Why Architects Have an Iceberg Problem – and What to Do About It

Architecture projects are usually conveyed to non-architects through gorgeous, high-res photos that show the finished space. These photos are incredibly important. When they’re the only part of the project story that gets told, though, it can have a negative effect on selling new commissions.

Photos Can Create an Iceberg Problem

The problem with only showing final photos is what is known as the “iceberg problem”: people only see a thin sliver of the work, and aren’t aware of the massive amount of expertise, skill, and labor that went into making those beautiful photos a reality.

This can make it difficult for people to understand the value your architecture firm brings to a project and why they should invest in your fees.

Historically, architects have been reluctant to show prospective clients what goes into their work. That kind of information has been reserved for articles in Architectural Record or conferences because the assumption is that only other architects can understand and appreciate all of those details and decisions.

While lay people may not be familiar with specific architectural terms, the problems that they need to solve are universal. By explaining how you identified and resolved someone else’s problems, you help prospects understand what you could do for them. You also instill confidence in your abilities, because you have proof that you can do what you say. Put another way, your skills aren’t theoretical.

The reluctance to show more of one’s work also assumes that prospects will agree to hire an architect based solely on a photo. There may be people who are willing to hire an architect because they liked a photo of a project. However, these can often turn into problem clients who don’t accept that their project will be different from the one in the picture because they have different site conditions, different climates, different budgets, etc. Good clients will be more likely to hire a firm that can explain its approach.

How to Solve the Iceberg Problem

Showing more of the process behind your work doesn’t have to devalue your work or pander. The goal is to help people understand the success of your work and respect their intellect at the same time.

Progress photos

They’re often not pretty, and that’s the point. Progress photos, especially when accompanied by an explanation of what’s going on in the photos, can be very effective in helping people understand how something went from what it was to the much better space you created.

Drawings and rendering

Drawings and renderings are useful for new-construction projects. Their usefulness is directly related to how much is explained, though. While architecture colleagues will be able to immediately understand the significance of the drawings, lay people will likely need a little assistance. Renderings are preferable because they are visually similar to what non-architects are used to seeing in photos and in real life. If you do use drawings, select ones that are simple and consider providing several sentences of explanatory text.

Project descriptions

While many architecture firms incorporate project descriptions on their websites, too few use language that can be easily understood by prospective clients. The most important part of writing project descriptions is to not write them for other architects. It doesn’t matter if a partner at your rival firm appreciates the complexity of your work unless she’s going to be a client.

Write for people who don’t have architecture degrees. For each project, create a one-sentence answer to the question, “What did you do?” The answer should focus on the problem that you solved, in plain language. This will make it easier to speak with someone about the project in casual conversation or during a call. Next, create a longer project description that can be used on your website, in RFP responses, and in other marketing materials. Try to address questions like these:

  • Who was the client, and what was the problem the client was looking to solve?
  • What kind of project was it? (Renovation, new construction, addition, adaptive reuse, etc.)
  • What were you starting with?
  • What did you identify as the best solution, and why?
  • Were there any obstacles to implementing that solution? This could be anything: lack of budget, zoning ordinances, materials issues, soil conditions, client refusals, etc.
  • How did you overcome those obstacles, or adjust your approach?
  • What was the result? Again, focus on the problem you set out to solve. If the problem was “The client needed space for 100 additional hospital beds,” the result might be “The new wing provides ample space for 100 additional hospital beds. Advanced acoustical and lighting systems were integrated to allow the wing to be used for a variety of patient cases.”
  • Is there anything about the budget or the timeline that you would like to share? Be judicious in sharing this information. Sometimes it can lead prospects to make assumptions about your fees or how fast work can be delivered when in reality these factors are specific to each project.

Project walkthroughs

Ideally, a prospect would be able to physically experience the space of your signature projects. Since that isn’t always going to be possible, project walkthroughs are videos or series of photos that allow a prospect to experience the next best thing. As with other visual representations, you’ll want to include some form of narrative explanation so people understand the significance of what they’re looking at.

Statements from project stakeholders or occupants

In many cases, the best evidence of your skill as an architect is the experience of the people who occupy the spaces you design. Statements (“testimonials” can have a bad ring to it) from owners, residents, commercial tenants, physicians, teachers, and other end-users about how their lives have been improved by your work are incredibly powerful — and exactly the kind of thing that can cause a prospect to choose you over another firm.

Showing Your Work Means Better Opportunities

Architects who are willing — and even eager — to explain their work will find not only receptive audiences but more and better project opportunities.

Patience Jones