How To Find The Right Hire In A Seller's Market

Reading time ~14 minutes

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Introduction

In the course of my work, I get to learn about particular aspects of our industry. I’ve recently had the opportunity spent a lot of time talking to people about hiring practices in the AEC industry as part of a research project. The overwhelming conclusion I’ve come to is that hiring is a very challenging process for employers. It takes a lot of time, costs money and there is never a guarantee that your newest employee is the right fit for your company. A lot of company founders and principals sing the same tune: the challenges they all face are all very similar. Every step of the process is a challenge, especially in a seller’s market where there is more jobs than candidates (more on that later). Don’t believe for a second that you are alone facing these issues.

Big or small, most firms go through the same process and employ very similar tactics to hire people. Bigger firms will tend to have more budget and being more willing to spend money to find the right employees, even when it comes to junior positions. By and large the way architecture and design firms hire are very similar across the board.

One distinction across all firms is the difference in hiring processes for Junior vs. Senior employees. More money and effort is understandably spent on filling more senior positions, as these employees have a greater impact on the health of the company.


The Challenges:

Finding the right people: from finding the right fit for your company’s culture, to simply finding people who actually have the qualifications they claim to have, recruiters have to do an incredible amount of legwork when it comes to doing their due diligence. This is not helped by the fact that we are currently in a seller’s market, where there is more job offers than qualified candidates. This makes the search for that unicorn, the candidate with the trifecta of qualifications, cultural fit and availability, all the more complex. It is not rare for recruiters to receive applications from people who do not have the desired qualifications, whether it be from a skillset perspective (juniors claiming to have more experience than they do) or even things like the lack of immigration status (people applying from overseas). Most recruiters waste a lot of time sorting the good from the bad.

Then there is the budget issue. How much money should one allocate to recruiting efforts? How much of that budget do you allocate to different tools and resources? Things like job boards, the interview process and legal fees all cost money, but how do you know how to allocate proper resources to each item? Do you not spend any money at all and dedicate only time (which is also costly by the way)?

Recruiters are expensive but also effective as they put their money where their mouth is, because they don’t get paid if you don’t hire their candidates. Therefore, they have an incentive to do a good job. Since they cost about 20% of your hire’s first year salary, it can be a tough pill to swallow, but they tend to make more sense for more senior positions.  

Job boards are great and free (or very cheap), but the main challenge is that they advertise your opening to the world, attracting all kinds of poor fits and forcing you to go through a long and painful curating process. The problem with job boards is that the a large portion of candidates are the bottom of the barrel. Most good employees never have to look for a job and more often than not they get recruited through their network and therefore never peruse the classifieds.

In his classic book, “What Color Is Your Parachute”, Richard Bolles claims that most companies recruit internally or within their network, only using more public means of advertising a position when they have no other option left. That’s because we tend to trust people in our networks much more than strangers so it makes sense that we tap into familiarity before we look for employees more widely.

If a colleague you know and trust recommended someone warmly, would you not make them your primary candidates? I know I would. When I look for people to work with, I always tend to naturally reach out to my network before advertising and when I do advertise it’s with very specific resources. There is a local college that I particularly like because they are known to produced skilled grads, namely people who have skills in demand in the marketplace. Every year I reach out to them to get a co-op student for summer, keeping in mind that these co-op students will eventually look for a job. When they do, we will be in each other’s network and will naturally tend to gravitate towards one another.

I never advertise on standard job boards, because I don’t want the aggravation of dealing with substandard candidates who don’t even take the time to research the company they are applying to and send generic cover letters. I once received an unsolicited application from an overseas candidate who CC’d about a hundred other people on his generic - gasp! - cover letter letter. Needless to say I had a little fun replying to that one, as I took inspiration from these guys to write a spirited response.

Industry-specific job board tend to be a little better than general recruiting sites (Monster and the like), as they attract a smaller subset of candidates, usually of higher quality than generalist boards.

One of the most common complaint is that people really struggle to find a good fit in terms of skill set but even more importantly, from a cultural standpoint. The most qualified of employees will not be comfortable working for a firm espousing values too different from their own. Worse yet, working for a firm who has no established values. In my opinion too many firms spend too much time focusing on skills and experience, as opposed to ensuring that a candidate will fit right into the office culture. Skills can be learned, knowledge can be acquired, but the right attitude, mindset and work ethic is a given we all have to work with. Better find the right candidate with respect to those soft social skills.


Opportunities to do things differently

Now that we’ve laid out some of the biggest challenges recruiters face, I’m going to expand on some ideas that will give you an edge when looking for employees.


Find juniors before they get out of school and keep your network alive:

Since we’ve already established that networks play a huge part in recruiting effort, it pays off in the long term to maintain and expand that network on an ongoing basis. Keep tabs on current and future cohorts of new grads and identify the best of them as much as you can. By the same token, an ongoing internal internship program is a great way to test people out in the wild and see how they mesh with your culture. Other tactics that will help you in that regard are as follows, in no particular order: attending design crits at local school, job fairs, attending industry events, etc.

Outside of the post-secondary education system, it’s good to identify promising prospects and keep tabs on them. Stay in touch once in a while and ask them what they’re up to. You’d be surprised how much a quick check-in once in a while can help you find the right candidate when time is of the essence. That graduate you’ve kept in touch with for years may very well be your next hire if the stars are aligned. A friend of mine maintains a list of people she would like to work with and has coffee with them once in a while, when a position opens at her firm, they are the first ones to get a call.

In a similar fashion, don’t hesitate to have meaningful conversation with your peers on your challenges, successes and good candidates that have showed up on your radar. The sharing of knowledge contributes to everybody’s efforts and makes it a little easier for everyone. It’s also a good idea to sift through the mass of unsolicited applications to keep the interesting ones for later reference. Bonus points if you can have mini pre-screening interview with the candidates that showed interest and look promising. It will give you a good idea of what they’re about. You can always purge that pile of applications more than 6 months old as these tend get out of date quickly. A quick coffee date with a candidate can go a long way and make the interaction a little more human and personal, which never hurts.


Outsource it:

Sometimes it makes sense to hire a seasoned professional to help you with your recruiting. They have the network, resources, expertise and experience that you don’t and can really make a difference when it comes to narrowing down the field of candidates. Some people mistrust recruiters as they are sometimes seen as ruthless mercenaries that will poach people from their current jobs with little or no scruples.

While I can see that being an issue, and I am sure you’d find unscrupulous people out there doing unsavory things in just about every industry. Let’s not forget that these guys have a whole lot of skin in the game as they don’t get paid if you don’t make a hire through them. As far as incentive alignment is concerned, it’s difficult to make it more favourable than that for you. When it comes to ruthlessly poaching people, I would argue that this is the hard law of the marketplace. But if you’re experiencing people routinely leaving your office for greener pastures, I would highly recommend looking past the financial and emotional aspects of such transactions and take a long, hard-look at your culture. The best way to prevent people leaving your firm as soon as something better presents itself is to define, refine and constantly strive to improve your office culture. A great culture creates loyal, fulfilled employees to whom a job is much more than just a salary. I know first hand of such companies: their staff routinely decline other better paying jobs because they’re having way too much fun. Which leads me to my next point:


Work on your company’s culture and constantly refine it:

As a keen observer of the marketing industry, Terry O’Reilly likes to observe and analyze a company’s touch points to see how they interact with their stakeholders (employees, suppliers and clients). O’Reilly says that there are innumerable untapped opportunities for improving any of these touch points: from the way you sign-off your emails to your on-hold phone recordings, via your website and your social media presence, to name a few. The same goes for recruiting: how would you like your potential employees to perceive you and how would you go about them going “I want to work nowhere but there” upon leaving their first interview.

If you don’t know your company culture well enough to explain it in 1-2 sentences, on the spot, you probably have what I call a “by default” culture. A strong culture is your best bet to attract the right talent as it helps in creating an environment where everybody is valued and treated well. Every single company with a strong cultural foundation that I have observed first hand, has happier, engaged, loyal employees, often that wouldn’t leave their job for a salary substantially higher than their current one.

A great culture, as my friend Stephen Shedletzky puts it, equals values x behaviour. In other words, it means that you have to be clear on your why (purpose) and have well-established values. Not only that, but you need to live those values on a daily basis. Values that are not constantly used as a framework for decision making are useless.

