3 Tough Lessons Learned From Architecture Blogging

As my second to last semester of architecture school concludes, I’m forced to look back at my hellish, emotionally charged, and inspiring study of architecture blogging.  When I started this study, I knew I had chosen an ambitious project but I severely underestimated the difficulty of architecture blogging.  I feel passionately about improving the design literacy of the general public and it was hard to reign myself in.

My project was to research the methods scientists use to communicate their research to the general public and hijack those methods for architects.  Nearly every week, I would research one article or book chapter regarding science communication, analyze that information in a blog post targeted at architects, then use my analysis to blog about architecture for a general audience.

I learned about the importance of storytelling, using humor and emotion, the psychological process of engagement, and so much more.  The most impactful lessons, however, didn’t come from any of the textbooks or journal articles but the practice itself.

Lesson 1: Architecture Blogging Takes Guts

When I started, I had intended to get as much exposure as I could in order to gather real feedback from real, general-audience, internet people.  I didn’t really know what to expect as far as numbers went, and I still don’t really know how I stack up to other bloggers, but I think I did pretty well. From the start of my study three months ago until now, there have been 4,104 views of my general audience-oriented blog, Place Exploration. The average post received 346 views.

In the internet world, where Psy’s Gangnam Style music video has received 2.4 BILLION views, my numbers are pretty minuscule.  However, in the real world, to have 346 critics judge your work every week is insane!  On top of being numerous, these critics are usually anonymous and free to rip into people’s work without any repercussions and little empathy.  Luckily, the comments left on my posts have almost entirely been constructive and/or supportive.  One week when I compared postmodernism to punk rock, I received some particularly negative feedback that challenged my determination to continue the study but I took a week off, picked myself up, and used the feedback to refocus my research on an issue I hadn’t previously considered (responsible language use).

Every press of the “submit post” button has made my stomach churn with anxiety.  I commend anyone who has taken on the critics of the internet in order to share their passion.

Lesson 2: Architecture Blogging is Difficult Work

My strange obsession with the popularization of architecture has inspired hundreds of topics for me to research but when I finally found the opportunity to begin research, it was a struggle to design a project that I could balance with my classes and my job as a teaching assistant.  I was sure that posting two measly blog posts every week would be no problem.  Besides, it’s just blogging right? Everyone and their mother blogs so it can’t be that difficult!

Well, if I wasn’t already an over-extended, working graduate student, it may have been a piece of cake but there aren’t too many people who can devote themselves to full-time blogging–there’s never enough time to write something with total satisfaction that it’s complete.  As you can see in the chart below, my blog views (and by implication, my success as a blogger), are inversely related to my level of stress.  Stress does not a good blogger make.

ViewsChart

In addition to the challenge of writing while constantly under stress, an architecture blogger must also be entertaining yet factually correct.  Many science communicators rely on dramatic metaphors and rhetorically charged language to maximize the impact of their message. Unfortunately, metaphors and rhetoric inherently communicate with less than 100% accuracy so they must be used with care.  Finding the right balance of entertainment and education takes an astounding amount of consideration and I doubt I’ve ever achieved the perfect mix.

Lesson 3: Architecture Blogging is Totally Doable, Rewarding, and You Should Try It

I’ve always struggled in my writing courses and school papers have always been my worst enemies.  I’ll admit that part of the reason I decided to study architecture was that my projects would mostly be drawings and not essays.  Looking at my record, you’d think I’d be the worst candidate to start blogging but the truth is that anyone can do it.

Blogging about architecture has generated a plethora of fascinating ideas, altered my understanding of the world, and made me a better communicator.  I’m certain I’ve broken a personal record for words typed this semester and now my confidence in my writing skills and my understanding of the topics I’ve covered has undoubtedly improved.

There is A LOT of really bad architecture being built instead of the healthy, breathtaking, life-affirming architecture that we are fully capable of designing. If we make it easier for people to learn about the capabilities and implications of architectural design, we’ll surely have a higher demand for high quality design.

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The Importance of “Likeability” in Architecture Communication

We humans are optimists; we want everything to turn out well.  In movies, we back the Katniss Everdeens, the Luke Skywalkers, the Lara Crofts, and the Clark Kents–the good guys.  Audiences love to like likeable characters.  As architectural communicators, we should study these characters and learn to be likeable because we can use the best metaphors, the most engaging story plots, and the clearest messages, but if nobody likes us, no one will listen.

