Simon Hicks

"If you know what you want, a master’s degree is a great way change your career trajectory, though it’s not essential… so long as you want to continue working in a design industry, don’t ever stop sketching"

CompanyFoster + PartnersLocationLondonCourseBA ArchitecturePositionUrban Planner

About Foster + Partners

Foster + Partners is an international studio for architecture, planning, engineering and design, established in 1967. It employs over 1,300 employees, and is structured into 6 core design teams with a number of specialist teams including model makers; 3D computer modelling; graphics and visualisation; project and contract management; urban design; industrial and interior design; workplace consultancy; construction review; and an information centre and materials research library.

It works on projects ranging from the extra-large – the design of a city, neighbourhood or airport; to the extra-small such as a desk lamp or coffee table. The main office is in Battersea, London, and is arranged as a campus of buildings. I work in the Urban Design team which is based alongside other teams with specialist disciplines in the Main Studio – an open plan double height office space by the Thames.

What are your main roles and responsibilities?

To provide a snapshots of a particular neighbourhood or city by collecting and analysing a wide variety of urban intelligence including social and economic data, urban planning policy, or information on transport networks. This information may then be presented to clients, used to inform architectural or urban-scale design decisions, or aid the practice in winning new work by demonstrating how our tools allow us to understand local place and context.

To develop strategic plans (at a city or regional scale) and masterplans (at a neighbourhood scale) by working closely with different architecture teams and other specialists within the urban design team, including pedestrian movement specialists, ethnographers, landscape architects, economists and urban designers.

To complete in depth research on a particular urban social or economic topic to inform design decisions. For example, at a large scale, I might look at international cities and investigate what kind of building density has helped foster successful neighbourhoods. At a small scale, I could investigate the history of how the settlement of businesses and migration of residence have shaped a neighbourhood and engendered a sense of place.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy working in a very multidisciplinary but close-knit team. In the Urban Design team, we all have our own specialisms, yet all the work we do overlaps. In my opinion, this makes my job very exciting as I am always learning new interesting information from my colleagues, whilst working together to tackle some of the greatest challenges that modern cities face – whether that be transport accessibility, addressing housing needs, or creating great places for new start-up businesses.

I also enjoy the variety of projects I am involved with. Some of our larger masterplans and strategic plans are active over a number of months or years, whilst we have many smaller pieces of work for architectural work that may need to be completed within a couple of days. The result is I have a varied work load that gives me exposure to all different kinds of work.

How did you get from your architecture degree to where you are now?

I spent some time working as an architectural assistant after my bachelors. I also had the opportunity to work in an urbanism research office, and for the housing charity, Shelter. I usually had a side-project on the go at any one time, such as teaming up with some other SSoA graduates to design a pavilion and programme of events for Bucharest Festival of Architecture. These post-degree experiences helped me to develop my interests in the urban scale, which in turn led to the decision to undertake a second degree in Regional and Urban Planning at the LSE which gave me the necessary education and footing to specialise in urban planning. After my master’s, I spent some time in architectural research, then as an urban planner at Aecom before moving on to Foster and Partners. I think that having a mixture of degrees, a broad range of professional experiences, a handful of great projects under my belt, and a couple of areas of specialist knowledge has helped me get to where I am now.

How has your architecture degree shaped your career, and what knowledge, skills or values developed at SSoA have you found relevant in your progression?

It’s a challenge to list all the benefits my architecture has provided, but here’s three which come to mind:

A focus on people – the ability to empathise and appreciate what people actually want from the built environment is my most valuable lesson from Sheffield. It’s very easy to lose sight of the individual experience in this digital age where computers control most of our workflow – and that applies to many professions beyond architecture. As an urban planner, I work with all kinds of information, from CAD files to large public datasets, but my greatest skill is being able to interpret this information and explain to others how design changes can affect an individual person in the urban environment.

Communication – In any creative firm, you need to have a variety of communication skills at your disposal. The ability to lay out your work on printed boards and present it clearly to a client or collaborative partner in plain language is vital. Similarly, in meetings with colleagues, I will sometimes find myself frantically sketching a new idea for designing a neighbourhood. Never underestimate the power of a quick hand drawn sketch to convey meaning about a complex idea.

Creativity / sensibility – Being able to apply your creativity whilst also understanding the limitations of what can be changed in the built environment is essential. In urban planning, there is great value in finding and creative ways to understand places, apply data, and create design guidance. However, being able to draw from past experiences, past precedent, and an understanding of what makes the world tick goes a long way into accelerating and shaping your creativity into something that is useful in practice.

What top tips would you offer architecture students who are considering alternative careers to architecture?

Choosing a career other than architecture might not necessarily be a sudden change. For me, it happened over a period of years. I think that the most important thing is to trust your interests and be guided by them (within reason). Don’t be afraid to try a lot of different things, because the variety of careers that you can progress into after architecture is enormous – from sustainability, to real estate, to visualisation or specialist digital modelling, to urban planning and beyond. Once you find your interests, do your best to find some speciality within that field, getting involved in events or projects beyond work if possible / suitable. If you know what you want, a master’s degree is a great way change your career trajectory, though it’s not essential. Finally, so long as you want to continue working in a design industry, don’t ever stop sketching.

Where do you see yourself in future?

My main future goal is to continue working on interesting large scale international projects in a collaborative and multidisciplinary environment. Foster + Partners gives me both of these things so I expect to be staying here for the foreseeable future.