GREAT CULTURE = VALUES x BEHAVIOUR


Don’t recruit solely based on skills and experience, and make the hiring process a family affair:

By the same token, a strong cultural foundation will help you focus on what matters most in prospective candidates: their personality, work ethic and ability to integrate an unfamiliar environment. Vitsoe has become a master at hiring slow and firing fast. They are so keenly aware of the need for new recruits to fit in with the culture that they notoriously dismiss candidates that would be perfectly fine for most of the rest of us, mere mortals. A story that stuck with me over the years is that of a technician that they were trying out on the job. On paper, the candidate was a great fit, but on day one, at the end of the work schedule, he tossed his tools in the toolbox and left. The fact that he did not carefully place his tools back in the order they belonged was a deal breaker for them. Needless to say that they collectively decided against hiring him.

I recently got wind that the email address “iwanttokickfearinthenuts@rvltr.studio” I have listed in a summer internship posting that I put up at a local photography school, turned off a potential co-op student who was apparently offended by its attempt at humour. Instead of feeling bad about it, I realized that I had probably dodged a bullet by avoiding someone who would not understand our company’s culture and values. Better to have no fit than a poor fit.

While this kind of pickiness may seem extreme to some, I believe it shows that a company who knows what they stand for to such a degree, will not hesitate to make such decisions because they know the weight that a wrong decision can carry down the road. And being so picky is another way to turn off people that wouldn’t be a natural fit, so the people you’re left with at the end are the best fits for your company. Which doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for anyone else either, by the way.

On a side note, fire fast doesn’t mean rudely dismissing people without empathy. It just means letting go of the bad fits quickly. It’s certainly not a free pass to be an asshole about it. We still all have a duty to be humane, even in the most uncomfortable of situations.

Additionally, the hiring process shouldn’t be just a HR process. People you hire will work with others and most company with a great culture make hiring decision while involving all concerned parties from the Janitor to the CEO. It does make perfect sense to ensure that one’s coworkers can get along with or your run the risk of mutiny.

Ultimately, a resume and cover letter are a quick and efficient way to separate the good from the bad, but to determine fit, you have spend the time with the candidate and test their mettle, better yet: do it under pressure, as it’s when everything goes to shit that problems arise. Try them out in the real work environment and see how they respond to challenges, big and small and more importantly how they treat other people. You probably want to avoid the person who’s going to think that the janitor doesn’t deserve even the smallest of acknowledgement.

Once you’ve made that hire, keep watching them during the honeymoon period and at the first sign of trouble, address it immediately.


Conclusion:

Ultimately, recruiting is a lengthy, challenging process, in which we all tend to be be way too emotionally involved with. While a great culture will help with making interactions more human and personal and ultimately, hire people that feel at home in your company, it is important to remove as much emotional attachment to the decision making process. In other words, trust your gut but don’t become emotionally attached to the outcome.

In Vipassana meditation practice, this is called “Anicca”: the ability to not have any aversion for negative situations, feelings and sensations as well as for the positive ones. Meditation is a great tool to be able to reach that level of zen master self-control, I highly recommend it.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

Truth Is Golden, Ep. 301 - In Praise Of Craft w/ Fraser Greenberg

Fraser Greenberg and I spoke at length about his Toronto upbringing, how he stumbled into family business and transformed it to thrive an ever-changing market as well as his latest endeavour, the coffee shop Milky’s in Toronto’s West End. What struck me about Fraser is the consistency with which he bring passion, purpose and an amazing sense of craft to everything he touches. A fascinating guest with great ideas, check out Fraser’s interview to learn more about him.

About the podcast: The intent behind our podcast series "Truth Is Golden" is to look at renowned creatives and their work with a critical eye. We aim to ask deep questions in order to peel back the layers of marketing, clever one-liners and sexy branding. We want to show the world what it truly takes for genuinely creative forces to find their own voice build a career on what is very often nothing more than a drive to do things differently. We want to hear about the successes, the failures, the inspirational stories and the lessons gleaned from all of it. We want the truth, so that we can inspire other people to fulfill their own creative aspirations and in the process contribute to making the world a better place.


Credits:

Post-Production: Ryan Aktari

Music: Bounce Trio, Star Animal, 2014.

Organ & Keys : Matthieu Marthouret

Ténor Sax : Toine Thys

Drums : Gautier Garrigue

Composed by Toine Thys (copyrights SABAM).

Buy it on BandCamp :

https://weseemusicstore.bandcamp.com/album/small-streams-big-rivers

More info and music here :

http://www.youtube.com/user/weseemusic

http://www.matthieumarthouret.com

https://www.facebook.com/MatthieuMarthouret.Music/





The Truth On Architectural Imagery

Reading time ~10 minutes

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Introduction:

The latest developments of evolutionary psychology teach us that our sensory perception of reality is not the window into the truth that we’ve assumed it was for a long time. Rather, it’s more like a metaphorical desktop on a computer, where the reality of the computing power if hidden behind symbolic representations of reality (e.g. the file folders on a virtual desktop). That helps us accomplish our tasks without being burdened by the minutiae of the computer’s inner workings, which would never allow me to easily and effortlessly write this piece as I was able to do, if I had to literally try and understand how everything works in a computer, down to micron-sized transistors.

What that means in concrete terms, is that evolutionary psych. tells us that we don’t see the world as it really but rather that we interpret it, these interpretations being a reflection of our evolutionary fitness. I.e., we have evolved interpretations of reality that allowed us to survive and thrive.

By the same token, since there is no such thing as an accurate perception of reality, the same goes for how we create visual media that represent the world around us. I would go as far as saying - in the example of a photograph or video of a space - that the very act of creating and designing an image of a space or building is in itself an interpretation of the object itself, influenced by the mind creating it. Not to mention the fact that we lose the 3rd and 4th dimensions (the 4th being time) and reduce the representation of the space to a 2-dimensional plane. Therefore, there can be no accurate representations of the physical space, as it’s always going to be incomplete, due to the missing dimensions.

As we just demonstrated that we cannot by design, perceive - and therefore  - represent the world around us in a truthful manner, we cannot expect an imperfect representation, or rather approximation of reality to be truthful. Not to mention that visual media in architecture is further removed from reality due to the subjective interpretation of the creative mind crafting the media, reality and truth is a myth that can never be reached.

Now that this is out of the way, what does it mean with regards to the truth and narrative in architectural media? Well, I’m glad you asked and we can proceed to answer to this question from two different perspectives, each considering a discrete aspect of the architectural documentation process.


The commercial aspect:

Architects are professional service providers and as such, have to be able to show their work in its best light, in order to convince prospects to hire them. To do that, a portfolio of images is a critical tool in the sales process. Much like any other kind of commercial photography, one can make a case that doctoring images in order to rid the iconography of the things that don’t convey the vision of the architect is fair game, and that’s the opinion of one of my peers. If you look at food or automotive photography, these guys routinely cheat in order to get images that represent the ideal of the product they’re selling and not the product itself, as you and I would experience it.

Even though what other industries are doing can be pretty dramatic in term of how far they’re willing to go to make a product look better than it actually is, nobody is ever accusing them of lying or being dishonest. That’s because if you go buy that burger or that car as a result of seeing an idealized version of it in an ad, you will still get the same thing, it just won’t look as good in the physical world, but it’ll still taste the same or perform as promised.

The same can be said of architecture and in this context, I think it’s OK for architects to fairly dramatically alter images if the end result is not quite what the original intent was. For example, I have more than once digitally “stained” wood finishes on a building’s exterior that was initially supposed to be a very dark stained finish, but had never been finished and was therefore showing up as a much lighter tone of wood than the architect intended. In that context, I personally have no qualms making such a change.

We also routinely remove electrical outlets, smoke alarms and exit signs that are both unsightly and create visual clutter. What we end up with is a clean, more focused imagery that better conveys the sense of space in my opinion, which in turn serves the commercial intent of these images.

All those changes do not fundamentally alter the physical experience of the space and do not speak to its performance. Again, let’s keep in mind that we are talking about 2 dimensional interpretations of a space the we experience in 4 dimensions and that there is no substitute for an in-person experience. In that sense, any image, doctored or not, is always going to be a somewhat deceitful representation of the space.


