Mixed Messages: Communication in Education and Practice

November 1, 2011 · by Amanda Gibney Weko

A dichotomy between academic and professional perceptions of communication may put today’s students in jeopardy.

In January, the DesignIntelligence Trends Forecast and Foresight Scenarios outlined 25 trends transforming the architectural profession, including new strategic models, the importance of technology, collaborating to build value, and the need for effective communications. With a plethora of complicated and industry-transforming trends — and economic uncertainty — shaping the future of design, a common thread has been architects’ reliance on their communication skills to become active participants in the dialogue.

But are architects adept at communication? Research begun in early 2010 investigated the role of communication in undergraduate architectural education. Architecture is currently on the cusp of a major transition in how it is practiced in a precipitous economy due to shifts in technology, relationships, and construction. The question to be addressed: Are future architects being taught to communicate effectively?

The research investigated the presence of communication studies in undergraduate architecture education and the underlying academic perceptions and reasons why communication studies are included or excluded from academic architecture programs. Parallel research explored registered architects’ perceptions of the importance of general and specific communication skills to professional practice and how well prepared they felt by their own architecture education.

Startling Dichotomy

Research findings pointed to a startling dichotomy in academic and professional perceptions of the importance of communication training in undergraduate architecture education. While only 13.8 percent of academic programs require communication coursework directly related to architectural practice, 94 percent of architects surveyed indicated communication skills are very important to their practice, and 73 percent indicated their undergraduate architecture education did not adequately prepare them for professional practice.

The research and resulting data suggest that preparing students for the realities of architectural practice may begin with a shift in pedagogy. Increased emphasis on communication skills may instigate entrepreneurial leadership traits that, when combined with traditional design skills, may have the power to transform the profession for significant benefit.

Journalist Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson wrote in Architect magazine in September 2010, “For too long, architecture schools have shied away from teaching business basics.” Design program faculty quoted in Dickinson’s article attest to studio design-driven curricula and neglect of basic business coursework ranging from finance to communication. “Design is such a tiny percentage of where the money [in development] goes, and it’s time to radically rethink our priorities,” suggested Daniel S. Friedman, professor and dean of the University of Washington’s College of the Built Environment and president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

The research methodology involved four parts: a literature review to discover prevailing sentiments about architecture and education; a curricular analysis of each of the 49 National Architectural Accrediting Board-accredited undergraduate B.Arch programs; an electronic survey distributed to deans or leading faculty members at each of the 49 programs; and an electronic survey distributed to registered architects across the United States. The architect surveys were limited to professionals who held current licensure. Non-architects, intern architects who were not yet registered, and architects who had been licensed in the past but were not currently licensed were excluded from the study. The goal was to correlate the importance of communication training during academic study with the importance of communication skills in professional practice.

The literature review described the importance of communication in architecture, including the significant growth of marketing and promotion activities in firms of all sizes. Some evidence shows that architecture schools may be slowly adopting practice-based skills in otherwise design-driven curricula, but most secondary research still points to dramatic shortfalls in the teaching of communication skills. In fact, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture acknowledges the problem and recommends students seek out communication training in some form during their studies.

 

Curricular and Academic Results

Analyzing the Web-published curricula of the NAAB-accredited schools revealed that 36 of 47 programs require one or more English, writing, or other communication courses. However, only five of the 36 (13.8 percent) require communication coursework that appears directly related to architectural practice. The analysis revealed that eight of 10 programs (17 percent) specifying elective communication options offer practice-specific choices.

When proposal writing, marketing, and interpersonal communication play such critical roles in modern architectural practice, shouldn’t the teaching of these topics be integral? Research turned next to the academic faculty for answers.

An electronic survey was distributed to the deans or leading faculty members at the 49 accredited programs. Advance telephone calls described the research and invited participation. Despite this effort, only 23 responses (46.9 percent) were obtained. When compared to the 146 architects who participated in the next survey with little or no advance notice, the academic participation seems to foreshadow both a lack of interest in and lack of importance placed on the subject.

When asked to rate the importance of communication skills in architectural education on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very important, the average rating by academic faculty was 4.9. Optional comments included, “It is one of the most important indicators of success in the field other than architectural ability.”

Average ratings for specific communication skills on the same scale included writing (4.6), public speaking (4.9), graphic design (4.8), and interpersonal skills (4.6). Yet the ratings breakdown showed one respondent gave a 3 (neutral) rating for writing, and two respondents gave a 3 rating to interpersonal skills — surprising for a profession practiced almost entirely in teams.

Most of the academic respondents (86.9 percent) indicated that writing skills are taught to students in their programs. When asked to clarify their answers, comments emphasized university writing requirements and English composition coursework, with only a few mentioning writing skills being integrated into architectural courses.

