Essays & Essais – the new book by David Marlatt, AIA, is now available for pre-order!

DNM logo

Architect Lexicon: Inform

Like all professions, architects share a jargon that can be confusing to clients and other mortals. Many words are useful and inevitable shorthand that improve our efficiency, some are silly but harmless, but some words reflect habits that we pick up in school and don’t question enough later in life. 

For example, everyone is familiar with personification, the attribution of human traits to objects as in “the angry sky cried tears of rain as the wind howled.” Architects, however, sometimes apply this literary device to abstract ideas by claiming – with great sincerity -that one idea can “inform” another idea. For example, “the design’s Palladian classical parti* ‘informed’ our decision to ignore the client’s budget.” This is generally followed by a more appropriate use of the verb “inform,” as in, “the client informed the architect to try again.”

Using personification to breathe life into the inanimate is an invaluable literary device, but personifying concepts and ideas is, at best, a wasteful mannerism, and, at worst, a sure sign of the speaker’s lack of security in the idea being conveyed. By claiming that an idea “informed” a decision, the architect is shifting responsibility and keeping a distance from his or her own choices. It is a way of saying that he or she does not understand, cannot defend, or cannot articulate the reasons behind the choice or decision that was made.

Ideas exist in the mind, and they don’t talk to the decisions (who are too pig-headed to listen, anyway). They are not independent actors or outside consultants to the design process. The architect is not a spectator, but the conductor of an orchestra of ideas. I, the architect, research, analyze, discard, and sculpt many ideas until, wrongly or rightly, I form an opinion and make a decision.

Then, I inform the client that we are over budget…

* parti: the basic organization of a design. You are unlikely to receive an evite for a parti.