The ethical aspect:

Now, from an ethical perspective, one could convincingly argue that doctoring images is dishonest and does not represent the project as it is. Ignoring for a moment that a photograph (or a movie) is an incomplete representation of the physical space because it lacks 1 or 2 dimensions, an argument can be made that architectural media should take on a more documentary-like approach to the craft.

Supposing that this is feasible and realistic, I think it’s a weak argument because even a documentary medium -especially film- tells a story that is a representation of the author’s thoughts and opinions. While the media may not be altered per se, it’s the narrative that expresses an inherently biased opinion. And I think that’s the crux of the issue, that short of directly experiencing a space or a building, any other form of representation, doctored or not represents the artists’ biased view through a narrative. It is therefore very difficult to say that a photograph (or movie) is a truthful representation of reality

A few years ago, and incident with the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) made the news when it was revealed that an award winning building image set had been doctored, where unsightly (and very visible) air handling units on the roof of the building were removed in post production at the behest of the architect. In the article quoted above, Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architectural critic described the oversight as follows:


“So the honor award puzzled me. How could a jury of respected architects from out of town have missed this glaring misstep? Easily, it turned out.

Unlike the AIA's national awards, which require that at least one juror visit a short-listed building, or the Pritzker Architecture Prize, whose jury travels extensively, jurors for the Chicago AIA honors typically don't inspect buildings firsthand. There simply isn't the time or money. The jury meets for just one day. In the distinguished building category, there are scores of entries (134 this year), and they consist of projects from all over the world. So according to people who administer the contest, the jurors consider required materials (design statements and photographs) as well as floor and site plans, which are optional.”


To me, the issue is only partially the responsibility of the architect and/or the photographer. In this case, it’s clearly the jury process itself that created conditions for a doctored image set to allow for Juan Moreno’s building to win an award.

The AIA has since issued new rules for their award submissions regarding retouched images, although I couldn’t find these rules in my research. I think it’s great change, because when it comes to awards, we step outside of the realm of strictly commercial photography and that we can and should reasonably expect images to not be purposely deceiving. It can easily be speculated that the building wouldn’t have won the award, had the images not be photoshopped. Since awards don’t have as much of a commercial component (although some privately-owned award competitions are huge money makers for the organizers, but that’s a debate for another article) and are supposed to be an objective assessment of the entries and determine the winners based on the merit of the work, there should be an expectation that images not be modified and in my opinion, it falls on the organizers to demand more truthful imagery.

Similarly, publications reporting on architecture, have a moral duty to ensure that the projects they publish are not overtly deceiving as it erodes the reputation of both the magazines and the designers, especially when it comes to publicly accessible architecture that can be experienced by the general public. It would be very damaging for a magazine to talk up an innovative building only to find out that half the innovations are being impeded by some unsightly design element.


Conclusion:

I don’t believe that we can draw are black or white conclusions from this topic. Ultimately, each player in the process, be they photographers, architects, publications, award organizers or critics have a duty to ensure that they’re not purposely deceiving their public.

I think the amount of doctoring that should be tolerated should fall on a spectrum from heavily retouched, to very slightly retouched and that were the imagery falls on the spectrum is dependent of what one is comfortable with and what is appropriate for the intended usage of the images.

Some architects and photographers will have specific opinion in favour for the more honest side of the spectrum while others will unabashedly put out images that have less to do with reality and more with the commercial aspect of their practice. Azure published a very well thought-out article on the topic last year and their conclusion was thoughtful and fairly accurate representation of the variety of opinions that are out there.

I personally do a fair amount of retouching but I do draw the line at doing work that would alter the architecture and represent the space in a way that could never happen in reality. Outlets, exits signs and smoke alarms are all fair game and so are blemishes on a wall, reflections in glass, etc. I am also a little more liberal for residential work as the issues we fix are often a matter of the construction process not being faithful to the original vision or the client making changes without the architect’s knowledge.

I would generally say that restraint and common sense are ultimately our best allies. I’m a big fan of trusting my gut when it comes to making decisions that aren’t easy and the science backs me up on this.

I think the biggest takeaway from this discussion is that we ought to be very conscious of the impact the decisions we make will have down the road and act accordingly within the boundaries of what each of us is comfortable with. The rest is just noise.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.



Truth Is Golden ep. 210 - Stepping On The Soapbox w/ Toon Dreessen

I had a fascinating conversation with Toon Dreessen, principal at Architects DCA in Ottawa and past president of the Ontario Association of Architects. During our conversation, Toon spoke about his upbringing in the Netherlands, his early life and how that influenced his very early decision to become an architect around age 10, a decision he does not regret to this day. Toon spoke about his love of travel, cooking and his unstoppable drive to change architecture's perception in the public's consciousness.

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About the podcast: The intent behind our podcast series "Truth Is Golden" is to look at renowned creatives and their work with a critical eye. We aim to ask deep questions in order to peel back the layers of marketing, clever one-liners and sexy branding. We want to show the world what it truly takes for genuinely creative forces to find their own voice build a career on what is very often nothing more than a drive to do things differently. We want to hear about the successes, the failures, the inspirational stories and the lessons gleaned from all of it. We want the truth, so that we can inspire other people to fulfill their own creative aspirations and in the process contribute to making the world a better place.

The 15 deadly sins of architecture firms' websites

By Arnaud Marthouret ~ 25 min read (perfect for the holidays and better than arguing with aunt Shirley drunk on Eggnog!)

My dear readers, I like you and deeply care about your sanity. So much so that I am willing to subject myself to mind-numbing experiments on your behalf. I recently inflicted my own self an agonizing, lengthy ordeal in order to help you build better websites and more generally, communications (anyone knows a good therapist?).

I perused dozens of architectural firms websites, picked at random, based on my own personal knowledge of the field. I did so in order to see if I could distill some trends out of my empirical observations and pinpoint to common mistakes architecture firms make when presenting themselves and their work on the web.

Do keep in mind that this is by no means a data-driven, factual research report, but more of a subjective sweep of what’s out there, coated with a thick layer of opinionated commentary. Feel free to take everything I say with a grain of salt. You are of course welcome to vehemently disagree, but I hope this will at least help you think of your work and how you talk about it in different terms.

This non-scientific study parameters:

The websites were picked at random, based on my personal preferences, from tiny, local firms that I know personally, to Starchitects’ websites. All have in common that they do good, intelligent and thoughtful work in their own way and that I have a lot of respect for each of those firms’ body of work. Their websites? That’s another story.

In order to protect the innocent, I am also intentionally keeping these firms anonymous, because the point of this exercise isn’t to point fingers. Instead, I will pick among them, detailed and specific examples of naughty behaviours, that in my opinion set them back when it comes to promoting themselves and attracting new clients into their world.

Onto the sins:

1. The “I’m too cool for school” vibe

Some of the larger firms I surveyed, amongst which are a couple of starchitects, go into lengthy, obscure and frankly, boring descriptions of their philosophy and work, in a language that is at best obfuscating and at worst, purposely misleading. I don’t personally believe that one can have a clearly defined vision when employing such unclear language. Here’s a telling example, including all oxymorons, grammatical errors, clumsy metaphors and ivory tower naïveté:

ACME’s* architecture emerges out of a careful analysis of how contemporary life constantly evolves and changes. Not least due to the influence from multicultural exchange, global economical [sic] flows and communication technologies that all together require new ways of architectural and urban organization. We believe that in order to deal with today’s challenges, architecture can profitably move into a field that has been largely unexplored. A pragmatic utopian architecture that steers clear of the petrifying pragmatism of boring boxes and the naïve utopian ideas of digital formalism. Like a form of programmatic alchemy we create architecture by mixing conventional ingredients such as living, leisure, working, parking and shopping. By hitting the fertile overlap between pragmatic and utopia, we architects once again find the freedom to change the surface of our planet, to better fit contemporary life forms.

The fix: write in a style that your 3rd grade nephew or 90 year-old can understand instantly. If they don’t understand, nobody will bother reading through the whole write-up.

2. The gamified website (a variation of #1)

Looks like a 1980’s Atari video game, with tiny buttons, no hierarchy and a very confusing navigation. If a website is meant to convey information efficiently and quickly, this type of website is purposely designed to achieve the opposite. As a strategy to make people work for satisfying their need for information, it works. As a way to get people to engage with your firm, work and ideas, it’s an epic fail.

