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WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication

Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.

By Norman Weinstein
June 10, 2008

Editor’s Note: This is the third of an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


Suppose the noun “architecture” could be banned from daily use starting now and “playing” took its place. As preposterous as this hypothetical might seem, try to “go with the flow” for a moment. And “going with the flow” is why I’m asking you to temporarily abandon the fixity of the word “architecture” and consider a word evoking dynamic process rather than static object. However you choose to define architecture in your practice, you’re essentially in the business of selling a design process through a communication process. Your design, subject as it is to various vicissitudes in the mind of both you and client over time, is best seen as a model in motion. Le Corbusier opened up this way of thinking in 1931 when he defined architecture as “the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Great architecture seems to swim through shifting patterns of light.


Unlike realtors, architects traffic in malleable designs that get reformulated in a play of dialogues that involves clients, engineers, contractors, sub-contractors, etc. While all of these dialogues are utterly serious, they can also be considered playfully. This means the word “play” – note that I’m punning on “play,” referring simultaneously to a recreational game AND dramatic presentation – carries both the taut charge of an high-stakes drama and the pleasurable diversion of a sport. Since some of the language between architect and client necessarily possesses the joie de vive found in the trade talk of attorneys, structural engineers, and loan officers, you need as much as possible to sustain a lively conversational tone with your client, one enhancing a playful flow of design intentions gradually coming into sharp focus. But how?


Tip #3: Find a gradually unfolding, dramatic storyline implicit in your design. Think of a way to communicate that storyline to your client. Heavily emphasize action verbs, particularly words evoking dynamic motion and play. Your CAD and BIM software allows you to animate your design so clients can view it in motion from diverse perspectives. The trick is to develop a running commentary in synch with your software. Start with brainstorming a list of words and phrases describing how your client could walk through your design. For practice, study The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs, an indispensable tool for such a challenge. Grambs give you 80 completely different words to describe various ways one can walk through a building. See how many you can playfully use in your next client presentation.


Norman Weinstein writes for Architectural Record and other publications and teaches communication skills to architects. He can be reached at

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© 2008