Science communicator Randy Olson discusses this issue in his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist.  Olson left his academic career in science to learn filmmaking in Hollywood and has used his experience to create critically acclaimed science documentaries. Now, he lectures, conducts workshops, and writes about science communication.

Don't Be Such a Scientist

From his Hollywood acting classes, he learned the first rule about likeability; audiences don’t like characters who “rise above.”  That is, they don’t like characters who condescend, talk down to, be arrogant, or act superior.  All these are decidedly unlikeable traits.

Olson recounts an acting exercise during which someone would play a wife who just stole money from her husband.  The actor playing the husband would respond in two ways: as an angry, belittling combatant, and then again as a betrayed equal.  The audience would invariably side with the wife (the criminal) in the first scenario and with the husband in the second even though they were given the same contextual information in each scene.  This goes to show just how unlikeable a character can be when they “rise above.”

I would love to scream and berate some of my architectural enemies–whoever was responsible for the demolition of the original Penn Station, for instance–but doing so increases the probability of coming across as the bad guy and consequently losing my audience’s support.

Maintaining likeability as a critic can be particularly challenging because you must criticize without being a bad guy.  However, Olson’s insight for scientists can once again be easily applied to architects:

The entire profession of science has at its core a single word, “no.”  Science is a process not of affirming ideas but of attempting to falsify ideas in the search for truth.

Similarly, architectural design is a process full of “no.”  How many thousands of ideas must be rejected in order to arrive at an acceptable design?  Each building is an experiment.

What is admired within the cloisters of academia can be horrifying when unleashed on the general public.  And that’s because the masses thrive not on negativity and negation but on positivity and affirmation. [. . .] Just look at the most popular movies.  They’re mostly inspiring stories of hope.  Not a lot of blockbusters that end with the hero plowing his truck into a school bus full of kids.

So even though our academic and professional lives are filled with critical negativity, we could benefit by limiting our negativity, and instead focusing on the positive possibilities. Most architects are actually very practiced at positive and constructive criticism but the internet presents a dangerous climate for us.

Blogs and forums foster the kind of unscripted spontaneity and off-the-cuff energy that’s so important in engaging an audience.  This ease of access also means that it’s an easy place to lash out and spew vitriol with minimal repercussions.  However, if you intend to connect to a broader audience who perhaps isn’t used to the critical environment of academia, it is wise to try to remain positive.

Olson ends the discussion with the following simple observation, “When you combine positivity with the spontaneity of blogs, you get a pretty powerful method of communication.”

Responsible Use of Language in Architectural Writing and Architecture Communication

From fergusofthefarm.wordpress.com
From fergusofthefarm.wordpress.com

My last post on Place Exploration (the blog where I actually test the communication techniques discussed here) received some vociferous feedback.  I had compared Postmodernism to Punk and I quickly learned from fellow Redditors that my metaphor was probably not a responsible use of language and what do you know?  The next article I had scheduled for my study was titled, Responsible Use of Language in Scientific Writing and Science Communication by Christoph Kueffer and Brendon Larson. How’s that for evidence that architects can benefit from studying science communication?

This week’s science communication article of study exemplifies the compatibility of science communication and architecture.  Take, for instance, the very first two sentences (word substitutions by me):

ScientistsArchitects are increasingly advised to use marketing strategies and strong metaphors or dominant news frames to get their message across (Bubela et al. 2009, Larson 2011, Kuchner 2012, Nelder 2013), because there is growing competition for funding, public attention, and the ability to influence decisionmaking (e.g., Fischer et al. 2012).  We think that this development creates problems to the extent that it invites scientistsarchitects to undermine their objectivity by making assertions that are not based entirely on data.

In other words, these authors argue that scientists’ efforts to dramatize, relate, or simplify messages may increase the risk of misrepresenting the information or polemicizing issues. Although there is no such thing as value-free communication, architecture communicators should reflect carefully on their communication choices to minimize confusion and contested interpretations of uncertain knowledge.  The science communication article in question lays out 4 major qualifications of appropriate metaphors that can be used by architects just as easily as they can be used by scientists; an appropriate metaphor is factually correct, uses socially acceptable language, avoids polarizing language, and its limitations as a metaphor are transparent.

Factual Correctness
Every metaphor simplifies by illustrating certain aspects of a concept while neglecting others. Metaphors can, nonetheless, be interpreted in terms of their factual content, and, in this respect, they can be considered wrong.  When I compared postmodernism to punk, I only focused on the idea that both movements were, at least in part, reactions to overarching metanarratives.  This simplified description probably omitted too much context to still be considered 100% accurate.

Socially Acceptable Language
The same rules that apply to everyday life concerning socially acceptable language also apply to architecture communication. Metaphors that are racist, sexist, or in other ways offensive should be avoided. Kueffer and Larson criticize popular science references to slave-making and negro ants and reference to rape in animal behavior studies.

Neutrality
It’s often difficult to assess the neutrality of a metaphor. Architects should, nonetheless, seek to avoid language that is loaded with emotion, such as apocalyptic warnings and dramatic hyperbole. Architecture communicators are expected to present ideas that invite informed, yet open and critical discussion.

Transparency
Kueffer and Larson advise communicators to introduce their metaphors as such and acknowledge their connections to the specific aspects of the concept they illustrate.  Furthermore, using similes (comparisons using like or as) instead of metaphors lowers the risk that they will be taken literally.

All in all, architecture communicators must reiterate that the theories, technologies, and data that inform architecture are always evolving.  Architects do not maintain a collection of established facts and solutions but constantly test new ideas and evaluate their success.  Especially in the case of contested and complex societal issues, responsible architecture communication means communicating the facts with neutrality and acknowledging our limited ability to predict the success of architectural interventions.

Source:
Kueffer, C., and B. M. H. Larson. “Responsible Use of Language in Scientific Writing and Science Communication.” Bioscience (2014): 719-24. Bioscience. Oxford Journals. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Write Like You’re Talking to Real People

Watch Alan Alda's talk, The Art of Science Communication
Watch Alan Alda’s talk, The Art of Science Communication

At the 10th anniversary celebration of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, Alan Alda, former host of the PBS series, “Scientific American Frontiers,” shares some advice on how scientists can communicate more effectively with the general public in his talk titled The Art of Science Communication.  As usual, architects can benefit from this advice as well.

Peppered with jokes and a few touching anecdotes, Alda’s talk highlights the importance of connecting with people while communicating.  He points out that humans were socializing for thousands of years before we ever started writing and moreover, the socializing area of our brain is much more developed than the part of the brain that controls written language.  The implications of this discrepancy are apparent when we hear scripted vs spontaneous speech. When we read and write, we tend to use an entirely different voice from the one we use when we simply talk with our friends and loved ones.  Our reading/writing voice is almost always cold, calculated, and formal while our speaking voice is warm, charismatic, and engaging.

In the talk, Alda shares the results of a workshop he directed with graduate science students involving improv comedy training. At the start of the workshop, each student was asked to speak for 2 minutes about their area of research.  After they spoke, they trained in improv comedy techniques for an hour and then they took another shot at describing their research.  After the improv training, the students were more charismatic, they spoke more comfortably, and they used more relatable metaphors.  Simply speaking, they were just better communicators.

Alda’s reasoning for this phenomenon is that improv requires a high degree of empathy.  During an improv scene, you have to become one with your partner; you must sense their emotions and predict their reactions.  Improv activates our innate ability to socialize.

So what can architects learn from this, especially with regards to writing? Well, after seeing how much better the students communicated once they were comfortable speaking spontaneously with real people as opposed to their usual scripted speech, I decided to give my mom a call.  I love talking to her, but we never talk architecture.  I figured if I can get her interested in learning about postmodernism, I can get anyone interested in learning about postmodernism.

I must have looked absolutely crazy, pacing around a courtyard in the dark of the night, talking excitedly about modernism, counter-cultures, the relationship between classical and romantic movements, and a panoply of other nerdy architecture things.  In the end though, what really got my mom interested was a comparison I made between postmodernism and punk rock.  Who knows if I would have arrived at that metaphor using my usual writing process, but the conversation really jumpstarted my ideas for a post titled, Postmodern is Punk.  You can read it and see for yourself if it’s any good.

In any case, Alda’s talk points out the importance of speaking with a relatable, human voice.  In the future, I’d love to try improv training and see if it improves my communication but for now, I’m happy calling my mom to chat about my weekly posts over on Place Exploration.  If you find yourself stuck on a presentation or speech, try talking to a friend about your topic and it’ll likely get your creative juices flowing.

Using A Message Box to Clarify Your Designs

Another tool architects can steal from science communicators is the message box.  The message box helps sift through the mountains of information in your mind and distill the main points that will really interest your audience.  This planning tool is particularly helpful when preparing for meetings, interviews, or Q&As because it uses a non-linear organization so you can answer questions in whichever order they come at you.