The fix: clear, understated and well organized information in the form of an easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing website, beats cute and clever any day. Additionally, cute and clever doesn’t work well with the idea of a professional services firms. There are other, more subtle ways to show originality and quirkiness that don’t scream “I’m a four-year old trapped in a 50-year old body”.

3. The poorly translated website

On this kind of website, in the case of firms whose first language is not English, one will find major spelling mistakes and grammatical errors worthy of a 6th grader in his first year of learning english (refer to #1 for a example of this subtly rife with weird english). Not a good way to make a great first impression on a potential client, especially if your firm’s goal is to produce high-end architecture. A timeless example of this is one firm listing their hard-earned “prizes” under the header “prices”. Priceless. Pun intended.

The fix: hire a professional translator and then have a native-speaking copywriter rewrite your website’s copy in the desired language, ensuring that they keep the spirit of your ideas alive.

4. The website so bad that you leave without looking at it

One can tell that it probably started 10-15 years ago as a half-decent website, but a lifetime of poorly managed updates done internally by some intern who learned to code on the fly and an outdated layout make for a terrible experience. If the bounce rate is really high (say higher than 80% - if you don’t know what that means, time to hire a web guy) and the average session duration is under a minute, then that’s a pretty reliable indication that most people are being turned off by your homepage, let alone any other page on your website.

The fix: invest in a new, up-to-date and well-designed website. Never hire the cheapest guy and make sure that your web guy is equally comfortable with the technical aspects of building a website, as he is with the design and creative side. If you don’t have the budget, sign-up for a template website service like Squarespace or Format and use one of their beautiful, ready-to-use templates. There is no excuse for a 2007-looking website.

5. The endless list of prizes and awards

This one is tricky, because awards and prizes most definitely contribute to the reputation of your firm and are a great way to validate your work via third-party endorsements. But, most people don’t care about the awards you’ve earned as they tell your prospects nothing about your ability to solve their problems. It’s OK to mention them as a form of positive-reinforcement of your expertise, after you’ve told people who you are, what you do and who you do it for. I believe it is misguided to use an awards list as a opening salvo.

The fix: put them somewhere inconspicuous and only as a way to reinforce your expertise and use it as a third-party endorsement. Be subtle about it and ensure that you don’t come off as bragging or overly egotistical.

6. The publication whore

Similarly to #5 above, nobody really cares about how many publications you’ve been in. Don’t get me wrong, being published should be a critical part of your communication strategy and you should actively try to get published, but a list of publications does not communicate to your clients how you’re going to help them assuage their fears and reach their goals. Use them as a third-party recommendation for your clients, in a way that helps them validate their decision, but it should never be a sales argument as being published has no bearing on your ability to deliver for your clients. It merely indicates that you have good relationships with publications or a really good publicist.

The fix: Keep a running list list of publications on your website if you wish to, but do not put it front and center and do not use it as a way to sell your expertise, or you’ll be selling the wrong expertise (unless you are a PR firm). I would go as far as saying that you should only keep a list of publications internally (that’s very important) and perhaps occasionally promote the really important ones, especially if they help in demonstrating your expertise. I’d bet my lunch that no client will ever ask you to produce such a list.

7. The generic “about us” and other self-descriptive statements

This one speaks for itself, as the majority of architects describe themselves in a similar language. While said statements may not be inherently bad, it’s the fact that virtually every firm uses the same verbiage that’s a problem. Your prospects end up being confused as to what you do differently from the next guy and end up comparing you with other architects solely on price as they have no other significant metric to separate you from the rest in a sea of similar-sounding firms.

My friend Nikita Morell recently talked about this, expressing disappointment at a firm claiming they had “an appetite for design”. You’re a professional, I sure hope that you have an appetite for design. Would you buy a car from a dealer just because he says he “loves cars”? I hope he does!

The challenge with this is that it requires more than just revised copy, it is often also an indication that the culture of the firm is a “by-default” one and that the founders never took the time to really challenge themselves to think of their work in ways that makes them unique. While possible, it is incredibly challenging to take an established firm and change its culture after years of operation. The situation is not hopeless but it requires a lot of courage in order to re-position the firm in way that makes it one of the top players in a narrow niche. See mistake #1 for a corollary to this one.

Below are some real-life examples:

“ACME* Architects is a world-renowned design firm with a multicultural team of 140 people from more than twenty countries. ACME* combines the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, interior design, landscape design, graphic design, and product design into a single integrated practice. ACME’s* award winning designs and reputation have attracted many prestigious commissions.”

Translation: There is nothing about us that makes us unique and our expertise is very broad, yet shallow. We are just like about every other firm of our expertise and size and we use wordy, yet meaningless language to make it look like we don’t.

“We use contextual and confident design to add value to the communities and clients we work with. We are committed to finding the right solution for each project, responding to a scheme's physical and cultural contexts as well as the aspirations of our clients.”

Translation: We do the work that every architect is trained for and expected to do, but we’re using flowery language to pretend we’re different.

“ACME* Architects is an award-winning architectural practice. Our focus is creating thoughtful, well-crafted environments that articulate a clear idea and a heightened sense of place. We believe collaboration is essential to the making of a successful project. We respect and engage a process that is organic and iterative, governed by the principle that every client and site is unique. We strive to create inventive, beautiful spaces that are available to everyone and for any budget.”

Translation: We’re very expensive and do beautiful, highly customized  work, but we are trying to convince you that we can work with your no-budget project. Also see #5.

“We passionately believe that inventive, beautiful form should be available to everyone, at any budget. Our designs aim to reflect contemporary lifestyles, values, and our collective imagination. As part of our design process we pursue concepts that are explored and expanded project after project, to suit individual client needs, particular site conditions, densities, etc. It is in the idiosyncrasies of each design solution that the project comes to life.”

Translation: We’re dreamers and even though we’d very much like to be affordable to the masses, our very design process itself puts us out of mere mortals’ reach. If you hire us, we guarantee you an emotional roller-coaster of a project.

It is important to note again that I am not criticizing the body of work of these architects, but merely critiquing the way they talk about it. My interpretation of the above statements, does not imply that this is how they work, as I have no first hand knowledge of their work process. Rather, it just gives examples of the types of reactions, or subconscious interpretations, some of their prospects may have when reading their verbiage. While I write this with my tongue firmly in cheek and tend to exaggerate a little bit in order to make a point, I truly believe that there is a lot of room for improvement.

The mistaken belief that architects can be all things to all people is the underlying philosophy behind these confusing statements. However, facts tell a different story as the most successful architecture firms in the last hundred or so years, are those that have embraced a very clear positioning in the marketplace and ruthlessly adhered to it over the years. My friend Dave Sharp recently wrote an article about this on our blog.

(In the very slim off-chance that you’re from one of the firms I quoted above, I have genuine respect for your work, please don’t take this personally. I would be delighted to have a conversation with you on how to improve your communications).

The fix: Be bold and original. If your office description uses similar language to 10 other randomly-picked architects’ websites, you’re not being bold enough.

8. The freely accessible assets and intellectual property

You work hard to produce content that is of value to your clients. PDF portfolios, white papers, articles, lectures and seminars are valuable to your clients and are a tremendous way to establish your expertise in your area. Why would you give it away for free? Behind any of these pieces is an opportunity to connect with new and exciting prospects. I’m not necessarily advocating to ask people to pay for it, although you’re certainly encouraged to experiment with that. But the law of reciprocity (a classic sales tactic rooted in psychology) says that if you give away something of value for free, you can reasonably be expected to get something in return, in this case, the contact information of the people who access your assets.

It is a tremendous way to capture new prospects in your lead pipeline and it would be a wasted opportunity to not engage with people that have already expressed an interest in what you do and let your competitors sweep them away from you.

The fix: Decide which of your assets are freely accessible and which you want to put behind a sign-up wall or even a pay wall. At revelateur, all our articles and podcasts are completely free and publicly accessible. Other valuable resources, however, are behind a sign-up wall (talks, videos, webinars, etc…) so that we can connect with people who interact with our resources and explore the possibility of them being a potential suitable client.

