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.



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.

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.

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/

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.

A vision for the future of architecture?

~ 4 minutes read

In the countless business-oriented books that one can find, there is a trend in recent years of books discussing the core of a successful enterprise. Heavily rooted in empathy, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, it makes empathetic interpersonal relationships the center of attention. Heck, Entire businesses are created around developing empathy-based company cultures and leadership.

There are many stories of business leaders and creatives who created businesses (and failed many, many times while doing it) that were centered on providing satisfaction to their stakeholders in one form of another. There are books focused on teaching us to be better listeners, claiming that in this culture of telling, listening is a rare skill that can lead to great outcomes when wielded properly.

Over the last few years, while continuously educating myself on the matter, in order to understand empathy better and more importantly, why it has become such an integral part of the business thinking zeitgeist, I integrated some of these lessons in my own work. This led to developing services helping architects to develop better cultures and communication strategies.

What is empathy anyway? The dictionary definition is as follows:

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

It’s when someone tells you the details of a creepy story and you get the heebie-jeebies because you can picture yourself in that predicament. It’s when you become sad because your friend lost a loved one and you remember your own similar experience from a few years ago. It’s when someone tells you about skydiving out a flying plane and you get a rush of adrenaline just imagining what it would feel like.

You may say “OK empathy is great, but what’s your point?” Empathy is important because by gaining a deeper understanding of another’s circumstances helps us understand any given situation better. Combined with the outsider’s perspective, we are now equipped to help others overcome seemingly intractable problems, by having the ability to look past the blinders, yet understand their position at the same time, in other words effectively putting ourselves in their proverbial shoes.

The epiphany

On this journey to learn more about empathy and relationships, I slowly came to the conclusion that the architecture and design industry was in dire need of such help. In the course of my work, I get to interact with many architects and designers and invariably end up looking at their communications and marketing at one point or another. What became painfully evident to me is that there is a trend in the industry for incredibly uniform communications. In other words, architects, by and large, all convey the same message. You can go to any of their websites and you’ll find very similar descriptions of their companies, culture and work.

This lack of distinction in the way firms communicate leads to a general perception that architects are a commodity and therefore interchangeable. While this is also true in many other industries and conversely, one can find designers out there who stand out and buck the trend, the architecture industry is incredibly uniform in that sense. I believe that this is due to a couple of reasons:

  1. Architecture schools don’t teach critical business skills: Marketing, communications, business management, sales and HR among others are painfully absent from architecture curriculums, or an afterthought at best. The heavy emphasis on design and technical knowledge creates amazing designers but largely ill-equipped business leaders.

  2. Architects are generalists: Architects are trained to be generalists and often try to do everything. I think the future of the business lies in hyper-specialization. Instead of competing with a virtually infinite numbers of generalist firms, there is value in picking a niche and becoming the best at that very thing, competing with few or better yet, no firms at all. It may seem scary and limiting, but is in reality liberating because it cuts out a bunch of distracting activities and focuses a firm on one, narrow area of expertise.

Equipped with that knowledge and seeing the opportunity to change the way architects communicate in order to change the public’s perception of the value of architecture (#architecturematters) we are helping clients develop their culture, visual communications and marketing strategy.

Stay tuned for next week’s follow-up article on how we went about doing this.

What do you think stands to be improved in the architectural field?


Timing your visual communications to run a better business

~ 4.5 minutes read

In the typical cycles of business, we are now fully in the 100-day sprint, the roughly 100-day period between now and the holidays where businesses are the most productive. People are coming back refreshed from vacation, kids are back in school and summer is gone, so there is no more excuses to play hooky and go hide at the cottage. Lake water is too cold anyway. That is, until the end of the year, before people take off again for the holidays to go skiing in Gstaad.

In the realm of visual communications and specifically architectural photography, not only we are subject to business cycles as described above, but even more so to seasonal conditions. That translates into a shooting season - without guns -  that extends from roughly May to November, coinciding with vegetation being in a suitable state and the weather being cooperative to allow for good photographs of your buildings and spaces. In that timespan we get all kinds of colours and textures, from the vivid bright greens and flower blooms of spring to the colourful fall season, without forgetting the deep greens of the mature, midsummer vegetation.

When you superimpose the seasons with the traditional business cycles, it looks something like this: post-christmas coma and hibernation from January to May, spring awakening in May-June, Summer slump (a.k.a. Spending summer at the cottage) in July-August and 100-day sprint from September to Christmas time a.k.a. “Shit! I need to wrap up my projects” period.

