Architects’ Presentations – Common Mistakes Part 2 – Visuals

Today I’ve been thinking about pictures.


Yes, you can have too many visuals, or at least too many visuals on a screen or a page. Architects produce beautiful visuals of all sorts. Sketches, photos, mood boards, all can be beautiful, and often are.

But, human beings can only process one piece of visual information at a time.  Some posh TV ads will take into account where the eye goes on each frame using eye tracking software. That’s because an image will be up for a second or less so you want to make sure the viewer isn’t looking at the nice lady’s shoes rather than the product.

Offer the eye lots of choices and you will get lots of variability.

We see many A1 folders where on a single page there will be a dozen small photographs, eight sketches, sixteen labels, six ‘swatches’ of materials and textures, a title, a sub-title and who knows what else.

Looking at them you can only assume the motto of the creator is “more is more”.

Many of them when printed are very effective. If you sit down and study them they tell a story.  It is a rich story that needs time to absorb.

But, almost none of them work as presentation material.  Projected onto a screen, or even printed on a board they dazzle.  The eye is confused.  You want them to focus on something, but they are looking elsewhere.

I have been shown thousands of these slides and virtually none of them worked.  They are often accompanied by words like, “as you can see we have produced many urban designs.”  But more often than not I didn’t see because I was looking at a funky bit of typography, or a sketch, or any one of the 50 images I had been shown.  The speaker assumed my eye went to the right image, but the speaker was wrong.

If you want me to look at something show me just that.

If you want me to see something clearly, make it big.

In print arranging 10 photographs on a page may look great. If I’m sat 20 feet from a screen it’s just frustrating. And many, many times, because I’m human, I’m distracted by something else.

We have worked with over 100 architects in the last couple of months. Each brought a presentation.  The one we liked best was made up of full-frame images (yes, just one) and a single word.  So, for presentations, we really do believe, less really is more.

THE ‘TEASE’ OR ‘REVEAL’  approach 

Everyone in our company has TV experience. I was an Executive Producer and after selling and staffing projects I was the “editor” of the programme.  Over many years it became obvious to me that nearly everyone learning their craft in TV would believe that the “tease” was a great way to tell a story.

We start on a road we don’t know where we are. The commentary says, “This is a story that begins on a lonely road.”  An unidentified person is heard saying. “We didn’t know what was going on.”  We cut to a car, but where is it going?

This approach can work, and can work brilliantly. In The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind it takes hours before the real story is revealed.  But, in real life it can just be annoying. In TV it is a recipe for channel flicking and so right now experienced Exec producers are sat in cutting rooms restructuring the front of numerous films while the young and talented Director sits sulking in a corner, and the experienced film editor is thinking “I knew this was going to happen”.

The architectural version is to have several very beautiful pictures of what the building/room/street/park/city will look like, but save them until the very end of the presentation. Only after we’ve sat through the process that you went through to create the design can we see what it will look like.  People in a room can’t channel flick, but I can assure you many of them would if they could – or at least they’d fast forward to the end.

We used to debate with Architects about this, but now we don’t.  We tell them to ALWAYS show the glossy picture first.

If you are having an internal debate about this, can I say, you are right that this can work. It is a way of describing the design as a story. But, our experience of watching hundreds of presentations taking this form is that more often than not it is a bit annoying and frustrating for the audience.

Also, I have 2 further reasons why you might change.

1. If everyone else is presenting as a ‘reveal’ then you will stand out.

2. People make decisions with their hearts – the picture speaks to the heart.  The process gives them the ideas to support their decision.  Get their hearts first, then give them the ideas to support it.

I think that’s enough for now. As a profession you produce brilliant visuals, it is the delivery of them that we’ve been considering.  Hope this is helpful. Comment or get in touch if you want to carry on the conversation.