9. The sub-par photography

Many websites have either a portfolio of terrible images or a mix of good and bad photography, which in either case isn’t good. I completely understand that you may not be able to afford a $5000/day photographer who will take pictures worthy of Architectural Record. However, many cost-effective tricks can be employed to make you look better quasi-instantly for a very reasonable cost. Bad imagery is the first thing people will look at and without that, your website will look cheap, no matter how good your projects may be.

The fixes:

  • Remove older projects from your portfolio as you complete new ones and have better pictures for the newer ones

    • Cost: absolutely free.

  • Get your old images professionally retouched. You can get very decent images out of it for a fraction of the cost of re-shooting. However, the best of retouchers cannot perform miracles, so don’t expect one, but some exposure, color and perspective adjustments can turn a dud into a half-decent image.

    • Cost: ~$50-$200 per image, free if you’re lucky to have a photoshop-savvy intern.

    • Pro-tip: hire a co-op student from a local photography school and have them spend a semester on your existing imagery.

  • Define guidelines for your photography: what to shoot, how to shoot it, what to convey, how to stage it and how to put people in your images. Then send your photography-savvy intern to shoot them (don’t be cheap and rent a proper camera and lenses for the day for better results). Then repeat #2.

    • Cost: gear rental ($200-$300/day) and your intern’s time.

  • Find newly established photographers who are hungry for portfolio pieces and will work for nearly free. There are people constantly popping up on the market who will work for a fraction of the cost of established photographers and will produce very decent images. Established photographers always like to bitch and moan about these, but we’ve all started that way, yes myself included. And also yes, I’m giving you a free pass to go cheap, but do keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you’re lucky to find a unicorn who’s incredibly talented and cheap, take advantage of it as they will raise their rates as soon as they realize their worth. If they’re a decent shooter but not great at retouching, hiring a third-party retoucher will cost you a little more, but produce great images.

    • Cost: Cheap-ish, but you get what you pay for.

  • Hire visual communication professionals who know what they’re doing and gradually replace your starter portfolio (or re-shoot it) and make sure you budget your photography accordingly. If you can afford it, you have no excuse for skimping on photography.

    • Pro-tip: You don’t need to shoot any and every project, so if photography is too expensive for your entire portfolio, shoot your very best projects and only promote these.

    • Cost: Variable.

10. The comprehensive, un-curated portfolio

A corollary to mistake #9, your portfolio should be a combination of your best projects as well as projects that are representative of the kind of work you want to do more of. Anything else is a waste of time and space, especially if the photography is sub-par and indicates that you cannot decide what your firm is about, which is a very confusing message to send to your prospects.

The fix: Decide the kind of positioning you want for your business (what you do and who you do it for) and ruthlessly cull the projects from your portfolio that do not support that vision. Remove any emotional attachment, or better yet, have someone else make the decisions so that your portfolio can objectively and clearly reflect your positioning.

11. The unrelated endeavours

You may do very interesting things outside of your professional life, like painting, jewelry or furniture design. While it is very relevant to talk about these casually in order to show your prospects that you’re an interesting person and have a life outside of architecture (people like to find common interests, it makes you relatable), presenting them as an offshoot of your professional occupation and making them as much a part of your portfolio as the rest of your professional work is a critical mistake. They are unrelated and irrelevant to your clients, which sends a confusing message and could work against you. Tesla’s website does not expound on Space X’s accomplishments and vice versa, yet we all know that Elon Musk is the brains behind both endeavours. They are both focused on their respective areas of expertise.

The fix: Don’t sell your jewelry line on your architecture website. Write about it all your want on your blog, speak openly about all your passions in interviews, but do not present it as an integral part of your professional activity. If you really want to link the two, put a discreet link and a few words about that side business in your “about us” page or mention it in your bio.

12. The manufactured culture

Conveying a culture is a really hard challenge as it is constantly straddling the thin line between trying too hard and representing oneself in a manufactured, insincere way. Everybody these days has a “Chief Happiness Officer” (a.k.a. office dog), a very, very tired gimmick if there is one. Put simply, having a dog in the office does not make your office cool or attractive, much less giving it a C-suite title, it just means that someone in the firm likes dogs. The same goes for bean bags, foosball tables and bottomless beer taps, these are nice thing to have, but it’s dangerous to conflate cool design features and furry friends with culture (disclaimer: I love dogs). Trying to convey a culture that doesn’t exist is a very transparent move and your potential clients will see through it very quickly.

Leave the stock images with endlessly happy people and a very bland, trying-too-hard-not-to-offend-anyone language to faceless, giant corporate conglomerates. They’re only fooling themselves into thinking that their corporate culture is anything but not what it’s portrayed to be, when it’s in reality just a top-down hierarchy of disposable people. Conversely, being too quirky is childish and will turn prospects off (see mistake #2).

How does one convey a unique culture without making your website look like the digital equivalent of a clown, with red nose and oversized shoes? Well, first of all, actions speak louder than words, so make sure that whatever you claim to be, will remain true when you’re put to the test. That applies to your offline behaviour as well. As for the website, it’s OK to demonstrate that through minor quirks, easter eggs or unique personality traits (save that for the staff bios), but it should never, ever come at the expense of a clear and concise navigation. Remember that your website is meant to vet and convert visitors into leads. Anytime a feature on your website distracts visitor from its main goal, you’ve eroded a little bit your ability to generate new business. By the way, if you still have a flash-based website in 2018 (yes, yes, I assure you they exist), you’re a terrible person.

Ultimately, there is no hard and fast rule for that one and a firm with a highly-developed and off-beat culture will inherently be able to get away with more quirkiness than a straight-shooting professional services firm. It really depends on how much you’re willing to push the boundaries and how well you know your audience. If you know your audience really well, it’s easier to push the boundaries to the limits.

The fix: There is really no simple solution for this one. It’s a mix of trial and error and depends greatly on how much of yourself you are willing to put out there, for everyone to see. The better you know yourself and your audience as well as having confidence in your culture, the more you’ll be able to put out there in a way that doesn’t look fake or disingenuous. Look around and see what people are doing to find inspiration or examples of what not to do.

A sidebar on the instagram culture: Instagram has transformed all of us in always-happy people living the high life and going through the day merrily hop-skipping on our way to the next meeting. Obvious satirical views of social media above aside, I believe there is a real danger in giving into this curated lifestyle display, as it disconnects us from the challenges of day-to-day reality. It doesn’t mean that we have to go around every day bitching and moaning about life, but it’s important to recognize that life is not always perfect and acknowledge our challenges and how we overcome them, it makes us more real and relatable. I’ve witnessed so many people online pretending to be something they’re not, and I speak from experience as I’ve unwittingly participated in this charade before. It’s now starting to pervade how architects present themselves online, with many of them presenting a highly curated content stream online. Knowing some of them on a personal level, I can guarantee that their day to day life is a far cry from this glamorous facade. Always keep that in mind and take what people say about themselves with a grain of salt.

13. The confusing navigation

A variation of #2 and #4, where the navigation is just not clear at first glance. Quirky names, menus buried into sub- and sub-sub- menus, confusing titles, as well as a lack of organizational and visual hierarchy are among the common culprits.

The human mind is wired in such a way that it looks for certain patterns when looking for information in an unfamiliar environment, be they visual, organizational or linguistic. A website with a navigation that goes against those patterns when presenting information will confuse your visitors and make them much more likely to leave the site sooner than later. Cute and quirky are likely to get in the way of your prospects finding what they need, so if you do, make sure that it doesn’t impede navigation.

The fix: Do a comprehensive audit of your current website to ensure that there are no major hurdles to people finding the information they need right away. Many web professionals know how to do this. If it can be tweaked, tweak it. If it can’t, time to consider a new website.

14. The buried opinion

All the most-compelling taglines and commentary are often buried deep in an architect’s website, if at all, as if they’re hoping that they won’t be read for fear of offending their audience. On the contrary, expressing strong opinions and ideas is a tremendous way to attract the right clients and repel the poor fits. I see too many architects - frankly, the vast majority - who will express strong opinions and views in private, but will cower at the idea to put those very thoughts out for the world to see and enjoy. Most firms, big and small, have incredibly milquetoast descriptions (see #7) of their practice and their approach to practicing architecture, that don’t convey anything but a desire to fit a cultural mold of architecture practice, as if they were saying “Look at me! I too, sound like the rest!” One does not grab attention by claiming to be like the rest, but by making bold moves and grand declarations that nobody else has had the balls to make before.