Photography seasons

Photography seasons

Why should I care?

We are in the last 50 or so days of good, predictable weather and decent vegetation before we are stuck with cold, shitty weather for the following 6 months which makes architectural photography quasi-impossible. Some projects are suitable to be photographed in winter, but these are the exception to the rule. Timing a project with a snowfall is also extremely challenging as winter snow tends to turn into slush in the city after a day or two and believe me when I say you don’t want to shoot in those conditions. If you’re an interior designer you might think “Haha, nice try, but this doesn’t apply to me!” as you’re not subject to weather.

While you’d be correct in thinking so from a technical and logistical perspective, let’s not forget the dreaded award season, from post-christmas to the early summer, where most award submissions are due. Marketing professionals spend most of that time working on submissions, on top of the million other things they usually have to do like managing social media, RFPs, etc. Based on my experience, most of them do not want to deal with managing photoshoots on top of that.

Ok, so all of this is self-serving, but how does it apply to me?

I’m glad you asked. Well, taking into consideration all of the above, what that means to you, is that by and large, you are left with 60 days (90 for interior design projects) to plan, execute and complete your photography projects before everyone in your office switches to holiday mode and slows down to a crawl for about a month, spending more time thinking about that vacation in Gstaad or the dreaded presents they need to get for their incredibly hard to please in-laws.

Considering that it takes easily 3-6 weeks to plan, prepare for and execute a shoot, there isn’t a lot of time left to get that accomplished. With professional pictures in hand before the the season’s end, you will be able to do the following:

  • Promote your latest 2018 projects to prospects with the goal to sign new clients, and keep feeding new prospects in your pipeline.

  • Have your images ready for your winter slump, when your marketing people will want to have them handy for the 10 million + 2019 award submissions they’re going to prepare. Believe you me, they will thank you.

  • Wrap up the current year with completed projects, which should bring a sense of accomplishment to your practice and boost morale before the seasonal affective disorder sets in. Happy employees = productive employees.

  • Take advantage of the winter slump to plan and prepare your 2019 press submissions and scour the newest editorial calendars, in order to time your media relations accordingly and increase your chances of being published, not to mention that beautiful photographs will help you in the matter.

All of the above, accomplishes one thing: it makes your practice more efficient and more effective on many fronts. Which results in less time spent scrambling to get something done at the last minute, more time to do other important business things (or more time for yourself) as well as a long-term increase in your profitability because you now run a lean, mean business development machine.

After all, who wouldn’t like more time and increased profits?

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to book your fall 2018 shoot, you can reach us at hello@rvltr.studio.



Vetting Clients = Power

~ 6 minute read

It’s just like dating.

Unlike many other professional service providers, architects sell services that routinely tie them to a client for multi-year projects, often taking one, two or even more years from kick-off to occupancy. Such long term relationships eventually move past the honeymoon phase to settle into a routine, a more casual association where each party gets to know the other more intimately. Much like a romantic relationship, the qualities, quirks and annoying behaviour traits of the other naturally rise to the surface, as people get more comfortable with one another.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about this, but it does beg the question: How do we ensure that one chooses the right kind of clients? Much like one should probably not get married on a whim, designers ought to spend time ensuring that the clients they take on are a good fit, both from a service provider perspective, as well as on a personal level, as the two eventually become intertwined as the relationship evolves.

 

A quick sidebar on residential architecture.

I’ve personally heard many an architect say that their relationships with residential clients are way closer to a friendship than strictly a business exchange, because in order to design a suitably customized space, the architect has to know their client intimately on, or even beyond the level that a close friend or a family member would. Boundaries become blurred and the relationship becomes a hybrid that can at times lead to awkward situations, because the architect is both a friend and a service professional, a confidant as well as accountable for the work they do.

While the architect has the moral obligation to behave professionally and be on the ball when it comes to dealing with issues, working with carefully selected clients through a vetting process ensures that, when the shit hits the proverbial fan, there is enough trust and confidence at on personal level to maintain a good relationship. A poorly-suited client would be more likely to use problems as an excuse to drag the relationship into adversarial territory, due to lack of rapport and trust. Something to be avoided at any cost.

 

How does vetting work?

