Communicating design

We live in a world of sound bites and hyperbole, how can designers get their voices heard above the noise....

....much of which is created with the expressed intention of attracting people’s attention, often based on the dubious presumption that he or she who shouts loudest must be the best. Any right-minded person knows this isn’t true, so it is hardly surprising that many of us instinctively shy away from anything but the most basic marketing and promotional activities.

But, in today’s world where clients have quite literally hundreds of options to choose from, and where, for better or worse, competition is assumed to be a good thing, some sort of marketing or self-promotion has become almost mandatory. The problem is, that just because everyone has to do it, it doesn’t become any easier to do; I don’t think I would be remiss in suggesting that most efforts to promote architectural and design practices, fall somewhat short of the mark. A few stand out as being exceptional but in the main, the professions do not instinctively make good marketeers.

Using professionals

Unsurprisingly therefore, many practices have turned to professional marketeers to help them, and there are many incredibly able people out there who are more than happy to help.

However, that doesn’t mean to say that designers can then wash their hands of this slightly grubby topic and simply leave it to others. For starters, the experts that have been charged with delivering a marketing strategy still need to be properly briefed and properly supported, and it is here – at this first hurdle – that many practices fail. But equally, it goes without saying that most clients worth their salt are not interested in dealing with intermediaries – they want to see the whites of the designers’ eyes and understand what working with those designers will be like, before committing.

There are two main aims to marketing and communications. The first being to generate new business – without which any organisation ceases to exist. The second, to build reputation – or brand – in the marketplace: to ensure that the right people with the right projects are attracted to the business, along with the best staff and the most interesting collaborators while, importantly, also helping those who work in the organisation feel pride in what they are doing.

Communication is key

These aims are not mutually exclusive but nor are they the same, and indeed once you start delving into them, they require very different skills and strategies if they are to be delivered successfully – which is why new business development and marketing tend to be viewed as two separate entities.

However, what they do have in common, is that they both involve communicating: often to lay people and outsiders, many of whom know very little about architecture and who will probably not have aspirations that dovetail with your own and, in the case of a potential client, who may find it hard to understand why your particular organisation is more appropriate to their needs than someone else’s.

And when I say communicating, I mean inspiring those people to become emotionally involved, to the point where they want to know more.

I am constantly surprised at how hard this seems to be – especially since the architects and designers trying to do the communicating are generally passionate beyond belief about the subject that they are trying to communicate. The problem is that so often this passion works against them, because they speak as though they are talking to themselves and their colleagues. They contrive sentences that are designed to convince people who will be excited, and won over, by arguments that they themselves would enjoy.

In the real world where survival depends on being able to convince people to trust you to deliver their aspirations, focusing on your own measures of success is, well, unconvincing. Put simply, you need to explain your brilliance in terms that reflect the other person’s agenda – not your own.

Common language

To do this, you need a common language, through which the issue of value can be discussed. And, as it is you that is wanting to do the communicating, it is beholden on you to discover and use the right language. So, a very straightforward piece of advice that I can give you is: put yourself in the shoes of the people with whom you are trying to communicate. Work out what are they fretting about, what things really matter to them.

For example...

Let me finish with an example - let’s take a potential client. What are the things that are likely to top their list of concerns? Maybe… how they can maximise their returns, or create a friendly and safe place for their colleagues to work; or how to appease their political masters, or efficient use of resources, having enough storage space, building their corporate brand, satisfying their end users, looking good in front of their own bosses… the list is probably endless.

And, while they will, of course, be interested to hear how your excellent design solutions can help them achieve these things, they are unlikely to respond with anything other than bemusement when you tell them how “the juxtaposition of the fair-faced concrete finish with the stained wood flooring, bathed in natural light will create a subtle ambience to reflect the materiality of the façade, and integrate the urban fabric through the legibility of the building.” I jest not – I have lost count of the number of times I have had to wade through similar, lovingly crafted sentences on behalf of frustrated and bewildered potential clients.

At the end of the day, if you can understand what it is that is driving your audience, whether they are those potential clients, other consultants, contractors, end users, the press and journalists or even your own colleagues, if you can express your arguments in a language that they can relate to, then you will be successful.

Interestingly, that building with the fair-faced concrete and stained wood flooring that I mentioned just now: it probably was a happy place to work, cost little to run and helped build a great corporate brand for the client – if only the architect had thought to mention it.

This talk was first given by Colander Associates' Director Caroline Cole at The Architecture Club as part of the Smoke and Mirrors panel discussion on 22 July 2020.