The message box consists of four quadrants surrounding a central issue.

MessageBox-01Issue:  Generally speaking, what is the topic?

Problem: What is the specific problem of the issue?

So What?: Why does this matter to my audience? What will happen if the problem isn’t solved?

Solutions: What are the potential solutions to this problem?

Benefits: What are the potential benefits of solving this problem?

The message box helped me present an incredibly complex studio project from last year. I designed a very large building, on a very hilly site, very far to the North (near the arctic circle), and with very little sunlight, all with the goal of consuming as little energy as possible.  I found my massing strategy using a parametric, evolutionary problem-solver (Grasshopper + Galapagos). When I began to describe the design process in my portfolio, I was dumbstruck.  How could I possibly fit this project into just a few pages?  I was overwhelmed by the tricky equations I had solved, the unique behavior of an arctic sun, the clever programming, and the concept of parametric form finding itself.  Filling out the message box helped me find the following main points:

Issue: How can we build sustainably on hilly, arctic sites?

Problem: Hills are difficult to build on, especially when they are remote.  There is not much opportunity for solar gain this far north.

So What?: If we can’t build in northern, mountainous areas, we limit the number of people who can study and experience them.  If we can’t do it sustainably, we contribute to the degradation of the environment we long to experience.

Solutions: We can use computers to test thousands of possible massing strategies, and determine which ones provide the most solar gain, lose the least amount of heat, and avoid the most unbuildable portions of a given site.

Benefits: Using this method, we can model and test thousands of massing strategies in a matter of minutes as compared to examining just a handful without parametric modeling.  This helps us build more sustainably in near-Arctic, mountainous regions.

After struggling for months to describe my process in 2 or 3 pages, I managed to find the main points of my project in just a few sentences.

If you’ve ever ever struggled to simplify the narrative describing your design process, consider using the message box to help you focus on just the parts that really matter most.

The 4 Steps to Engaging Your Audience

If you’ve ever presented a design concept to a board of commissioners or a community group, you may understand the frustration that follows when your efforts to teach a lesson are met by blank stares. You’ve probably faced the temptation to just communicate more and harder to compensate for their inattention but this is not the answer. The key to getting a new concept to stick lies in engaging your audience.  Communications Professor Hak-Soo Kim, of Sogang University explains the process of engagement in his paper titled Engagement: The Key to the Communicative Effectiveness of Science and Ideas. According to Professor Kim, engagement can be interpreted as a sequence of events.  First, the audience is exposed to new information, next their attention is focused onto a specific problem, then they come to understand the information presented, and finally, they choose a response.  If you understand the process, you can shape your message to maximize engagement and communicate more successfully.

Engagement begins with the act of exposing

During a typical college lecture, a professor speaks non-stop in front of his students and cascades information down into spongy minds–minds that are already primed to soak it all up.  The students pay attention, but primarily because they’ve spent money on the class, they need to pass the final exam, or it’s required to complete their degree.  When you are trying to engage a general audience though, simply showing someone facts is only the first step.

Focusing Attention on a Problem

Professor Kim points out that most people engage with the weather more than anything else and furthermore, weather is the most frequently reported subject in the mass media.

As a matter of fact, weather is an omnipresent problem for us.  Because it is consequential to all aspects of our life, it comes to us as an ever-present problematic situation.

We engage with the weather as much as we do because it directly affects us and we constantly adjust our behavior to it. From this phenomenon, we can learn how to frame the problems in our messages in order to elicit engagement. Problems are most likely to engage an audience when they are easy to relate to and the audience perceives that there is something they can do about it. So, if you are writing about the increasing global population of slums, for instance, you may want to write about the effects of overcrowding on the global economy and suggest a list of charities to donate to.

Understanding the Problem

After we focus on a problem, we begin the work of understanding it.  Professor Kim points out three main modes of cognition that come into play: orienting to available information, constructing new information about the problem, and/or reorienting in response to feedback.  In the orienting mode of cognition, the audience seeks out further information about the problem in order to augment their understanding.  The construction mode of cognition refers to the formation of new ideas about the topic; in this mode of cognition, the audience might brainstorm solutions to the problem.  The third mode of cognition, reorientation, occurs when the audience reacts to the problem, receives feedback, and reacts again with the feedback in mind.  The process of engagement may include any combination of these modes of cognition but at least one form of cognition is required to respond to the problem.