A few weeks ago, we looked at what to do when dealing with unreasonable clients, and briefly touched on the idea of vetting clients. Many professionals are all too willing to subject themselves to client interviews, but few do take advantage of the opportunity to flip the interview on its head and interview their prospective clients in return, the prospect of more business being too tempting to risk letting go.

In the sales process, once a fitting prospect has been identified, the first step in establishing the relationship is to demonstrate value of your expertise and quickly win the polite battle for the control and get some face time with your prospect (a topic for another article). The following step is to move on to the the qualifying conversation where prospective clients are interviewed to determine if they’re a good fit. A number of questions need to be answered in order to do so.

 

From objective questions, like:

  • “Do the client’s objectives align with ours?”

  • “Can we confidently deliver on what they’re asking for?”

  • “Do they have a budget and timeline?”

  • “Have the decision makers been identified?”

 

To the more subjective ones, such as:

  • “Would I happily go have a drink and shoot the shit with them?”

  • “Am I able to uncover their deepest fears in order to address them?”

  • “Do I understand their aspirations and can I help them achieve these goals?”

  • “Do we share the same values?”

 

It can be accomplished by spending a bit of time with the prospect, asking a lot of very specific questions aimed at uncovering the needs, fears and aspirations of the prospective client and listening intently to the answers. Letting them answer each question as they see fit. Mastering interviewing clients is a rare skill, but the good news is that it’s something that can be learned through practice. Since this is a qualifying interview, it should be clear to both parties that the intent of the meeting is to determine fit. The next steps being discussed and mutually agreed upon at the conclusion of this discussion.

 

The art of shutting up and listening.

In a previous article, we covered the art of humble inquiry. I personally like to start with very general questions so the prospect can tell me in their own words what they think they are about. Since I am looking to work with people who share similar cultural traits, I usually ask them to tell me what their company culture is like. From there, we move on to goals, aspirations, challenges, successes and failures. Getting these questions answered should paint a pretty accurate picture of what that firm is about.

From there, more aspirational questions can be asked in the form of spontaneous visioning exercises, for example, asking about where they would like to see themselves three years from now. Which will reveal as much about what they aspire to as it will also reveal the gap they have to bridge to get there. This is gold for the rest of the conversation, as now there should be a pretty clear picture of what the clients goals are and from there it can be determined if our services are suited for them.

 

Your gut is right (most of the time).

If there is a good fit, your gut should tell you by now. Conversely, if there is no fit, now is the time to politely say so and make a graceful exit, as it’s a very bad idea to force a relationship where there shouldn’t be one. Like other areas of life, it’s better to accept that we’re not meant to get along with absolutely everyone. With that being said, with a good lead generation process, most of the prospects knocking on the door should be somewhat pre-qualified at the very least interested in what is on offer. If that’s not the case, then it’s time to review your lead generation strategy to find out where the breakdown in communications is.

 

Where to go from there?

Now is the time to co-define the next steps. A fit has been established and the last thing that should happen is to leave the prospect without pre-determined and mutually agreed upon next steps. Depending on where that conversation ended, you should be somewhere between a verbal agreement to proceed and an interest in pursuing the conversation further, but whichever case you find yourself in, the next steps should be crystal clear to both you and the prospect.

I want to conclude with this thought: throughout this vetting process, it is by gently taking control of the conversation that you can lay the foundation for good communications and give prospects a glimpse of what it is like to work with you, simply by acting and being a certain way, which should be congruent with who you are. As an expert in your field you want to create and maintain said expertise and it shows in huge part in the way we interact with one another.

Talk is cheap, actions matter.

 

If you liked this, please share with a friend and let us know your thoughts in the comments!



 

Truth Is Golden Ep. 203 - There Is Something Funny About This

In episode 3 of our second season, I talked to David K. Levine a distinguished academic, political economist and popular author. We talked about his midwestern childhood, how economics can explain a lot of modern society challenges, his transplant life in Europe and how one of the biggest risks he took was a late-career change, taking on subjects he was not an expert in. Listen in to hear more about David and his accomplishments.

How I was inspired by a writer to look at architecture differently.

The State of Architectural Journalism.

I love talking to people in the architecture industry to find out what makes their jobs exciting, learn about their challenges and use that information to try new things. I often do this with journalists and editors and find it fascinating to learn how to think like they do, and it helps me help them to find good stories for their publications.  