When asked whether marketing, public relations, or any practice-related communication skills were taught to students in their programs, 69.5 percent indicated yes, with most of the clarifying comments describing how these skills are taught as part of professional practice coursework. However, comments indicated a lack of depth offered by curricula, stating the coursework was “not likely sufficient to meet the necessity for skill in this area” and “not covered at depth.” One comment described, “Volunteer professionals conduct seminars for the students [because] we currently have no room in the program to add such a course.”

Respondents used the same scale (1 being not at all important to 5 being very important) when rating the importance of teaching specific communication aspects to architecture undergraduates. Average scores for public speaking, proposal writing, marketing, public relations, media relations, and employee relations ranged from 3.5 to 4.6.

Individual responses vary greatly. Two comments provide insights into the responses illustrated above and speak to the sharply dissenting opinions within architectural education: “It is a very interesting issue your survey brings up. These issues are rarely discussed in undergrad education and yet serve as rather the basis of the professional practice of architecture,” and “Our students will develop their own practices of architecture, and these practices will vary widely. I do not believe a special ‘professional communications’ focus is needed in the curriculum.”

It remains unclear what role relevance, budget, and qualified faculty play in influencing curricula; responses on these matters were varied in the small sample size:

• 34 percent indicated relevance was an including factor.

• 56 percent indicated a neutral rating for budget.

• 47 percent indicated a neutral rating for qualified faculty.

With the academic data offering a wishy-washy, it’s-important-but-we-don’t-really-need-to-cover-it opinion of communication training, research next investigated the opinions of practicing architects. How do the architects on the front lines of budget crises, BIM, and globalization feel about communication?

Architect Survey Findings

An electronic survey distributed to registered architects yielded 146 responses representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Respondents completed their undergraduate architecture education in three main groups: less than 20 years ago (19.2 percent); between 20 and 30 years ago (39.7 percent); and more than 30 years ago (37.7 percent). Five respondents (3.4 percent) indicated no undergraduate architecture education.

Respondents indicated their present role in architectural practice, the results for which can be compressed into three categories: sole practitioners, principals, and partners (those with principal-level firm management responsibility) (73.3 percent); staff architects in architecture firms (19.9 percent); and those in non-architecture firms (6.8 percent). This majority implies survey responses are heavily weighted toward the communication responsibilities and perceptions of those in managerial positions.

As in the academic survey, architects were asked to rate the importance of communication skills in their architectural practice on a scale of 1 to 5. All respondents provided a rating of 4 (important) or higher. The majority of respondents (94 percent) rated communication skills a 5 (very important).

Sixty-two survey participants (42.5 percent) commented on their answers. Comments were primarily positive in terms of the value and importance of communication skills to architects’ work and practice. Recurring themes included, “Excellent communication skills are required to be a good architect,” with numerous mentions of the importance of communication to winning business, interacting with clients, and explaining the design process. One respondent succinctly stated, “As architects, communication is the only way we can express and convey our ideas. Commonly, you would think that’s done through what we draw/show, but not everyone can read our drawings, and not everyone can draw to demonstrate their ideas adequately.” Another respondent indicated, “Communication may be the most important skill an architect can have. The relationship between the architect and the owner, between the architect and the consulting engineers, and between the architect and the construction people are all pivotal to producing a successful project.”

Others elaborated on personal communication weaknesses and those in colleagues or employees: “One of the biggest stumbling blocks to individual advancement within the firm/profession is the widespread lack of fundamental writing skills and the inability to dialogue verbally with clients — we have become much more introverted as a profession in the past 10-15 years.”

Architects wasted no time pointing to education for their communication challenges, stating, “I think architects have poor verbal skills as a consequence of its lack of emphasis in architecture school,” and “I hope that communication skills are treated on par with design skills in today’s undergraduate programs. That was not the case when I attended college.”

Respondents next rated the importance of individual communication skills to their practice. All four skills rated above 4 (important) on the scale of 1 to 5: writing earned a rating of 4.6, public speaking a 4.4, graphic design a 4.4, and interpersonal communication (teamwork or collaboration) a 4.9.

The responses are heavily weighted toward importance of all four skills. It appears that interpersonal communication is the skill on which respondents place the highest importance. This supports comments provided in earlier questions regarding the significance of communication within internal project teams and with external groups including clients and contractors.

The relationship between communication in practice and in education was referenced again in optional comments added by 32 respondents, including: “Architecture as a profession is performed as a team, internally or externally. However, we’re not trained to do so. Architecture education programs should institute team projects as part of the curriculum to acclimate students to the idea and reality of working in teams.” Another comment reiterated, “We do not train professionals in our industry to communicate from the perspective of the recipient or listener.” And, “Without proper communication even the simplest project can become difficult and clients will not return to our firm for future work.”