The fix: Put your thoughts front and center on your website and elsewhere, write a manifesto of what you believe in and do not hesitate to be polarizing. You can be wrong and misguided and will always be forgiven for that. Being bold and wrong is better than being tame and silent about your deepest convictions. One can always recover from a misguided opinion, but one cannot recover from a lifetime of not having the guts to express themselves. One caveat though, having a strong opinion is not a license to be an unadulterated asshole, so please do your best to never cross that line. Some people can get away with a lot more than others, as a function of their culture, so if you’re unsure whether you’ve crossed that line, ask a few friends what they think how your ideas are expressed

15. The unclear positioning

Unless people flock to your door and you are so in demand, that you can afford say no to 90% of the people who want to work with you and charge rates that allow you to generate a healthy profit, you cannot afford to not have a clear positioning that your prospects will understand right away. As explained in #7, a description of your firm and its work that sounds like the majority of other firms places your squarely in the commodity box. That’s where your clients take control of the relationship (something you would ideally never, ever relinquish) and start pulling all sort of nasty tricks. Because you’re now seen as commodity, they have a lot less respect for you and your work.

Conversely, if your - ideally narrow - area of expertise is crystal-clear, from the first time your clients and prospects hear about you and you work hard at maintaining that perception throughout the sales process, then you’ll have a much easier time charging commensurately with the value of your expertise and quality of service, without worrying about scaring people away (that will still happen, but that’s a good thing).

The fix: Make it very, very clear (on your homepage) what you do, who you do it for and how you do it. Spend time whittling down your expertise to a very narrow and deep niche and resist the temptation to try and being all things to all people. Think of your homepage as a billboard, something that can grab people’s attention and a few seconds and will want to make them spend more time on other parts of your website. Bonus points if you can lead your prospects to case studies, in the format brief > problem > solution, that demonstrate said expertise once they’ve landed on your website.

Conclusion

If you made it through this entire marathon of an article, I personally want to thank and praise you. I am well aware that it’s a big commitment to spend 25 or so minutes reading a piece such as this one. However, I like to think that it’s more valuable than 25 minutes wasted on Instagram, or worse, Facebook, don’t you agree?

We’ve covered a lot of ground and there are many more mistakes out there but these were a compilation of the most egregious and/or common ones. If the article has gotten you to think about your website and communications in a new way, then I have reached my goal.

For each of these examples, there is a lot more thinking behind the reasons why I think they are mistakes, some of them are pretty established and widely accepted marketing and communication principles, others are less obvious and would require further writing.

If you have questions about this piece, you are invited to give me a shout here. I’d love nothing more than an engaging conversation on any of these topics!

*ACME, an obviously fictitious name to protect the innocent.

Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

Truth Is Golden ep. 209 - I Could Have Been Throwing Rocks At Goats w/ Jan Lorenc

In Episode 209, I spoke with Polish-born designer and architect Jan Lorenc, principal of Lorenc + Yoo, a leading experiential design firm based out of Atlanta. Jan spoke about his upbringing in communist Poland and his subsequent move to the US at age eight, when the weight of communist policies and constant shortages of basic goods became too much to bear for his family. He also spoke about how this early life experience shaped his drive and work ethic. Listen in to hear Jan's journey through life and how he got to become the respected designer he is today.

About the podcast: The intent behind our podcast series "Truth Is Golden" is to look at renowned creatives and their work with a critical eye. We aim to ask deep questions in order to peel back the layers of marketing, clever one-liners and sexy branding. We want to show the world what it truly takes for genuinely creative forces to find their own voice build a career on what is very often nothing more than a drive to do things differently. We want to hear about the successes, the failures, the inspirational stories and the lessons gleaned from all of it. We want the truth, so that we can inspire other people to fulfill their own creative aspirations and in the process contribute to making the world a better place.



The moral obligation of a designer

By Arnaud Marthouret, ~5 min reading time.

Image courtesy of  @kaboompics

Image courtesy of @kaboompics

Let’s get a little personal, shall we?

Years ago, I attended a world-famous design school, which shall remain nameless, that had just completed a brand-new shiny building the year before I enrolled. Said building was designed by a Tier-B starchitect. Not someone of the caliber of a Frank, Renzo or Zaha, but rather the architecture equivalent of a minor TV celebrity. Well known in the design world, but a virtual stranger to non-architects.

This architect was notorious for designing buildings which were colorful, playful and whimsical, but also equally painful to inhabit. From difficulty to maintain, to poor construction, without forgetting being highly uncomfortable to their occupants. At the time, this new design school building was the talk of the town and the reason I even knew the school existed in the first place. It was an exciting time to be part of a cohort of students who were pegged as a pioneering class in a visionary school. This new shiny building that I was to spend two years of my life in, alas, was no different from the architect’s previous designs, as my experience would later demonstrate.

It turned out that all the hype about the building was just that. The visionary culture the school seemingly demonstrated, was but a thin layer of shiny but fragile varnish, much like its flagship building was but a vacuous shell, colourful and playful on the outside, with nothing of substance to show for inside. The designers had spent so much time, effort and money into making the building look unique and radical, that they had completely forgotten some of the most important stakeholders in the process: the users, who were living in the building day in and day out, burning the midnight oil on a regular basis. We had to put up with suffocating, generic spaces, poorly lit and even more poorly climate controlled, too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark. It was never to be comfortable.


Up to code or up to snuff?

Needless to say that the building was up to code, but like many, many other buildings before it, it turns out that up to code is hardly a gauge of quality when it comes to the way we, little humans, inhabit space. It begs the question: what is the responsibility of the designer in those matters?

It is understood that when it comes to executing something as big and complex as a building, there are many moving parts to oversee and that some of it is bound to fall outside of the designer’s responsibility. Contractors, consultants and sub-trades all have a part of responsibility in the ultimate success of a building. However, when a building turns out to be a monumental pain in the ass, for reasons which can be traced back to the way it is designed, then the moral responsibility of the building’s failure to perform falls squarely on the designer.

This is where, we have the moral obligation to take ownership of the work we do. Mike Monteiro wrote about it when speaking about visual designers. I believe designers of buildings have the same responsibility. The responsibility of ensuring that what is being built is not only going to stand up for a long time, but is going to have a positive impact on its occupants. We now have a pretty good grasp of what constitute good, healthy environments for their occupants. Natural light, colours, acoustics, temperature, social interactions, access, vegetation, air quality, textures, materials, etc., all play a part in the way we perceive and gauge the quality of an environment. The science behind each and every one of these factors is by now well established. How is it that buildings that cannot accommodate their occupants in ways that are if not positive, at the very least neutral, are still being built?


Less Facebook, more Bruce Campbell.

Facebook has a history of causing damage to some of their users, because they fall between the cracks and are considered statistical outliers. These statistical outliers are people and what facebook does to them affect their lives. The same goes for architecture. There are examples of places where certain categories of users are completely forgotten and left to deal with spaces that make their life and work miserable.

This is not to say that there aren’t good buildings out there, because there most definitely are. But, I believe the tendency to cut corners because budgets are low and clients want their project completed yesterday. I get it, we’re often squeezed between a rock and a hard place and it’s quite stressful. However, there is hope.

By taking ownership of the value of your work and start pushing clients back when they insist on cutting corners and doing short-sighted or even indubitably dumb things, there is an opportunity to build an expertise in a particular niche where you can over time, become comfortable with defending your ideas and expertise, which in turn will be more valuable because now you stand for something and can demonstrate the value of your thinking tangibly. While it may turn some people off, it will also attract people that are aligned with your values and willing to pay a premium for your services.

Deep expertise in one area comes at the expense of unfit clients, a good thing to thrive for in my opinion. Not unlike a good horror b-movie, it’s not for everyone but those who like it are usually very engaged fans.

Strive to be the Bruce Campbell of architecture.


Further reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/14/communities.arts

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2007/jul/21/architecture


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

How Great Architecture Firms Ruin Everything

By Dave Sharp, ~4.5 min read.