When I met with Dave LeBlanc, columnist for the Globe and Mail and well-known for his weekly column, “The Architourist”, I learned a lot about architecture from a non-architect’s perspective. Dave is not a trained journalist, he spent his whole career in radio production and serendipitously fell into writing about architecture a couple of decades ago when asked to produce short radio stories on Toronto architecture. Having been a fan of design and specifically mid-century modern architecture since childhood he jumped at the opportunity, which eventually led him to become a weekly columnist at the Globe.

Dave is as much interested in stories as I am and, similarly, thinks architectural narratives in their current state are a bit dry and factual, too often forgetting to speak about the human stories unfolding within the built environment, in favor of the building as an object, replete with facts, statistics and bombastic declarations, which are no-more than transparent, ego-inflating statements that makes the designers feel good, but leave the people who are looking to connect with architecture on a deeper level a bit hungry for a relatable story.

 

How Kahn and Mies brought this home.

When I think about some the best and most memorable buildings I've ever had the chance to visit and get to know intimately, like Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe and the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the spiritual experiences that I've had in those space had very little to do with the architecture itself, but rather with my experience of the space, specifically through the way natural light was managed and let into the building in very specific and deliberate ways.

I didn't care that much that the building was made of metal, concrete or wood but rather that these materials provided me with an phenomenal sensory experience and therefore deeply influenced me. The Kimbell with its silvery natural light flooding from the slits at the top of each vaulted ceiling, grazing the galleries’ surfaces and revealing the textures and warmth of the wood and concrete combination. Crown Hall through the enormous amount of natural light flooding the space from all sides, and reflecting the seasons and time of day, while blocking a direct views on the outside, the black steel curtain walls, terrazzo floors and wooden partition walls taking a back seat to that experience.

I believe this is what Leblanc is trying to convey in his weekly column: how architecture is a machine for sensory experience, to paraphrase Le Corbusier. Perhaps that's what his "Machine for living " idea meant? After all, what is life if nothing but a succession of sensory experiences?
 

More experiential narratives, less verbosity.

The lesson to retain from this, is that aside from other designers and self-proclaimed design nerds, very few people care about who designed a given building, how much of a celebrity the designers or how expensive the finishes are, because these facts are completely irrelevant to the physical experience of a space. There is a reason the best writers and magazines in the design world are more interested in how the architecture is lived in and like to include the users in their stories. That reason is that it makes for quality content that will capture a reader’s attention. It is an absolute necessity that the story you tell speaks to your audience, or you run the risk of losing their interest.

There is no shortcut for getting to know your audience. You have to spend time engaging with them. It helps greatly to be able to show a vulnerable side of yourself that they may not know about. Digital and social media allows for unprecedented levels of access to your audience at a very low cost, making it easy to be in dialogue with the people who are interested in your work.

Spending the time to craft compelling narratives that speak to the way your building is lived in is the way to go. I know it’s tempting to wax lyrical about the technical achievements of your project, but if they do not directly contribute to the human, dare I say emotional, experience of your space, they can be ignored. Instead the focus should be put on what it feels like to experience your space from a user perspective.

In these days of instant gratification and casual consumption, most people will probably not pay attention to what you are putting out. However the level of care that you put into it will be noticed by the people who relate to what you have to offer. This minority of ardent supporters will go to bat for you. Once you have a few of those, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

A community of followers, the kind of people who will fervently support you and promote you because they believe in your vision, cannot be bought. It is primarily based on trust and that trust has to be earned. There are no shortcuts.

What can you do today to build such a following?

If you liked this, share with a friend and let us know in the comments!

Kicking Fear In The Nuts

Writing these articles for you my dear readers, is always a challenge.

“Will they like what I have to say?”

”Does it even make sense?”

“Will I look stupid?”

“Is it a bad idea?”

“Will it fail?”

“Is there value in it?”

Those are some of the questions that I constantly have to grapple with, in an effort to fight off my second-guessing self, that little voice that always finds very rational, if not “beneficial”, reasons to not do something. I’ve learned from experience that this gut feeling, this fear, is my brain pulling convincing tricks on me to keep me inside the proverbial comfort zone.

I also know that coming out of that comfort zone is where the most learning and growth happens. I’ve seen it time and time again, in me and others. I know people who purposely push themselves past every one of their fear as an exercise in testing their boundaries. In return, they get so much more than they bargained for.

