Good Writing is like Good Design

So Why Aren’t More Designers Better at It?

Imagine two architects competing for a project. One brings the client a dazzling model that breaks new ground in form and materiality. The other calmly asks questions, gets to know her client’s needs and desires, then draws a quick sketch that shows she understands and can meet those needs. Who’s more likely to get the job?

Writing is no different. All writers have a message or an agenda, just as all architects have personal style and design preferences. But good writers understand what interests their audience and deliver it, tailoring their own message accordingly. 

Yet too often I see design writers—journalists and architects alike—assume that what interests designers also interests the general reader. That minimalist curtain wall might be exquisitely detailed, but most people won’t care how it was achieved. Likewise, an ingenious program layout means nothing unless a writer can explain how it improves people’s lives.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that design writers should focus on what clients find interesting, either. Perhaps a university wants to celebrate how a new building completes the campus master plan; perhaps they want to promote the gift of a generous donor. But outside the university (and its wealthy benefactor), how many people care?

No, what keeps people interested is what interests them as people. That’s storytelling and emotion, desires met and lives changed.

I saw a perfect example of this recently in New York. The Skyscraper Museum mounted an insightful exhibition about the structural engineering and financial logic behind new residential towers on 57th Street. But what resonated with the public? Shadows. That is, while the 1% enjoy their penthouse views, their buildings will cast pedestrians on the street into darkness. It's a dire, if somewhat exaggerated point, but it reinforces preexisting narratives about income inequality. Architects might be fascinated by structural engineering, but the greater public worries about the ability of ordinary people to live in New York.

Consider a few alternate narratives. Instead of absentee oligarchs casting Central Park into eternal gloom, we could describe how the new, super-slender typology reclaims New York’s reputation for architectural innovation from upstart cities in China and the Middle East. (As one of those parochial, city-obsessed New Yorkers, I can vouch for the appeal of that narrative.) Or, describe how those towers use up the surrounding air rights, thus ensuring that surrounding buildings will remain low—and bring more sunlight to the pedestrians at street level—forever.

There are other examples. Herbert Muschamp’s rave review of the Guggenheim Bilbao resonated with the art and architecture cognoscenti, but what lesson did people take from Gehry’s dazzling form-making? The so-called “Bilbao Effect,” the idea that architecture could renew a city on the skids. The Guggenheim spoke to people’s desire for an urban renaissance. Form, materiality, program—all incidental to the rebound of a city on the skids.

Or consider Lower Manhattan’s Ground Zero. One World Trade Center has taken its lumps from critics and artists alike. But for the public at large, a completed skyscraper sends an unambiguous message: New York—the entire United States, even—is bigger than terrorism.

Therefore, just as good design requires an understanding of the client, good architecture writing—and speaking, and presenting—requires an understanding of the audience. What do they care about, and how can architecture meet them where they are?

It’s easier than you might think. In his marketing how-to guide Winning the Story Wars, author Jonah Sachs draws on the storytelling archetypes of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” to sell products. In short, he argues, consumers like to think of themselves as heroes in their own stories. But every hero needs a mentor—every Luke Skywalker needs an Obi-Wan Kenobi—and that’s where the product comes in: it helps the consumer succeed in her quest for power, love, fame, fortune.

In the case of architecture, the building is the product. The client is on a quest, and their new address will help them get there. But too many architects fall into the trap of describing their work, not telling a story about it.

So when it comes to writing about architecture, write about how it helped people—either the paying client, the building’s users, or the public at large—realize their personal quests. Write about how a new medical center enticed top doctors away from Johns Hopkins. Write about why students’ test scores skyrocketed in a new school. Write about the company that chose to lease offices in this new tower instead of that one. Write about how a new laboratory helped researchers win bigger grants, and about the patients whose lives they touched as a result.

The ability to understand clients is the hallmark of a great designer. Now let’s get that in writing.

Carl Yost helps people communicate about architecture and design, primarily as a communications manager for NBBJ. A New York-based art, architecture and design writer, he has written for the Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Architizer, Forbes, Metropolis and several other publications.

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