The Final Step in the Process of Engagement: The Response

After the audience has come to understand the situation, they may chose to act (or not to act) in response.  If the ultimate reason for your communication is to get more people to use passive solar design, non-VOC emitting finishes, or even to read more about architecture, this is the step you want people to reach and making the previous steps easy will make you more successful.

Have any thoughts, comments, arguments, or questions? Leave them below!

Source:

Schiele, Bernard. “Engagement: The Key to the Communicative Effectiveness of Science and Ideas.” Science Communication in the World Practices, Theories and Trends. Dordrecht: Springer, 2012. 269-280. Print.

Comparison of the Communication Practices of Indoor Biologists and Architects

Introduction

This post studies the parallels between the profession of architecture and the findings of a recent study titled What Are You Saying?  Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Visibility and Understanding of Indoor Microbiological Research.

The study, published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment, identifies some of the challenges indoor microbiologists face in their efforts to increase public understanding and visibility associated with their research.  The authors interviewed 79 U.S. scientists and recorded the most frequently mentioned difficulties and concepts relating to science communication.  The researchers also contribute suggestions for improving future public communication efforts based on their findings.

Since the 1950s, science communication has emerged as a professional and academic field that studies the public communication of science.  Scientists, universities, policy-makers, and funding agencies all desire improved sharing of science research. We benefit from science communication because it informs policy-makers, it guides and illuminates ethical issues, and it increases the amount of funding available for research. Within the profession of architecture, there is currently no widespread push to improve how we share information with the general public.  However, architects constantly struggle to make an impact on policy-makers, people suffer from unethical designs impacting public health, safety, and economies, and lower demand for architectural services means fewer projects and smaller fees.

Although there has been no empirical assessment of public communication efforts made by architects, this study reveals that scientists and architects share many opinions regarding their relationship with laypeople and the perceived difficulties of public communication.  Specifically, the comparison questions the role of scientists and architects as information sources for laypeople and it suggests that, like architects, scientists struggle to frame their research in a way that people find it relevant.  Luckily, the academic study of science communication offers solutions that can be used by architects and scientists alike.

Is there a Responsibility to Educate the Public?

Of the 79 scientists interviewed, 60 identified themselves as information sources for laypeople.  There is no empirical evidence indicating how many architects identify as information sources for laypeople, but when I asked graduate architecture students in my studio if they believe architects serve as information sources for laypeople, the overwhelming majority replied “no.”  One student responded that he didn’t think architects should worry about educating the public because the public doesn’t generally care about architectural issues and it would be a waste of time–if someone wants to learn about an architectural issue, they should find the information themselves.

The authors of this study found it common for scientists to attribute successful communications with positive internal attributes and failed communications with negative external attributes.  That is to say, scientists often say they succeed because of their skill and expertise but when they fail, they blame the audience’s inattentiveness or lack of interest. The authors cite psychological attribution theory as a possible explanation for this phenomenon and suggest that future communication efforts must seek to share the burden of communication more equitably between communicator and audience.  In summary, the two parties must discuss what needs to be communicated.

The Issue of Relevance

When asked to identify the research topics that interest non-experts, the scientists mentioned questions about the impact of indoor environments on human health most frequently.  This reflects a common belief of mass communicators that audiences are primarily interested in topics that are relevant to them.  In the discussion of their findings, the researchers state:

This [observation] suggests that these researchers are aware that although they may not personally study human impacts, this is the relevant information about which the public has questions. This responsiveness may at first seem intuitive and somewhat obvious, but our research team observed many of these researchers as struggling to connect their research in meaningful ways to the audience they were addressing.

As many public communication texts suggest, communication is most successful when the audience finds the content relevant.  Both scientists and architects should consider the relevance of their work to non-experts.

Conclusion

Science communication provides many benefits to both scientists and non-scientists.  It’s reasonable to argue that architects and the public would also benefit from a similar mass communication practice.  This study reveals that scientists deal with many communication issues that architects are familiar with.  Both professions question whose obligation it is to educate non-experts and both struggle with framing their work in a way that is relevant to a broad audience.  Perhaps architects can take advantage of the communication research already completed by scientists.

Source:

Kahlor, L. A., A. Dudo, M.-C. Liang, and N. Abighannam. “What Are You Saying? Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Visibility and Understanding of Indoor Microbiological Research.” Indoor and Built Environment (2014): 682-88. Print.