasn’t just been about doing what you love though – it’s deeper than that. It’s also about wrestling with ideas that keep you up at night and not backing away from them.
I actually did an exercise with some co-workers recently where you take a piece of paper, divide it into five rows, and on the first row, you ask yourself “Why do you the work that you do?” Then on the second row, you ask “why?” again, and then again on the third and fourth and fifth rows, to really get at the heart of why you get up every morning. My answer in the end was: “People are infinitely complex, and that complexity is beautiful.” I loved that – I thought it was so profound and true. So, my approach is probably something about having fun with hard, complex problems, and finding people who will wrestle with those ideas along with me.
Finally, what advice would you give to those just starting their careers?
I would advise young architects to continue to challenge what architecture means. If you’re in school right now getting an architectural education, you should think really broadly about what that education affords you. Architecture is one of the most versatile and truly useful areas of study for becoming a productive, thoughtful, and creative person and citizen. I think the architecture industry needs a lot of shaking up – traditional architecture can be really tiring and I think we need fresh minds thinking big picture about the business of it.
I’d also encourage students to invest the same amount of creative energy that they do to their projects, to themselves. Think critically about yourself as a whole person. Work hard, learn all you can, and design your career iteratively, not all at once. If you stay open, you’ll find a way to live a better life and contribute to the world in a way that you find meaningful.