Historically Influential figures like the Eames and Bukowski, among many others, overcame their fear of failure on a daily basis which in turn shaped them as the masters of their respective fields we know today.

The Eames invited and welcomed failure. They saw it as a way to quickly learn and come to an optimal solution, the result of many brains, not just their own, tackling a problem, failure being the mechanism enabling them to shed the bad ideas and only keep the good ones, slowly arriving at a solution that while maynot have been perfect, it had been optimized through an iterative process. It’s been said that new hires in their office would be tasked with work they had no expertise in, like a graphic designer being asked to think up a building concept. It was a clever way to send a powerful message to their employees: don’t let fear of failure stop you.

Bukowski wrote for over 25 years before he got his first novel published, at age 50. An epic failure by any conventional standards, but he didn’t write to fulfill someone else’s definition of a successful writer. He wrote because he had an insatiable urge to create and overcame his fear of not making it by not worrying about the outcome, he just wanted to write. He was eventually able to make a living as a writer. Ironically, the first two thirds of his life before his late career as a full-time writer are in large part what made him such a compelling writer. Indeed his semi-autobiographical novels were heavily inspired by his own life and we wouldn’t have his amazing body of work to enjoy if it weren’t for him grinding for 25+ years relentlessly sending out manuscripts to publishers.

Fear keeps us from doing what the Eames, Bukowski and countless others have done before. Fear of failure, fear of not being able to pay the bills, fear of not looking good, fear of disapproving opinions and the countless other excuses that our cunning little brains cook up to keep us safe. The problem is that this safe zone is antithetical to growth, learning and accomplishing something greater than ourselves.

The key to overcoming fear and become comfortable with being uncomfortable is to find what moves you. Call it a purpose or a mission. With a clear mission, it becomes a lot easier to push past fear and be uncomfortable, in service of something greater than ourselves. With strong values and a clear goal, the path lays itself down and all it takes is actually doing the hard work to make it happen. Hard work being the operative word. In the course of this work, failure is inevitable, embrace it and make it a central part of your learning.

The most successfully durable companies in the world, are those with an undeniable sense of purpose and a clear mission (Zappos and Whole Foods are great examples of this) and if you look into their history, their wake is littered with personal and professional failures. But it is their seeking and embracing failure as well as their ability to learn from it in order to better themselves that makes them great today.

Don’t wait for permission to do something, nobody will ever give it to you. Get out there and try new things. If it fails, you’ll learn more from failure than you will from success. It’s time to boldly get out there and kick fear in the nuts!

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The 10 Commandments of Design Culture, Strategy and Communications - Our Manifesto

Two kinds of architects populate this universe: those who understand culture and communications as a critical part of running their practice and those who don’t.

Let’s do a little mental exercise and picture two architects, both mid-career, with very similar experience and talent:

Architect numero uno is deeply invested in the success of her business and although her talent has gotten her some attention, she understands that a prosperous company needs much more than sheer artistic genius. She invests equally in the success of her stakeholders: employees, client and suppliers. As a result, she gets work that’s profitable, that she’s passionate about and challenging but delightful clients, which often become her friends. Her employees are happy and invested in their work and her suppliers are very friendly and accommodating.

Architect numéro deux believes that his great talent alone will bring him all the work he needs to be successful. Alas, his reality is different and his business has a high turnover rate, his clients are often pissed off at his lack of professionalism and his suppliers have stopped any largesse after his nth unpaid bill. Yes, he got his big break when talent alone got him his first commission, but it hasn’t gotten any better since and he’s been riding that wave for 20 years. The cognitive dissonance between his idea of a successful business and his reality is staggering and sadly, doesn’t realize that business as usual will eventually, well, put him out of business.

As an architect, your success largely rests on your ability to create, develop and foster a purposeful culture that promotes value-based decision making and business practices as well as open and clear communications. It really boils down to the way the information flows between designers, clients, employees and suppliers. It starts with the way you communicate inside your company, with employees and suppliers, as well as outside, with clients and prospects.

Since we care greatly about your success and that of the industry, here are the 10 commandments of design culture, strategy and communications. If you’re practicing in this field, they will help you identify which areas you may need to work on and act as a guidepost to help you make the important decisions for your business:

The 10 commandments:

  1. Be purposeful and mission-driven: A clear purpose and mission will serve as the foundation of every decision made inside your business.

