Build it, and they won’t come

Aug 21, 2012
  • Article by Inger Mewburn
  • Designer

This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure
Images courtesy

One of the greatest revolutions in human communications is underway: a plethora of free, simple-to-use software that enables anyone vaguely literate to make a website and promote their work all over the world. Yet it seems that architects have failed to grasp the moment and leverage it to their advantage. Most architect websites are, not to put too fine a point on it, terrible.

Take the one I’m looking at right now. On the front page is a blurry image. Maybe it’s a building facade; it’s hard to tell when it’s washed in an eye-popping shade of yellow. There is some text here and there but it’s white, which on a yellow background is terribly difficult to read. I click on a word at random and find myself on a page filled with tiny pictures. It takes over 30 seconds to load, which in internet time feels like an eternity. None of the pictures of buildings have labels describing what they are. Eventually I work out that if I click on the tiny arrow on the bottom left corner of an image some text will obligingly pop into view. My browser immediately warns me that this might be a malicious script and the whole website pauses for a moment, as if considering its options.

Let’s imagine for a moment the firm whose website I was attempting to view designed buildings like it does its website. For one thing I would have a hell of time finding the front door. After feeling my way all over the facade I would eventually squeeze through an unmarked entry, only half my height. Once inside I’d find myself in a maze of unmarked corridors. There would be no reception desk, only endless, Escher-like staircases, twisting into space. Doubtless I’d find it interesting for a time but ultimately it would become exhausting and I would be searching desperately for an exit.

On Twitter I ask if anyone can point me to architects doing interesting things with their websites. My network responds with a couple of leads. One looks promising, a small, boutique practice doing worthy work with ‘local art collectives’, although most of the images are of the conceptual, never-built variety. The website is design on a shoestring, clearly out of the box with some custom cascading style sheets, but I’m not judging. At least it works. After I spend a bit of time rummaging around, however, I find myself again getting frustrated. Here I am not put off by tiresomely clever graphics but tiresomely clever text.

The language on this site has not progressed from the tediously over-wrought text masquerading as communication on final-year student projects. The word ‘form’ appears a lot, as does ‘territories’ and, for no discernable reason, ‘parametric’. I have three architecture degrees including a PhD (which, if nothing else, should make me an expert in deciphering unreadable designer text) yet I can’t understand it. I find myself longing for simple verbs.

What about the clients?
That’s one voice I never heard from on any of the websites I visited while researching this article. The only voice is architects – talking to other architects. It’s Marketing 101, or so I’ve read, that the very best way to rustle up business is to get other people to do it for you. If you believe the cognitive scientists, we are wired to believe in the personal and emotional over the cogently argued and rational.

A well-pitched customer testimonial builds trust and confidence in your business. It’s better if the voice speaking is not you, telling the world about your interesting experiments in ‘parametric’ form, but a person who has lived inside it for a year – and loves it.

Lived experience has authenticity. Just telling other people how great you are does not. Consider your average house build or renovation. Every single one I have been involved with, professionally and personally, has had moments of high drama and comedy. That’s why the UK series Grand Designs is such gripping – and popular – television, precisely because it brings emotions into view. By showcasing the hopes, fears, fights and screw-ups, the show brings the sheer – well, humanness – of the architectural endeavour into view. The very humanness missing from architects’ websites.

So what can we do differently?
Connect. Don’t just talk to other architects, talk to everyone. Stop worrying about people ‘stealing’ images from your website – get rid of those silly scripts that make my browser go crazy. While you’re at it, delete all that boring text. Save it for your next presentation to architecture students.

It’s startlingly easy to start getting customer testimonials: just let people comment on or ‘like’ the images on your site. Welcome curious people from Pinterest and Tumblr by making your content easy to share. In fact, why not start ‘micro-blogging’ your own self? I long to peek behind the facade because glamorous creatures like yourself fascinate me. Let me see the real you. Blog or start a Twitter feed and tell me about what happened on site today. And while we’re on the topic of communication – talk back to me! Listen to me and let me learn from you. Don’t just post about your own work and how great it is. That’s tacky and shows profound misunderstanding of the ‘social’ part of social media. You are in a position to teach me about design. Seduce me into trusting you. Invite me into your story and maybe, just maybe, I will pay you to help me make a building. Or I will tell my friends that they should, by reposting you on Facebook.

I cannot avoid my share of blame for the very things I am criticising. For over a decade I taught architecture students to make shiny beautiful images and to write mind-numbingly obtuse text about them. It’s been five years since I taught a design studio and being on the ‘outside’ has helped. If someone was to offer me a job back inside an architecture department I would set about undoing some of the damage I have done. I would try to break down the insular culture that architects are so dangerously comfortable with. I would teach those students to talk about their work in ways that outsiders might understand. Oh, and I would remind them that putting white text on a yellow background is never a good idea.

