Architects need Likes, too

 

Building with Social Media

by Katie Dabbs

Digitized beasts

We have evolved into digitized beasts capable of sending personal statements in a matter of seconds. Whether via images, posts, invites, and tweets, we have the ability to disseminate opinions and ideas — from the half-baked to the fully fledged — in a moment’s notice. We communicate daily with audiences comprised of people we know and some we don’t, and, while many use it to dish out selfies, troll celebs, or express their very public infatuation with a favorite donut shop, I can’t help but consider how harvesting these opinions can (and will) affect the practice of design.

 

Norman Foster vs Bjarke Ingels

Along with the drafting board, gone are the days of glittering hand-sculpted models and hardcover presentation books. In is 3D printingOculus Riftrendered videos, and social media. Case in point: Rupert Murdoch’s media companies, 21st Century and Fox, pushing aside Norman Foster, now 80, for the young parvenu Bjarke Ingels to design the fourth and final skyscraper at 2 World Trade. As Paul Goldberger described in his recent Vanity Fair article, “This change signifies more than Oedipal rumblings in the architectural world. It may say even more about the world of media, and not just Murdoch’s media.”

As a public relations professional having spent my short career working within architecture firms, it’s my job to illustrate to the media what actually goes into making a building. The craft, the materials, the methods, the technology, the camaraderie, the partnerships, the manpower. Social media gives us a powerful tool that consumer-driven companies have jumped headfirst into while design industry is playing catch up.

 

Kim Kardashian leads the way

“Twitter became my form of Google for a second,” said none other than social media monarch Kim Kardashian in her recent, and some would say unexpected, interview at the Re/code conference. She’d ask questions to her 34.7 million followers — their review of movies, places to dine, what shade of pink a perfume bottle should be. Although her questions seem trivial, she has proved the ability to gather prized brand insight in a matter of seconds.

Public opinion is playing a greater role in architecture today. Enough scrutiny, especially as it relates to public architecture (think: convention centers, stadiums, museums, airports), can change the course of projects. A quick Google search will show you the public outcry centered around the Frick Collection’s proposed expansion, which had considered replacing a prized garden on East 70th Street in Manhattan with an addition.The change proposed in Summer 2014 was recalled in June 2015 with the Frick’s promise to come up with a new plan, one that would spare the beloved garden and respond to public concern.

Express yourself!

Public opinion is powerful. While the average public architecture project takes years, thousands of man-hours, and typically hundreds of millions of dollars, it significantly impacts the community it occupies. Public architecture can change people’s lives for better or worse. It is therefore necessary to ensure these structures maximize ROI — socially, economically, and emotionally.

Because it’s impossible for architects and designers to correctly anticipate every potential wart that could plague a project and cause problems down the road, harnessing the opinions of everyday people is one way to cure potential maladies before they rear their ugly heads. Clients who commission public architecture are savvier than ever; they understand what design brings to the table and push designers to experiment and take risks.

They also yearn for public dialogue with the end users who will be using their spaces. Making the creative process behind the design more visible can surface necessary critiques before a single brick is laid. Increased public awareness can shed light on the problems that our buildings could and should be solving but may not be in their current iterations.

This is where social media comes into play. It’s never been easier to gather and analyze the opinions of critical masses of people, and it’s become quite common for organizations from clothing retailers to consumer product companies to survey social media users. Then, they use this data to inform their decisions. There’s a certain honesty that social media, as opposed to traditional survey tools, engenders.

On social media, people feel empowered to express themselves without any sort of filter. Sometimes users cross the line by spewing a polemic or getting downright nasty, but, more often than not, they provide brutally honest and incisive feedback — giving interested parties a better understanding of what the community expects from the world around them.

 

Architects need Likes, too

Architects and designers can and should use social media to achieve similar results. Our profession has long relied on data points and various metrics to measure the impact that design has on its users. Now, we can use social media to surface opinions and criticisms of designs-in-the-making and completed spaces in need of a rehab. Instagram and Facebook provide community feedback in a form of a “like” or positive comment. Pinterest illustrates what is truly popular and what isn’t via “pins.”

Social media has the power to eradicate the days of tedious data collecting: there are focus groups galore available online. Stuck in a rut? Need an opinion on a material you’re contemplating using? A façade option you’re about to pitch a client? Need to understand how users are interacting with their spaces? Dish the question to your followers. Allow them to react. Convey the opinion to your client. Charge ahead.

 

With mind and heart

I think Iwan Baan, heralded the most-wanted architectural photographer by The Wall Street Journal, has the best social media strategy in the design industry, to date. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is indispensable to the likes of Rem KoolhaasZaha Hadid, and Herzog and de Meuron. His photographs are instantly dispensed to magazines and newspapers that fight for the exclusive, but his Instagram account reveals a side of architecture that his polished pictures don’t. His photos take you behind the scenes. Footage of the places he visits, the people he meets during his travels, and the buildings he shoots, sans the gloss. Baan takes us on his journey that resonates with the minds and hearts of his followers. In these stolen moments, people connect with architecture.

My inner Miss Cleo says that this is the way of the future. This is how we will build buildings. We will poll our fans, let the public in, take their temperature, connect them with their buildings before they are built, and take them on the design journey with us. We will make this multifaceted and incredibly nuanced process simple and possibly superior. We will use it to uncover the best solutions. More information yields more educated decisions. We will gauge real-time reactions before pressing on. Our audience will help guide us.

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