  2. Nail your values on your door: Being vocal about what you stand for serves as an accountability tool internally and externally. When the going gets tough, it serves as a reminder to not cut corners.

  3. Strive to speak human: Speak to your stakeholders in their own language. To them, archispeak is gobbledygook and serves no purpose. Lose it.

  4. Do your best to empathize and understand: Your ability to empathize with your stakeholders, will defuse many tense situations and help you make the decisions that serve everybody’s best interest. Asking the right question is often all it takes to solve an intractable problem.

  5. Be strategic: Before you start solving problems, it is crucial to reframe, challenge assumptions and get to the bottom of the issue. Only then a suitable strategy will emerge.

  6. Do not allow the commodification of your craft: Only by using different behaviours, language and strategy from everybody else, you will distinguish yourself, be valued for your expertise and not be treated like a dispensable commodity.

  7. Treat every stakeholder the way you want to be treated: Your wise grandmother probably reminded you of that one all the time. Trust her wisdom.

  8. Be honest and truthful: Sometimes honesty is hard to deliver, but it will serve your relationships in the long term and build trust. If you’re honest with yourself, people will be honest with you.

  9. Acknowledge, own and learn from your failures: We all fuck-up from time to time. Accepting failure as part of the learning process is fundamental. If you’re unsure of what the lesson is, ask for help.

  10. Experiment with new ideas: There is more than one way to skin a cat. Give yourself room to experiment and play in order to create a culture of openness and innovation. We call it kicking fear in the nuts.

Bonus commandment: When in doubt, less is more.

Don’t do it alone! It’s okay to ask for help when you’re stuck. Getting help will help you focus on what you should be doing most of the time: successfully running your business.

It’s time to kick fear in the nuts and get crackin’!

You're not you when you're a commodity.

Last week, we took a look at well-know advertisers and some of their campaigns, as well what makes great advertising.

In this second instalment, we take a look at how creativity is here to save the day, how empathy can help us gain a deeper understanding of our audiences and ourselves as well as the value of risk-taking in a safety-obsessed world.

 

Creativity is only way to stand out

There are many examples of ads out there that were able to stand out and be remembered many years after they were released. If not all of them, the huge majority are remembered because they were conceived in contrast with other, more conventional ads. It’s that contrast with the conventions that made them stand out.

Creativity can take many forms, but humor is the widely considered to be the fastest way to break the mold and send a message that company X isn’t like companies A,B,C and D. It takes courage because as humans, we generally do not like to stand out and want to blend in, to relate. A company with the confidence to stand out, is a company that knows itself well enough to know what makes them unique and not be afraid to communicate that message in their adverts.

 

Understanding of one’s audience is the only way to truly connect.

The risks taken in setting oneself on the path to stand out from one’s competitors can be mitigated by researching one's audience and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are. You need to learn about them, their fears and their aspirations. By doing so, you will gain two things: first, a direct path to forming an emotional connection with them and second, the ability to cut through the noise and send a message that they will instantly relate to.

 

Understanding oneself

Similarly, companies have to spend time understanding themselves and do their homework reflecting on what makes them unique, as well as combine that knowledge with that gained of studying their audience. Finding a purpose is a great place to start. A lot of companies out there have a default purpose that is uninspiring. It is necessary to dig down to what the aspirations of the business are. Every great company has clear and concise purpose and is very clear on what that is.

Armed with the tools of empathetic understanding of itself as well as its audience, any business can set itself on the path to stand out.

 

But I'm afraid of taking risks!

Setting oneself apart is taking a risk, no question about this. There are many examples out there of companies that alienated their audience because their messaging veered too far from what people were accustomed to. However, armed with the right tools, solid knowledge about itself and its audience, a business should be able to find a way to both stand out and not alienate the people it caters to.

Ultimately, it comes down to this choice: either one is willing to take risks and the potential reward is great, or one decides to stick with the status quo with the high probability of commoditization and increased competition, making it harder to run a successful business. Do you want to be Old Spice or Charmin?

It is also important to remember, and O'Reilly explains that in detail in his book, that the large majority of companies who have taken a leap of faith and changed their messaging for the better have seen tremendous returns. Case in point: Snickers with their ongoing "You're not you when you're hungry" campaign has seen their global sales in the first year of running the campaign increase by 15.9%

What are examples of businesses you’ve seen taking similar risks and get results? Comment below to share your thoughts!