Reviewed: “Architecture Firm Websites: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” by Fred A. Bernstein – News – Architectural Record: 

This article in the June issue of Architectural Record gave me déjà vu from its spaghetti Western subtitle on down. Though possibly quite illuminating to its A/E/C industry readership, much of what was in it is well-known to those of us who market for design firms. The article framed the subject in characteristic Record fashion – by centering it on starchitects. But this time, it showcased poorer design choices and a lack of marketing acumen when trying to gussy up – er, I mean “brand” – their lofty visions; You, the reader, may want to design like them and get paid like them, but seriously, you don’t want to market like them, do you?

An article like this one gets written and published not because it illuminates the subject, but because it surfaces the opposing biases of its readers: On one end, veteran architects ask, Can this newfangled aspect of marketing really be so important? Across the spectrum, we the marketers want to know, Is our message sinking in? Are our architects finally getting the message in spite of their reluctance to accept it? One reader’s comment, “Beware of Hack Marketing Consultants” was not surprising.

As you prepare to redesign your long-neglected site, you can now upgrade the infrastructure to support content management, blogging, mobile access, and sharing through social media channels. With Web 2.0, we are in the land of sequels. The conversation about websites is no longer “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”, but rather about what sort of return you can expect. For the moment, the return may only be “A Fistful Of Dollars”.

You may have experienced sticker shock at the cost of keeping your website in style, up to date, relevant, and performing well. But many are realizing now that it’s easy to be penny wise and pound foolish here. You might not like to ask for help, admit your limited knowledge, or spend extravagantly, but you will pay dearly tomorrow for your cheapness yesterday. A website is an investment, not an expense – and it’s worth it! Nevertheless, some commenters seemed to view “getting published” as a way to bypass the expensive foolishness featured in the article.

Before the architectural firm website, there was the printed book of the firm’s complete “kitchen sink” portfolio. Printed on high-glossy paper, two pictures per project per page, and a paragraph in microscopic sans serif font. This was the marketing tool of choice for architecture firms long before they had marketing departments (or, for that matter, savvy marketers). Record’s now-grizzled readers may have not been far enough along in their careers to consider sinking money into such a project, or to question whether it would result directly in a commission. I’m sure that those that did make the investment did not expect that of a coffee table book. They likely hewed blindly to tradition in a time when getting published by a Rizzoli or Yale University Press meant something.

Though relying on “being published” is an accepted, and almost respectable, form of cheapness among architects, it is the province of starchitects with great PR firepower (which, as this article shows, can sometimes backfire). Want a magazine to pay a journalist to write up your piece for you? Fine, but don’t expect a journalist to do a copywriter’s job for you for nothing.

Forget that it’s a “website”. A portfolio is a portfolio, and building and maintaining one is no less a challenge now than it was when you were preparing your first one for your application to architecture school. Regardless of where you deploy it and what tools you use, you still have to breathe life, meaning, and structure into a survey of your work. Your collection of projects and dates tells a story. You must make it tell a story that has significance to the target audience. This means you must know them, too, even though you may be content to guess – and often correctly – about what they want. Web designers are just as prone as the starchitects in the “Record” article to treat a design firm’s website and marketing as a design project first, often sweeping what they don’t understand under a rug.

Just like your subcontractors, whose specialties you defer to, marketers and content developers are valuable resources. So, just as you carefully choose your general contractors, attorneys, and publicists, Avoid The Hacks And Work With The Best!

P.S. Here is an article by friend and composer Isaac Schankler where you can hear Ennio Morricone’s themes from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and A Fistful Of Dollars: