MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Why can't the world's best architects build better web sites?

(sorry, do not have original credit) I've been spending time lately in the development space of entrepreneurs for the purposes of designing spaces for entrepreneurs, and I am learning. A central ritual of entrepreneurial life is the pitch to venture capitalists. A central discipline of the pitch is its conciseness of form, its brevity in delivery, its formula for content, its cadence, its medium, its goal.

This essential crispness of discipline is reinforced over and over. The VC's motivation to commit millions of dollars of investment is tied to a handful of PowerPoint slides and no more than 15 to 18 minutes of clear accessible language in presentation and conversation.

I reflect on this because of the contrast it has with the performance in my core practice – architecture and design. The connection arises because recently Fast Company gave voice to Alissa Walker who offered an appropriately stinging commentary on the design of the web sites of leading architects. Web sites and pitches are not directly aligned, but they relate here because architects' web sites are part of a culture of presentation that evokes sharp reactions from those outside of the profession who see something that does not make sense to them.

And does it make sense for architects, themselves, anymore?

I went to a lecture last night (these are always, actually, portfolio presentations)  by a very well-known architect. Organized around a small number of key themes, she presented mostly what we call "work on the boards." These were projects well advanced in design, but not yet constructed.

Among the projects she presented was work done for the federal government. "As you know," she said, "the GSA's Design Excellence projects require you to develop 3 schemes. We gave names to these schemes – Z, T and I."

Encapsulated in that sentence are several aspects of the culture and practice of the profession that characterize architectural presentations and may be contributing factors to the enormous frustration people feel with architects' web sites.

First, by way of background, architects are chosen on the basis of "qualifications" and, in the parlance of most clients, this means "experience" and experience means the display of projects that are like the project contemplated by the client. Rarely is there an interest in the chance luck of a great piece of architecture coming out of a start-up or otherwise inexperienced firm.

In a project, despite months of extended conversations between architects and their clients, architects are compelled, typically, to present not one big idea but three. This practice comes both from the insecurity of the client and the insecurity of the architect, and may also be a tactic to attempt to move the client from a preconceived concept to one that the architect prefers or recommends as better for whatever reasons.

Architects are also notorious users of jargon, mostly from the domains of academic criticism and usually obscure and inaccessible. Even in the case I cited above, the selection of very simple letter designations is a layered abstraction. The letters relate to the plan form of the building concepts (Z-shaped, etc.). This, of course, separates form from function, and separates the architect's language of shape from the client's language of purpose, production and performance.

I expect that architects' web sites are an extension of all of this. For a diverse practice, the necessity to present a large number of projects is a way of potentially participating in a client selection lottery, of sorts, assuring that client X may find at least one project that satisfies the qualifications checklist. Verbal jargon may very well be a way to suspend the conversation, in a way, so that the precision of words does not imply or incur exclusion. Flash animation is participation in a domain of presentation and technology as a way of claiming currency and legitimacy and, perhaps, also the continuation of the practice of presenting form before content.

After the collapse of the economy, and of the opportunity to build, I realized that almost every project opportunity I might have could only become real by treating a project like a business plan, like an entrepreneur's pitch. Every move to access and utilize capital by the project had to be linked to a performance result, an impact on the organization or the business that resonated well beyond the building itself. My client became, in essence, my client's customers.

Opportunities arise now not from the presentation of qualifications validated by a portfolio of past work, but through a concise conversation about how place and space will measurably enhance the business or transform the organization. The design solution is less these days the form that emerges after the extended development of a program of requirements, but the fresh idea presented at the first meeting with the client that demonstrates a well-developed understanding of the challenges and opportunities in their domain of operation and the factors that will move them to differential success.

I expect that this new form of practice will begin to reshape the way that architects present themselves – in lectures, presentations, and web sites. (And gives me my own homework, here!)

As part of the mashup of news and ideas that occurs in my daily dawn review of RSS feeds, there was coincidentally, in addition to the Fast Company article, a link to this TED Talks video of David Rose's advice on the entrepreneurial pitch.

Architects, could you imagine a client interview guided by this advice? Clients, if VC's will make a commitment of millions on the basis of these guidelines, why not you in your projects? [ted id=353]

The superior power of approximation

approximation_1798_001 I’ve been interested, tangentially, for a while with the rapidly developing discipline of data visualization. I think my interest has been piqued mostly by the cleverness and beauty of the graphics that are generated to express what matters in a mountain of data.

There are so many variants on the form, and more developing daily. I have seen samples that are just great graphics in the Edward Tufte discipline, great interactive and interactively dynamic models, data-based furniture, and even architecture. All of them provide enough fascination to not only get interested in what is represented, but also to dig into the discipline and to become immersed in the art.

As my interest increased, I also realized that I was beginning to learn new things. And as I reviewed these graphic representations, I began to inform my own business discipline, motivate my own actions, and use data forms more in my work with my clients.

But what was most interesting was the feeling my own actions and those of my clients accelerating as a result of the visualizations. That is, the representation of an idea, with the implications of data behind it, engaged discussion, built confidence, and moved action. Once again, the visualization was the motivator, not the data behind it. Sorry, one more time—the visual representation of data, even in the absence of specific data, was a powerful motivator of action in cases where conventional data representations, or no data, clogged the flow of decisions and action before.

I do not mean to imply in this a lack of discipline, a misrepresentation, a telling of untruths, disrespect for data, or lack of professionalism. Every time I approach a subject with a diagrammatic representation of “data,” I am doing it with care, transparency, and a deep interest in the intelligence that provides the insight that generates innovation.

But I am finding that, perhaps in the “Blink” sense, I know enough data to represent it without a table, spreadsheet or database behind it. I find that my clients are apparently seeking a way to see things in a different light, and a clever visually approximate representation of data that we mutually sense and understand is what is valuable to them.

In most cases, the visual representation of an approximation of relative values is the device that moves the team to action. In one recent meeting over very critical market strategy, I saw staff members feverishly paging through data binders while their leadership, discussing very simple diagrams I had prepared based on assumptions, were making decisions and selecting options to take to their board.

It appears that the most important thing in these tough times is to overcome inertia and to get moving. Once in motion, we can all correct our path by further investigation and analysis. Less may be more now, and an approximate visualization of an idea can inform strategy in the most powerful ways.

Postscript 3/22/9: a couple of related ideas?

To dig each other out of the current economic morass, a fundamental integration of the arts and business worlds is urgently needed.

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