Responsible Use of Language in Architectural Writing and Architecture Communication


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.

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.

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.

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.