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BEAUTY: More Important Than Image

October 7, 2018


5 years ago or so, I was asked to write a piece on PR and it’s role in architecture for a branch of the American Istitute of Architects. I have a fair amount of exposure over the years, not so much in the New Era of tinier venues. So I have a large footprint for a tiny firm on a variety of internet platforms.

I knew I was being asked to offer clever advice and insights to game a system of recognition that benefits the relentlessly self-promoting. Well I relentlessly self-promote. Because I have to. My work is not of the avowed Modernist “Canon” (as the picture above indicates). But additionally what I do is not so appealing to the “Neo-Traditional” Canon either. (Ditto the aesthetic Trugger Warning).

As it turns out that I get some affirmation simply because the work appeals to people that want to build, but not in this century to people who want credibility by publishing “correct” work. So I wrote abiut that.

It was up, in a corner of a corner of the Internet for a couple of years, and then vanished, for whatever reason, but under any Canon, I am only ‘correct” under one set of principles: that people find Beauty in it.

So it was wiped from view by the voice of a Canon that I was made Fellow in last year (the AIA): not just for my aesthetics but for my impact on those who design and those who might want design services:

Including a former intern who put this piece on his website and thus it survives: What goes on the Internet never dies: so you can read this:

It’s Not The Media: It’s The Work

By Duo Dickinson, AIA

A very nice woman emailed my office last week, and was interested in auditioning me to be her architect after seeing my Houzz Profile. I had created that series of images and words at the behest of my publisher before my last book. That contact was nothing new, but the process of connection was nothing like it was 30 years ago.

Every mechanism of client contact has changed, starting with HOUZZ – that now states “HOUZZ is the new way to design homes.” To me, HOUZZ is 4,000,000 images and limited enlightenment. I now have 134 “followers” and 33 “reviews” on HOUZZ, – all seemingly positive, and I do put pics there occasionally. I have not updated the written content (my office is 25 years old, and holding) and I created 4 “Ideabooks” at their behest – which I liked, but were a dead end for the site: which wanted more captioning than commentary, an act of authorship that took time in getting the deep background about the projects.

I have gotten no work from the few calls I have gotten from investing about 40 hours of staff time and 20 hours of my writing time. A lot of curiosity, but no work for this architect.

In contrast, I had over 700 calls over 15 years and had perhaps 40 projects result from one 1994 article in the New York Times.

That print exposure resulted in letters and phone calls, which resulted in me taking a slide projector to each and every home, with a show tweaked for each potential client. Back then, there were no websites to direct people to, no email to send links to articles to. Instead, I spent about $20,000 in printing and staff time a year to create full color PR packets – one for new homes and one for additions – not a home-brew “brag book”, but articles on my work, mostly written by others – 3rd party validation.

15 years ago I created a website on a Homestead platform. It is the dumbest of sites that I refuse to transition to a Flash-based movement/fade/sound/video nightmare that crashes potential clients’ IPhones and expectations. We update every month or so, costing about $1,000 a year in time. Many (but never architects) gush “I LOVE your website”! To be user friendly is better than to be beautiful, it seems. The most obvious change since cyber land invaded my efforts at client contact has been the mode of communication; now most email, some call, but we receive almost no letters (although one was in the mailbox last week, and I met them last weekend.)

I also entered, and enter, a few competitions each year to few good ends.

Although I have never paid for advertising or pay-for-play/vanity publishing, I do offer my services up for charity auctions and put ads in charity event programs. We also email blast articles/writings/awards to lists of stakeholders (perhaps 700) via Constant Contact once or twice a month – with a 40% “open” rate and few “opt outs”.

Whatever we have done it has worked – in about 30 years we’ve had over 900 clients who have built over 700 things. I have never laid an employee off, missed a payroll or a mortgage payment – I, personally, have no money, but hey, its 2014 and I am an architect. Our office has between 40 and 60 projects in some stage of reality at any given time, and we do build about 70% of what we start.

The big change that has been wrought by the “new” media is not the number of new jobs – that seems constant despite the rollercoasters of boom/bust – but in the fact that by pre-screening us people know what I do before they reach out. One 1990’s slide show victim was so uncomfortable looking at what I do on the slide projector that she leapt at the chance to have me stop, and leave.

Just like 30 years ago I still personally visit everyone interested in any work of any size. I never charge, but if visits require travel costs those get covered. The net-net is we get about one contract for every 3 visits – versus the pre-website era where we signed about 1 in 5 potential clients to do the work.

Now, however, 20 plus national shelter magazines have dwindled to a few, a book or two a year trickles out of a few publishers, and so I now have the most fun creating a blog solicited by the local newspaper, that has had over 64,000 visits in 4 years with zero advertising. No work has ever been generated by it, but people say they like it, and Karma may just accrue to branding.

At the behest of a literary friend of friend of mine I created a Facebook site, early, when mostly celebs and media freaks were on it, and now I post writings and projects there every day. I have over 1,500 “friends” about half of whom I have never met. Similarly my publisher wanted me to do a Wikipedia page that hasn’t been updated in 3 years, and I have no idea what it does.

My publisher said “you should be tweeting” so I do: photos and articles and links everyday ( – I have over 600 “followers” without paying a service to gin up the numbers (apparently quite a business). There seems to be a few people finding my blog thru it, but otherwise its reality is inscrutable to me.

More important than all the social media efforts I actually do what I believe in: meaning I am on 7 not-for-profit boards, contribute work, either fully or partially to about 1/4 of the projects in the office that are for not-for-profits, give copious amounts of free advice with zero expectation of getting work. This extends to radio where I cohost a show and being the architecture critic for the local paper.

Of course, writing 7 books and having a long resume of honorific factoids helps but all of this PR effort, all of it, is meaningless without 3 essential realities:

1) We do work that is, objectively, interesting and competent – shallow trendiness or safety-in-pandering or design-for-the-camera is not in my genome.

2) We partner with clients and create a personal relationship that survives all the ups and downs that occur in life and building – our open-ended, client-based design process takes longer, but it creates a deep trust in the value of my work.

3) Despite all the media I employ, it is a guileless, transparent effort without an agenda. It’s an open book practice, where I talk frankly about our focus, process, failures, as well as strengths.

So tomorrow I show my work to those people who saw images on HOUZZ, not with pictures or articles but in person, up-close-and-personal, visiting four sites, at their request. That personal touch is only possible because those four clients whose homes we are visiting experienced the follow thru that should follow every successful public-focused act of self-promotion.

Because it’s not how you present the work, or the rush of getting the work that matters, it’s how you actually do the work, and the value of what gets built to those who build it. If the product fits the site, meets the budget, loves the clients, and does not leak: you will get more work. If it does not, you will not have new work based on what was built – no matter what the hype.

That’s because of the dirty little unspoken buzzkill of the architectural hype industry – that, despite HOUZZ and the New York Times, 90% of the contracts we sign have come from some level of personal referral, not PR and self-promotion – new school or old school.

The article happens to have the benefit of being true. But the best part of the piece is its introduction:

“A great article written by the first Architect I worked with. I still remember my first task…building a stick model of a staircase.

Damien Busillo October 28, 2014

I grew up in Madison, Connecticut. A small, rural beach town along the coast of central Connecticut. While attending Architecture School in Savannah, I would always return home during the summers to get a jump start on the Intern Architect requirements. My first taste of this industry was working for Duo Dickinson, architect, in 1999. His insight, knowledge, love of work, and leave-your-ego at the door approach to being an Architect has stayed with me to this day.”

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