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WORDS THAT BUILD: Faster! Deeper! Broader!

Tip #16: How to balance high-speed communication with in-depth communication.

By Norman Weinstein
July 1, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the 16th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.


Before the advent of the World Wide Web, a radio station in Manhattan bragged that they offered “the news five minutes sooner.” A mystery presented itself. Did this mean this station had the miraculous ability to communicate news literally five minutes sooner than the rest of the world perceived it – or the ordinary fact of broadcasting five minutes before the hour? Of course the technological limitations of the time meant simply the gimmick of news broadcasts at five-of. But this tag line came to mind recently when considering how monumentally the speed of communication – and non-communication – has increased in the past few decades. And while a motley group of educators and Luddites decry the rapid deterioration of eloquent written communication since the invention of word processing and the Internet, I think high-velocity means of communication can offer deeper and broader communication – but only with a new set of mental habits that are rarely practiced. How to create these new habits is my agenda.


High-speed spoken and written communication is so ubiquitous that only with an intensified awareness of how you swim in its currents daily can you begin to refine and maximize your communication effectively. A great starting point is a new book edited by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Speed Limits, the accompanying catalogue to a provocative exhibit, curated by Schnapp, currently at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Here is an excerpt entitled “Slow (fast) modern” by arts critic Yve-Alain Bois:


Stop or, at least, slow down. Very few forces within contemporary life ever demand that we do so. And when they do, it’s only for a very short time, just enough for us to notice the change in pace and then go on with our busy existences. Filmmakers long ago ascertained the efficacy of slow-motion as a form of emphasis. They make use of it much as a writer makes use of italics.


Look at the impact on your thinking as you read “stop” and “slow down” in Bois’s quote. The italics are not only equivalent to a slow-motion shot in a film – they also have the impact of a “Proceed with Caution” sign along a highway.


Now the specific roadblock this attitude presents for architects surrounds the identification of stop and slow down with expensive project delay. If communication with clients and contractors is pushed at hyper-high-velocity, as it usually is, how speedy is the litigation that often arises because of quick, albeit inaccurate and sloppy, communication of key information? In fact, anytime you are talking or writing and sense you’re getting ahead of yourself, I would strongly suggest thinking of a possible law suit resulting from your speediness – and that will immediately slow you down. But it need not cripple your nimble efficiency. Let’s consider tools in addition to italics to fulfill the medieval injunction to “make haste slowly.”


Vocabulary and sentence or phrase length always impact speed and efficiency of communication. Here’s a true tale. A client experienced disconnects with his architect and felt his intentions weren’t understood. The architect explained that the client’s proposed office building had an energy-efficient design related to placement of fenestration. “Damn it,” responded the client. “Energy-efficiency is important, but I want more windows!” Before thinking of this client as a fool, try asking your non-architect friends what “fenestration” means. Better yet, try looking it up as a category in the business section of a phone directory. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use “fenestration” with your client. It does mean that any architectural vocabulary offers immediately the chance to slow down and refine, amplify, and nuance your meaning. Laypeople often assume any professional vocabulary you use that is unfamiliar to them is utilized to flaunt your authority and justify your cost – until proven otherwise. Prove otherwise. Be consciously aware of introducing architectural vocabulary to slow down communication, forging meaning with a high degree of specificity. Concreteness is more than an attribute of concrete. It is protection against financial failure.


We are wired to only process so much data within a certain amount of time. Texting allows you to communicate as quickly as you can type on a keypad – but the very abbreviations of full words it demands assures a greater-than-ever possibility of a misunderstanding of minute details. So to paraphrase Mies van der Rohe, since the devil is in the details, texting creates the illusion of a world without evil, or ignorance, another favored and related term for “evil.” Follow up texted messages with thoroughly detailed e-mails or even – gasp – letters sent through the mail, not to mention phone calls that have you taking notes throughout the conversation.


Beware of communication that leaves you breathless – unless you’re in love. And beware of writing impossibly long sentences unless you wish to conceal your intentions. And remember slowness of communication does not automatically mean loss of profit. Think about lovers taking their time – an exploration of depth and breadth – until they discover their desired pace together, breathlessly.


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him at


See also:


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism 
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Translate Images Into Touching Performances 
Tip #15: Cultivate communication with clients that translates architectural imagery into experience at their fingertips.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Emphasize Words with Lasting Resonance 
Tip #14: Cluster symbolic and mythically-charged keywords in communication with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Re-invent Green Communication 
Tip #13: Try the spectacular 2-step program to cut fat and reduce telltale signs of greenwash.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication 
Tip #12: Cogent communicators exploit opportunities offered by interruptions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faceting Architectural Communication 
Tip #11: Effective communication evolves out of cross-reflective details. 


WORDS THAT BUILD: Use Space Creatively When Designing Your Client Communications 
Tip #10: Use paragraph spacing in writing and pauses in conversation to promote "out of the box" thinking.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions Productive 
Tip #9
: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients 
Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight 
Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures 
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


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.


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.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis 
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges 
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.



Best Architecture Books of 2008 
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy


(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2009