TSAO DesignGroup is an award winning architecture and interior design firm serving corporate, institutional and private clients. Our offices in San Francisco and Miami provide comprehensive design services for the development of new buildings, renovation of existing structures and every aspect of interior architecture. Our design portfolio contains over three decades of work expressing a variety of architectural styles as different as our clients. Each project expresses an individual aesthetic created in response to a program, a site and a shared vision. Our approach to design is user centric and site specific, rooted in a passionate belief that our highest responsibility as architects is to cultivate what is unique about each project, each client, and each opportunity. This holds true whether we are designing a museum, a retail facility, executive offices or a private residence. There can be no greater fulfillment than to engage a client deeply and jointly craft a design that exceeds both of our expectations.


Architects and designers are trained to think visually, communicate graphically and find innovative solutions to design challenges. That’s it, pure and simple. The process by which a design firm accomplishes these objectives is not unique. Information gathered during programming forms the basis for design alternatives resulting in a final scheme to be documented and built.  Read a stack of proposals and you will see that firms approach projects more or less the same way, with similar objectives, tasks and deliverables, which is why the obsession to differentiate leads to hollow marketing claims that are disingenuous.  Since when did listening to a client become unique?  Is a firm’s commitment to customer service, albeit genuine, truly a differentiator?  In the digital economy have flashy websites and catchy sound bites replaced the promise to simply deliver? The need to stand out in a competitive landscape is rooted in the belief that clients value and hire us if we have something unique to offer. Ask any business owner and she will tell you that the true value proposition of a service provider isn’t differentiation but its human capital and the synergy created when each member of a team invests her experience, knowledge and passion into a collective vision. The currency of human capital, however, fluctuates constantly and according to a recent industry survey, the average design professional will change jobs six times before becoming vested in a firm or launching an independent practice.  A company's value proposition therefore is linked to staff retention and when a client hires a firm, those responsible for its relevant experience may no longer be available, echoing a familiar warning from the equities markets: past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.

If differentiation is little more than a marketing concept as enterprises struggle to stabilize their human capital with the instability of an increasingly mobile workforce, where should forward thinking companies focus their efforts? What matters is how a firm’s culture inspires people to innovate, perform and achieve excellence for its own sake. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink argues that human motivation is largely intrinsic, and that motivation is not rewards driven but derived from the basic human need for three factors: autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose.

Research conducted at MIT and other universities indicate higher compensation improves performance for tasks requiring basic, mechanical skills applied to linear problems with single answers. For tasks involving cognitive skills, decision-making, creativity, and higher-order thinking, material rewards often lead to lower performance over the long term by replacing intrinsic motivation with extrinsic factors like compensation and status.

Autonomy — Our desire to be self-directed and value engagement over compliance.

Mastery — Our urge to improve constantly.

Purpose — Our need to be part of something that has meaning and is greater than ourselves.

The theory of intrinsic motivation teaches us that we are most creative when we are self-directed, engaged, constantly improving and connected to a higher cause. Autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose inspire us to strive for excellence in everything we do. Autonomy leads to engagement which empowers us to act with volition and choice, enabling us to be better conceptual thinkers with greater levels of psychological well-being. Mastery is a mindset that requires engagement and inspires us to embrace the infinite capacity of our abilities. A sense of purpose connects us to ourselves, our fellow man and our communities. These values transcend the need to differentiate, elevate our human spirit and empower us to be our best.  Excellence is its own reward whether it differentiates us or not.

Jonathan Tsao