Really – what were they thinking?

Conversation • 13 comments

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21 Aug 12 at 11:01 AM • David Weir

Nicely done. As with all things now it is about marketing, and architects seem to be notoriously bad at selling their services to prospective clients; irritatingly, home builders are very good at selling their services to our prospective clients…

21 Aug 12 at 2:42 PM • Colleen Hawkes

And it’s all so true. But it’s the ones you can’t even access that get me most. I have flash installed but it is obviously not flash enough. One site I visited the other day wouldn’t let me enter. What is this about? You don’t want me to visit your website? You don’t want to design my next house? No problem, I can go elsewhere.

21 Aug 12 at 2:46 PM • Raquel

I was just having a conversation about this with my partner’s mother who is a landscape architect. She was trying to make her website more engaging for not just others in her industry but to the wider public. At any rate have a look at her website and see whether or not it is successful.

21 Aug 12 at 7:12 PM • jeff karskens

Great to read this sort of honest appraisal. The article was sent to me by a colleague I share studio space with, and it accords with my own thoughts on how I want my consultancy to be promoted. All the sites I looked at seemed to aimed at impressing other architects, not my potential clients at all! fair enough, I’m a designer taking on architectural work, but I know who my clients are; mum’s and dad’s who need information on process and demonstrated experiance. see for yourself.

21 Aug 12 at 8:13 PM • Lindy Osborne

Inger Mewburn, you are brilliant. Thank you for this nugget of wisdom. I will be sharing this article with all my architecture and design students – it completely backs up what we have been teaching in Professional Practice classes for the last few weeks.

22 Aug 12 at 5:34 AM • Andrea Kahn

I couldn’t agree with you more! My consultancy recently worked with dash design to refresh their website. Our goals: jargon-free text, straightforward navigation and an design experience that captures the ethos of the firm. Check it out:

22 Aug 12 at 8:10 AM • Cheetam

get over yourself mate

22 Aug 12 at 8:09 PM • Sharif Abraham

It seems like people are using the comments section to promote their own business. Nice!

24 Aug 12 at 5:28 PM • angela ferguson

great article, well said. i think architects generally have problems connecting with the ‘rest’ of the world – we are highly qualified and intelligent interior designers (NOT decorators!!) and we really struggle to understand most architects. would love your feedback on our website

27 Aug 12 at 12:38 PM • Ben G Morgan

The web is about information, and the ‘selling’ of your brand is still down to knowing (and believing in) what you do.

I’ve worked on many websites in my time, and the difficulty is always deciding ‘why’ you’re doing what you’re doing. We know our story so well, we are more passionate than anyone about our practice/business; but in a way, this makes us the least qualified to tell our story to others.

Before you pick up the phone and hire a web developer, or put time and money into in-house web design, get a friend (someone outside of architecture/design) to ask you this question, and answer them honestly:

Why do you do what you do?

The ‘what’ you do and ‘how’ you do it are secondary; important, but secondary. The ‘why’ is what clients will connect with.

Beyond this fundamental question, stick to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). ‘What’ and ‘How’ should take no more than a paragraph of text and a bullet list each (150 words), accompanied by a portfolio of work that can be easily shared (‘Pinned’, Facebooked, Tweeted, downloaded – these are real, powerful things, don’t ignore them).

WordPress is enough for almost any practice, and it’s perfect for portfolios. So don’t let anyone charge you more than about $5K for a standard WP design and build for a website (and you could easily get away with far less if someone in-house is willing to learn a little basic WordPress).

Inger’s commentary is spot-on. Other architects are rarely your potential clients, and your potential clients aren’t interested in the academia and chest-beating; they want to know what your spaces are like to inhabit and they want to invest in you, in a relationship, not just a transaction.

Thanks for bringing the conversation to the fore Inger and ADR, great article!

27 Aug 12 at 4:50 PM • Mark K

Andrea?! Um. So the dead and non existent links and un workable ‘mouse-overs’ on are deliberate?

20 Sep 12 at 10:03 PM • The Worst of Perth

Dash designs is yet another in the endless examples of bad architect websites. Andrea! It’s terrible! And it doesn’t work properly. What were you thinking putting up the link?

29 Oct 12 at 7:37 PM • Warwick Mihaly

I like the suggestion about client testimonials, though our experience so far has been that we haven’t received work through our website or (extensive) social media presence. Potential clients have rather used these as a way of checking us out after they’ve met us in person. So our website is first and foremost a repository of our work and philosophy, simple and straightforward :

As an aside, I wrote an article about this subject for our blog:

My take-home thoughts: websites should be simple and clear, but need not pander to the lowest common denominator.


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