Participants also rated on the same scale the importance of six communication components to architectural practice: public speaking, proposal writing, marketing, public relations, media relations, and employee relations. Proposal writing and employee relations tied for most importance, each earning an average rating score of 4.5.

After assessing the importance of communication in practice, the survey asked architects if they were taught any professional practice-related communication skills (such as marketing, public relations, or public speaking) as part of their undergraduate architecture education. The majority of responses (67.3 percent) answered no. Another 26.2 percent answered yes, while 6.4 percent declined to answer.

Comments offered additional detail about presentation in the studio environment and formal critiques as components of communication education, while also explaining, “It often didn’t happen, but it was assumed [students were] picking up a lot of [communication] skills just because we were giving presentations so often.”

These comments segued into the next question, which asked respondents if their architecture education prepared them for the communication aspects of architectural practice. The question specifically excluded the Intern Development Program training that occurs in the workplace.

The majority of respondents (66.6 percent) indicated that their architecture education did not prepare them for the communication aspects of practice. Fifty-four optional comments offered additional detail and point to trends in personal educational experiences as well as strengths and weaknesses in academic architectural training.

Many of the comments focused on the presentation and public speaking skills required by and honed in the formal jury review or “critique” process. Some respondents indicated the benefits of such a process: “Having to present and defend your design to outside professionals in a jury setting was daunting but good preparation for brutal client meetings,” and “One thing I thought school did well was to separate me from my work so that I could accept criticism of my project as separate from criticism of me.”

However, a number of respondents offered caveats with their praise of the critique system, describing a trial by fire and little or no formal training to be successful in a critique. Other comments supported secondary literature research describing improvisational language usage and affectation in the critiques: “[Critiques] often turn into an exercise in architectural jargon, most of which is the actual opposite of good communication. In other words, only an insider has any idea of what is being discussed. This jargon is totally counterproductive in terms of discussing project design with a client.” And “Architecture students are taught to talk about their own perceptions of their designs. Dealing with real clients, the emphasis needs to be more on what’s in it for the client.”

Secondary research findings that described how non-design courses are often prioritized lower than design courses were also supported by comments: “The required English and writing classes were populated only with fellow architecture students, not a mix with the liberal arts or engineering students – and the message was clear: ‘This class is a requirement, but I (the professor) know that your most important focus will always be on studio activities.’”

The survey concluded with optional, open-ended opportunities for respondents to provide additional feedback on the topic. While it is impossible to quantify in terms of positive or negative feedback or to make generalizations, the majority of the 85 respondents who commented described weaknesses in architectural education, and the differing degrees of importance placed on communication skills in academia and in practice: “Communication is one of the most critical skills required in the profession and greatly under emphasized and taught in architectural education.” And “People who are successful in architecture, including those who become owners and principals of successful firms are, almost without exception, extremely good communicators. Architecture schools neither emphasize nor teach those skills.” And “When you’re in school, no one tells you how important marketing is in architectural practice.”

Comments described both challenges and recommendations: “My architectural education prepared me to debate architectural theory and critique in an academic culture but not professional interaction with clients, non-architects, colleagues, subordinates, or the other folks we deal with in real life.” And “If architectural design problems were balanced with theory and practice it would be more well-rounded.”

Additional comments provided deeper insights into the challenges of communication in architecture on an academic level, practice level, and as these challenges affect the professional as a whole: “Many architects are poor communicators. In school, it is sometimes felt that the design itself will win the day. That’s not the case, and in fact, a client will appreciate the design even more if the concepts and solutions presented are communicated in a way that is understandable and meaningful to them.”

One of the most striking comments received — “We as a profession have not adequately communicated what architecture is all about and particularly its value both economic and social” — was echoed by other respondents and leaves the entire design community with a challenge. Should we continue teaching and practicing as we have in the past, or is now a fine time to rethink our priorities, reevaluate the academic curricula, and make a stronger case for ourselves and our profession?

What’s Next?

Both in the collected data and in the research process, the larger issue of communication in architecture is illustrated in survey participation (23 academics vs. 146 architects) and specific comments. But the research is merely a start.

While this study focused on a broad examination of communication in undergraduate education and communications skills in general architectural practice, a more focused research project could drill deeper into perceptions of adequate training, skill levels, professional necessity, and how specific communication skills (or lack thereof) might impact one’s professional success in the field of architecture.

Development of a formal architectural communication curriculum should involve both academic faculty and architects, and ideally, include the marketing, public relations, and business development professionals who help them win and promote their work. Ultimately, it will be the students — and future generations of architects — who benefit from increased dialogue and collaborative thinking on the subject.


Amanda Gibney Weko holds undergraduate degrees in architecture and writing. On the business side of architectural practice for 15 years, she has worked for and with architects, engineers, and related design professionals, offering writing and communication strategy through AGW Communications since 2003. She conducted the aforementioned research as part of a 2011 Master of Public Relations thesis.

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