Everett Rogers, a communications expert, wrote the bible on product adoption in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. In it, he explained the five stages an innovation goes through on its journey to becoming a household name:

  1. Innovators

  2. Early Adopters

  3. Early Majority

  4. Late majority

  5. Laggards

An idea begins with a small, forward-thinking group, then it slowly goes mainstream via four main elements: the objective value of the innovation, communication channels, time and a social system.


In short: Do good work. Talk about your work. Wait. Meet new people.

That is super simple right? However, I understand what it's like to be an ambitious, controlling person who refuses to think long-term or leave things to chance; who makes simple things complicated just to feel challenged and productive rather than redundant and bored. In the first two years of my business, I threw out my business model on a weekly basis. My positioning was whatever I thought people wanted to pay for. I was different for every client. I got to the stage where if I was in a meeting and noticed a client perk up at the idea of a certain service, I'd rush home and rebuild my website. One week I was a Facebook ad agency. Then a copywriting agency. Then an Instagram specialist. I was like a van driving around town with a pile of magnetic signs in the back, slapping up something new every time. When that became a confusing mess, I tried putting up all of the signs at once - "I do everything for everyone."

Eventually, I decided the paint the damn van.

I learnt that you really just need to choose a thing and focus.

Stick to it.

The leap from early adopters to the early majority, from non-architects to the general public, is the part where we all get stuck. It's known as "crossing the chasm". In hindsight, I can see that my crappy positioning was just an attempt to avoid the truth: I was scared of the leap from my own personal network to the rest of the industry.

I was scared of the chasm.

It's an intimidating name because it's where most firms lose momentum and fail. It's the dangerous stage plenty of my clients are at when they seek out my consulting services. They've survived through the first few years of their firm's life just by tapping their personal network. Their small, forward-thinking, highly innovative projects have started a wildfire in the industry–but their work is still misunderstood or ignored by the mainstream, the non-architect.

The level of hype around their firm and their monthly invoices are worlds apart. When they approach me to work on their marketing, there's a dead giveaway that they're panicking at the edge of the chasm. "We've been doing great, as you know, with residential clients - but we want to start breaking into larger public and commercial..." I respond: "Okay, so who are you interested in targeting in the public and commercial space?"

They reply: "... forward-thinking, innovative decision-makers."

Notice what happened there? Facing the chasm, the moment where their work is just about to reach the non-architect, the early-majority–they turn back and look for safe harbour amongst the innovators. Moreover, terrified of repetition, they want to do something totally different to the thing that got them where they are today.

They approach the chasm by jettisoning their positioning, audience, and portfolio that they have been building consistently since the day they decided to start their own firm. They're busy scraping the paint off the side of their van just when they need to be painting on a fresh coat. Don't throw out the game-plan when you're winning at half time. Crossing the chasm is about refining your positioning, saying no to certain opportunities, and ramping up your communications to spread the word.


Why don't creative people stick to the plan?

In any other domain of professional service, an expert will seek out repetition and specialisation. By doing the same sort of thing over and over again, you begin to recognise the patterns, and this intelligence helps you to do a better job for your clients. You develop competency and efficiency. Word begins to spread. Position that intelligence around an appropriately sized niche and your business becomes un-interchangeable and thrive.

So why do creative professionals, and architects in particular, only get excited when they're faced with a brief to do something they've never done before? And more importantly, why do we see that as the bridge that will give us safe passage over the chasm from early adopters to early majority? Survivorship bias reminds us of famous architects who did lots of different things and somehow rose to the top. Frank Gehry renovated his house, then did the Guggenheim, right?

Ignore Frank, and starchitects like him. They're the exception that proves the rule. You don't hear about the thousands of firms who slowly went out of business because they couldn't focus. Effective professionals, the ones who make the most money and have the biggest impact, carve out a groove and perfect what they do. Effective professionals do good work, talk about it, wait, meet new people and repeat.

It's really that simple.


Dave Sharp is our first regular contributor and the founder of Vanity Projects, a social media marketing agency for entrepreneurial architecture firms. Dave’s Master's degree in architecture and work in small practices in Australia and Japan have helped him to gain a broad perspective on the architecture industry that allows him to see trends and opportunities that most people don’t and help his clients benefit from it.

If you have questions about this article, or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a fiend, or reach us at hello@rvltr.studio.


Truth Is Golden ep. 206 - Loosen Up A Little, with Paul Petrunia

In episode 206, the third instalment in our series on LA creatives, Paul Petrunia talked about his upbringing in the Canadian prairies, how Arthur Erickson influenced him to be an architect, his ill-fated career as a teen ballet dancer and his cultural confusion as an expat torn between American and Canadian cultures. Going back to the early Internet days when he started a dot-com business in the middle of the lake late 90's boom to today and his life as the man behind the popular Architecture website archinect.com.

About the podcast: The intent behind our podcast series "Truth Is Golden" is to look at renowned creatives and their work with a critical eye. We aim to ask deep questions in order to peel back the layers of marketing, clever one-liners and sexy branding. We want to show the world what it truly takes for genuinely creative forces to find their own voice build a career on what is very often nothing more than a drive to do things differently. We want to hear about the successes, the failures, the inspirational stories and the lessons gleaned from all of it. We want the truth, so that we can inspire other people to fulfill their own creative aspirations and in the process contribute to making the world a better place.

Credits:
Post-Production: Ryan Aktari
Music credit: Bounce Trio, Star Animal, 2014.
Organ & Keys : Matthieu Marthouret
Ténor Sax : Toine Thys
Drums : Gautier Garrigue
Composed by Toine Thys (copyrights SABAM).

Buy it on BandCamp :
weseemusicstore.bandcamp.com/album/smal…big-rivers

More info and music here :
www.youtube.com/user/weseemusic
www.matthieumarthouret.com
www.facebook.com/MatthieuMarthouret.Music/

A guide to getting published for architects, part II - Corollary.

~4 minute read.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to get published as an architect. Here’s a follow-up article.

What is the purpose of getting my projects published?

As a designer, you constantly need to generate new work, it’s the reality of running a design business. If you have more work than you can handle, congratulations! You may want to skip the rest of this article, unless you think there is an opportunity to increase the caliber of the work you’re doing, also known as going beyond doing bread and butter work and moving into the aspirational work territory. If that is your case, don’t leave just yet!


For everyone still reading, getting your work published is likely to be one of the few instrumental ways for you to feed that new client pipeline and keep your office busy, depending on the type work you currently do, the type of work you want to do and the type of clients you have.


But it is for me?

I’m glad you asked. The following questions will help you answer that question:

  • Do you have enough work?

  • Do you work with the type of clients that you enjoy and want to be working with?

  • Do you mostly do the type of work that you enjoy and want to be doing?

  • Are your employees happy, engaged and interested in the work you do?

  • Are you personally happy, engaged and interested in the work you do?

  • Is your business healthy and profitable?

  • Do you have a good work/life balance?

  • Have you built a brand that you are proud of?

  • Is your work of a publishing-worthy caliber?

If you’ve answered yes to all this you can skip the rest. If you’ve answered no to any of these questions, read on, publishing may help you reaching your business goals.

I really want to get published! How do I go about this?

I an ideal world, this is where you would seek help from a professional (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) to assess your current situation and put together a plan of action tailored to your needs. However, I’m going to lay out a brief DYI checklist of what you should consider when publishing your projects:

  1. Review and assess the company culture and what makes you unique in the marketplace.

  2. Think long and hard about the audience you’re trying to reach (aka your ideal clients) and what they are likely to read.

  3. Based on your findings in 1 and 2, think about the story angles you can take to talk about, aspects of your project that would appeal to your clientele and speak truthfully to what your company stands for.

  4. Taking into consideration all of the above, think of magazines that would be a good fit for each project. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!

  5. Submit to publications (how to do so is a topic for future article).

  6. Relentlessly follow-up.

On general interest magazines and trade publications.

There are two type of publications out there: general interest publications, like newspapers, design magazines and shelter magazines on one side and trade-specific magazines on the other.

While they both are beneficial to architects and designers, they don’t serve the same purpose. You want to consider each of them based the goals that you should have set out in your media relations strategy. General-interest publications are very useful to get in front of potential clients (if, for example, residential design is one of your areas of expertise) and to build a public reputation. Trade magazines are useful to get in front of corporate clients as well as building a reputation within your industry and creating opportunities to collaborate with other professionals within your field.

