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

Portfolio, Perspective, and Process

I attended a lunchtime seminar about firm marketing sponsored by the AIA a couple of months ago and learned something! But, that’s not the only news.

The presenter – an apparently successful marketing consultant for professional service companies in the northwest – made the pretty basic point that an architect’s project portfolio is not the largest component of a client’s criteria for selecting a firm. In fact, it may not be very important at all. Nevertheless, if you look at the websites of the vast majority of architecture firms, they are essentially digital portfolios with an added page or two of “about us” background information.

From a client’s point of view (which is where we must focus if we want work), there are three broad categories to consider in the selection process:

  • Portfolio
  • Perspective
  • Process

The firm’s portfolio of past work is certainly considered, but only as a means to qualify a firm for further consideration. It presents what the firm has done and communicates experience with similar project style, scope and scale. A strong and relevant portfolio gets the firm across the threshold and into the room with other firms, but then its importance in the overall process diminishes very quickly. [Note to self: avoid analogy to first base in baseball. Client’s process is non linear and all criteria relate directly to each other]

The firm’s perspective helps the client judge whether the firm is a good fit for the client’s culture and the project. It communicates who the firm really is, it’s priorities and point of view. [Note to self: do NOT compare to Match.com!] Is the firm deeply engaged in the green movement? Focused on avant garde design or on-time/on-budget constructability? Does it present itself as a corporation or a fun loving studio? Part of this is addressed explicitly in the ubiquitous “About US’ data, but much of this knowledge will be inferred from the firm’s associations, other writing (such as blogs), publications and, of course, portfolio of past projects.

The firm’s process tells a story of how the client and the firm can work together. Even the smallest building project is often an arduous journey, so the key message here is comfort that the road may be long, bumpy and twisted, but it is not mysterious. The firm communicates that it will be a competent and efficient driver on that road, first, by describing it to the client, and, secondly, by embarrassingly glowing references from prior clients who have traveled that road and prospered. If the portfolio tells about the firm’s past, the perspective describes the firm today, the process orients the client towards the future working with the firm.