Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction

Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.

By Norman Weinstein
July 8, 2008

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


Here’s an exercise for the bold: let yourself stare at a blank page upon which you’ll write a summary of your design intention for a client. Be aware of your trepidation. If you feel nothing but blankness, consider how much of your livelihood is dependent upon your ability to explain your plan. That might induce a distinct feeling of unease. But the purpose of this exercise is not to introduce unnecessary anxiety into your sufficiently anxious work life. This is a preface to learning how to re-think how you and your client view your writing.


The blank sheet of paper you’re preparing to write upon can be transformed into a detailed map of your plans just as surely as any presentation drawing. Consider writing as a marshaling of imagination to map how an architect thinks through a client’s design challenge. Think of a blank page as a place where a reader’s mind can be steered, as a site where your client moseys through, asks questions, makes suggestions, edits your epiphanies, and so on.


Your design writing for a client is like a map to a strange city, or like the experience of finding yourself lost in a strange new city itself. One way to get your bearings is to follow the sage guidelines established by urban planner Kevin Lynch and look to guiding signposts: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.


Your paths are the lines of developed, finely detailed description and explanation. Your edges are where paragraphing or bullet items demarcate boundaries between subjects. Your districts are equivalent in writing to aggregated blocks of descriptions and ideas that are thematically integrated. Nodes are focal centers – the main point in any paragraph or section – a site where you want the client to linger. Landmarks are headers, or inserted graphics, or generous white spaces on the page that help the reader know where he or she is in terms of “the big picture” of your total presentation.


In the written exposition, you are helping steer your client’s flow of attention, and varying the speed of attention, with every word, punctuation mark, and space. If your verbal map is clear, your chances are better of meeting success. If you think that a drawing is worth a thousand words, beware. The painter Paul Klee defined a line as a dot that has taken a walk. Any unclear line of thinking – and your client might take a walk. When I ask you to “draw” your own conclusions about the worth of my advice, I hope you both sketch and write, and make a version of my suggested map of the architect-client communication process that suits your own style of finding “true North.”


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

(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2008