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.


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}