On how to reach out to publications

There are a few DYI platforms out there that can help you achieve these goals simply and cost effectively, which may be a good option for you. If you’re too busy and have the budget to hire a communications professional, it is a great idea, if only for the fact that they can look at your body of work critically and use their expertise to make the best recommendations for you. Look for someone who will take the time to diagnose before they prescribe. Having a list of contacts in the publishing industry certainly helps too, but the strategic part is the critical piece of that puzzle. A well crafted media relations strategy, along with a few solid story angles that publications can latch on to, is more likely to pique an editor’s curiosity and get you published.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a fiend, or reach him at arnaud@rvltr.studio.

Anatomy Of A Diagnostic Workshop

~9 minute read.

Last week, we introduced the idea of using empathy as a method to help our clients become more effective communicators. This week, we walk you through the process of doing so.

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Empathetic communications IS the process.

In the first step of working with a client, we take them through a diagnostic workshop, where we spend a few hours with them, asking questions and challenging them to think outside the box. This initial engagement allows us to get to know them well quickly and uncover a lot of vital information, such as aspirations, fears and challenges.


The purpose of this short but intense seminar, is not to lead them towards a particular direction but simply to give them the space to express themselves freely. The questions simply help them focus on specific topics and not get sidetracked into irrelevant sidebars. During that process, we ask them about how they perceive themselves to be, their clients, as well as what their goals, successes and challenges are.


We then move on to visioning exercises, where we ask them to take stock of their current situation and then ask them to speak to where they see themselves going in the future, what they think their clients desires, fears and aspirations are as well as well as a subjective audit of their current communications and how effectively they serve the business’ growth.


Syllable Design, a young and dynamic architecture and interior design firm recently did one such workshop with us. The results coming out of this engagement defied everyone’s expectations, including our own. In the course of one afternoon, we sat down with them and walked them through the following exercises:


1. Check-in: introduce yourself to the group

This is a short exercise where participants are asked to introduce themselves on a more personal level. Despite the fact that within a small business, people will know each other well, it’s a great exercise to put everyone on an equal footing. A “no pecking order” rule helps with giving people, especially the ones lower on the totem pole, the permission to speak and voice their opinions, setting the stage for a more egalitarian voicing of opinions later on.


2. Agreement on outcome and expectations

This is where we re-affirm the non-hierarchical structure of the workshop and get everybody to agree to our rules of engagement. As we want to create a space where each opinion can be voiced freely, we ask everyone to agree to leave hierarchy, prejudice and assumptions behind. This is a critical step in creating an atmosphere of trust and openness to get the most out of the participants and maximise the potential of this workshop.


3. Creative ice-breaker

The idea behind this short, yet very fun part of the workshop is to play. Play as a way to get the creative juices flowing and allow people to create quick ideas without letting their own internal censorship device stop them. A favorite our ours is to do a few rounds of passing a randomly picked object around and ask people to mime (no words allowed!) a situation, object or idea for others to guess. Watch what happens after a few rounds of this.


4. Get to know your own business

As the tongue in cheek title of this exercise suggests, it is meant to allow our clients to look at themselves with a fresh set of eyes, the idea being that most business owners - and their teams - are so focused on the day to day running of their business that they tend to forget the big picture. We ask the big questions that bring this mission back to the fore. By doing so we are able to get everybody’s input on where the business has been and where it’s going. We also get a chance to uncover potential disagreements on the methods, the goals or both and make note of them to address later.


5. Clients relationship review + discussion

This is where the real fun begins. We get to talk about the relationships between the business and its clients. We explore the extent of these relationships and how they’re nurtured in service of the business. This allows for the uncovering of long and short-term goals as well as further explore alignment of the team on those issues.


6. Client relationship visioning + breakout

Given what was uncovered in the previous section, it sets the stage for a breakout session where we ask the participants to think like their clients would; and put themselves in their shoes. We ask about desires, fears and aspirations. This is where lively debates occur as to what client might be feeling like when dealing with the business. We wrap up by asking what can be done differently based on those findings arising from the conversations.


7. Communications review

This section is a subjective sweep of all external + internal communications in order to determine the current direction and possibly uncover new ideas. This is a primer for the following section.

8. Communications visioning + breakout

In this exercise, we ask the workshop attendees to envision what they think their stakeholders want to see from them. How to best utilize their business’ “voice” to communicate effectively, with originality and provide their audience with great value.


9. Summary / Wrap-up

At the end of the workshop, we check in with the participants and ask what was learned, what worked well and what could have been better. We believe that since we’re asking of our clients to reveal so much about themselves, it is only fair that we lead by example and have an open conversation about our work. Direct, honest-to-goodness feedback is what fuels us to continuously improve ourselves.


What they got out of it.

In working with Syllable, we helped them uncover a number of unmet needs and blind spots, because they had spent so much time working in their business that they had neglected to take a step back and dedicated the time to work on it.

We were also able to ascertain how aligned all 4 employees (2 founding partners and 2 full-time employees) truly were when it came to the important things regarding the future of the business. It turns out that the alignment in vision and goals for the future was fairly high, but the workshop also enabled us to uncover a few disagreements, not so much on the end goals but rather on means to achieve these goals. Overall, what that meant is that their culture, although still in its infancy, is already showing signs of maturation in the right direction and if nurtured has the potential to become a great company in a few short years.


Knowing about these disagreements is also great, because it brings them front and center for the clients and they have no choice but to acknowledge and deal with them. As for us, it gives us a direction as to where we need to take them next in order to help them iron out the kinks and ensure that their goal of long-term success becomes a reality. They have great ambitions for the near-future after all, so our jobs is to help them get there.

In light of these findings, we came up with a plan to take them to the next level:

  1. Developing and refining their culture by formalizing it in the form of a vision, a mission (or positioning statement) and a set of values, alongside with cultural guidelines aimed at keeping it alive going forward.

  2. Developing a communications strategy and guidelines to unify the culture into coherent and consistent communications, internally and externally. Defining the “voice” of the business along with operational standards to facilitate the delegation of such tasks as the company grows.

  3. We also identified areas of further work such as lead generation, sales process and media relations to be tackled further down the road.


The entire team at Syllable was so inspired by this workshop that they have started taking on some of those issues without our help, which is extremely rewarding for us as we see this as a sign that they felt empowered enough by our revelations that they couldn’t wait to tackle some of those things, such as:

  • Codifying roles and responsibilities, and building accountability structures to support those roles.

  • Formalizing processes and writing SOPs for common and repetitive tasks.

  • Refining and narrowing their area of focus to generate more interesting and profitable work.

  • Developing strategies to strengthen the team collaboration and reinforce their nascent culture.


But I will let Danny Tseng, one of the two partners say it in his own words:

Conclusion:

Syllable was a pleasure to work with, they readily accepted our unusual workshop format and played along with an open mind. The result, beyond what’s been described above, is a sense of clarity and purpose as far as their direction as a business and what it will take for them to get there. The ha-ha moments that we were able to extract out of them during the workshop were unexpected and very promising, lighting a fire in their belly that has kept burning in the few months since our intervention, as we have been keeping tabs on their progress. In practical terms, they have made a myriad little operational changes that have already started making them more effective team members. A more unified and happy workforce makes the business more productive and freed up some time for them continue developing new areas of the company. They are currently putting a lot of thinking into the type of work and clients they want to work with.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can reach him at arnaud@rvltr.studio.

Truth Is Golden Ep. 205 - Less Is More Or Less w/ Dan Brunn

Dan Brunn’s early life in Tel Aviv, subsequent move with his family to Southern California at age 7 and his later nomadic lifestyle as a adult certainly did not make his life easy, yet set the stage for a highly creative and driven character to develop. Someone as uncompromising as he is a kind soul who wants to do good in the world. Dan is a young architect based out of LA creating buildings inspired by the Bauhaus aesthetic he grew up around in Tel Aviv, but also influenced by Southern California modernism. We chatted about what moves him, his very early love for architecture, his influences as well as his love of cars, music, food and travel. Listen in to hear Dan speak about his work and life.