How can design firms retain young talent in the UAE? experts discuss

Motivating and retaining young designers was one of the topics discussed during the designMENA Summit panel, bringing together creatives from architecture and interior design fields.

Philip Jones, managing director at B+H Architects, commented that motivation in the UAE is different due to the contrasting business ownership structures in comparison to other parts of the world, where designers and architects begin to own where they work, whereas in the Middle East ownership stems more from professional conviction rather than financial ownership.

“In our office in Toronto, it’s all about building the talent, identifying the talent early, about offering them easy ownership and gradually by bonusing, increasing their ownership to the point where they become a partner. But that ownership structure doesn’t really happen here. I am actually unaware of a firm that actually does that here but it certainly creates a greater vibrancy and engagement with the staff,” Jones said.

Christina Morgan, director at Pallavi Dean Interiors  confirmed that at the firm where she works, the ownership model is similar to what Jones described but explained that due to them being a boutique firm it is easier to implement, in comparison to bigger corporate firms.

“We are a small company of six people. And we bring in the projects, we work on bonus schemes, we bring in interns coming out of Sharjah University and Heriott Watt and it’s brilliant. If you get interns in they work with you during the summer. You get to work with that raw talent so you want to welcome them back after they have graduated and invest back into that community. But we can do that because we are a small, boutique company. I know that larger machines can’t really do that,” she said.

Jason Burnside, partner at GAJ, added that the working environment in the region is “aggressive”, with employees working more hours than in other places and on projects that are of a bigger scale so when you are a young designer, “your part in the machine is relatively dull”, he commented.

He added that young designers can be stuck on monotonous tasks such as scheduling for months which then encourages them to look for an exit when they hear of other firms hiring, without understanding that all designers start out in the same way in order to gain a deeper knowledge and experience.

“But I think the way that people are coming out of university now have a different view of architecture. It is not always an apprenticeship anymore, it’s more about ‘hey this is flashy and I can do this amazing stuff using photoshop’ and they expect from day one to be doing that, whilst we are working for them doing details. To some extent it’s confidence over experience,” he said.

Janus Rostock, design director at Atkins, agreed, saying: “I think parts of the challenge that we face is that there is no more global place than the UAE right now so you are having people come from all parts of the world who all have slightly difference qualifications, who call themselves architects [and designers] and they are in one shape or form, but some of them have seven years of training and others have two and a half years and then they got a degree but they see each other as equals and think if one does something the other is entitled to as well.”

He continued: “If I look anywhere else in the world, the RIBA’s or the AIA’s are much stronger, but we are standing together in a much better way. If I look in Denmark, there is one architect union for the employees and one union for the employers and they agree in turn that ‘this is how we are going to do things’.

Rostock explains that this allows clients to understand how different elements of how the industry works, in terms of pricing, the different stages of delivery as well as informing young designers where they stand and at what stage.

Jones highlighted that a strong HR team may be the solution to informing and helping young designers to map out a realistic career path.

“An HR department forces you to create a career path for the young up-and-comers who think they own the world and have all that energy. But you actually sit them down and say ‘here is what you have to learn to get there’ and if you create that road map or a picture of that ladder that they have to go through in order to be able to be acquire ownership or get an associateship or a partnership, they are much more aware of the fact that they don’t know everything,” he explained.

The panel also discussed how client demands are changing the design process behind a project as well as the rise of mid-market hospitality and how it has shaped the relevance of heritage in design and architecture. 

The designMENA Summit will be taking place on December 6 with the agenda for the event expected to evolve to address the overarching topics and concerns which the industry face on a daily basis.

If you are interested in participating in one of the discussions or wish to propose a topic, please contact or