Surviving a design jury presentation: The essential guide. 

Design juries can be terrifying. It doesn’t really matter if you are an architect or a student the experience can be soul destroying. Get it wrong and you can lose the job or fail. Get it right and you live in order to fight another day. Standing in front of a group of critics can determine if you get the job; or the prize; or if you are at architecture school, a pass in  design studio. It’s much harder to present if you haven’t done enough work or you don’t really believe in the project. But speaking well in public and knowing the essential lessons of presenting a design can be the difference between passing or failing.

I have sat in on numerous design and award juries. The awards or the commissions don’t normally go to the architects who talk too long, speak in jargon, or bore the jury with an explanation of the stair and or toilet details. So here are a few essentials that will help calm the nerves and get you through if you are not used to public s peaking or always find presenting to a jury harrowing.

Timing 

When you are presenting to a jury. Get the timing right. Don’t run over time or drone on. Architects are notoriously bad at timing there talks. As a student I went to the old AIA International Lecture series. All I  remember is Hans Hollein talking for around 3 hours straight. Aldo Van Eyck was the same. Will Alsop did it to us as well. Each time it happens to me it is excruciating. It doesn’t really matter how good the work was an overly long talk will kill any audience interest or curiosity. But, at least Will Alsop was kinda interesting because he was long winded as well as being drunk. But I still would have given him an E for going over time.

A picture says a thousand words

If you are smart, or English is your second language you don’t have to say a lot. The more diagrams, images or other representations you have to present the less you have to say. The less visual material you have on the wall the more you have to explain what is not there. There is nothing worse for a jury than seeing an under designed scheme that is then talked up, explained and elaborated in words.

In presenting to a jury architects need to remember to right balance between about talking and what is on the wall or on the digital files. Architects are visual and jury members like to look at images. I tend to think it is better to have more visual material than text on your drawings or images. There is nothing worse than having a few thousand words of detailed and so called explanatory text on architectural presentation pdfs. A short summary of the concect is good. Like an abstarct it should be no more than 300 words or so. The rest should be diagrams including, charts, graphs, flow charts and conceptual diagrams explaining the concept. Minimal text is good. As well as two and three dimensional views that explain the design.

In short there should be enough visual material on the wall to make your life easy explaining it. You wont always be there to explain you work. This is particularly the case for competitions and when a jury member or critic reviews the project later. So the layout and the visual argument of the design with any supporting diagrams is very important. This is why clear and communicative graphic skills are important.

Just cutting and pasting the renders out of the virtual world into photoshop and then sending them straight to the printer doesn’t really work. Slapping together a layout doesn’t really work. Keeping it in the computer up until the last minute doesn’t really work. Over-talking or over-texting the project doesn’t work.Filling your drawings with slabs of text doesn’t really work.

As a presenter of a design the aim is to lead the juror’s and critic’s eyes to the drawings. The aim of what you say is to get them to understand the visual argument and, in the minds, to inhabit the space. What you say to a jury in words must be linked to the images.

Don’t avoid talking about the concept 

Some architects find it difficult to talk in conceptual or theoretical terms. This may be in apart training and it is usually because for some architects it is easier not to talk about history, aesthetics, compositional processes, form, critical theory or the politics of urbanism. But this is exactly the sort of thing a jury wants to hear.

Bad presenters or architects, or students, who have not got a great content on the wall talk a lot about the other stuff. Like, what they had for breakfast. How their semester shaped up in terms of blow by blow and sequential description of how the design happened. Usually the easiest way to do this is to talk about everything that doesn’t matter. There is nothing worse than hearing a long winded talk about the pragmatics of  project. Siting, briefing, sustainable technologies, construction and materiality, client and user preferences can all too easily dominate any presentation. A great design is not simply a response to these factors; nor should it sound like it.

Most jury members and critics are architects who know a lot about that kind of stuff. Good architects have mostly spent there life trying to escape from the contingencies of pragmatic design. Mostly they are there because they have an interest in the strategic issues, problems and broader views not the details. Jurors and critics want to hear and talk about the big ideas. For a jury member going to an awards presentation is a bit like going to one of those TED talk thingys. As a jury member you want and expect to hear about life the universe and everything in relation in a very focused way.  Design Jurors and critics like to debate ideas in relation to the design. Give them what they want and don’t avoid talking about the conceptual apparatus and how it has shaped the building.

Of course, if you just talk about life the universe and everything and not the project design then you should be doing philosophy.

Structure 

Guide the jurors eyes to the design. The way you structure the presentation should reflect this. Avoid the “this is what I had for dinner” or the “passage through life” syndromes. Get to the point. The first thing a jury wants to here is about are ideas. This will give them the context from which their eyes will begin to apprehend and understand the design and inhabit the building in their imaginations.

Do it as an elevator pitch. In three or four sentences you should be able to say what the project is about. What is it’s over riding concern or concept? The sooner the jury is familiar with this the more they will feel comfortable with looking at the design. Don’t leave the concept to the last minute. The best way to present to a jury is as follows. The improtant thing is to guide the jury to the design and the images which describe it.

You also need to lead the jurors thought the building. You can do this by describing how they enter the building, how they circulate thought it and what qualities of light or spatial qualities it has once they are inside or moving through it. The point is that you need to guide, not unlike a tour guide, the jury members or critics through your design.

  1. Introduce your self and the concept
  2. Quickly describe 3 or 4 ways that the concept has shaped the design of the building.
  3. Lead the jurors through the design quickly discuss: Siting, main entrances, circulation and spatial qualities of different spaces.
  4. Summarise what the design contributes to design knowledge and what you would do to evolve the design further.

And then you can be ready questions. Of course you in the above scenario there are whole lot of things you have not spoken about. Like materials or what or how its constructed or where the toilets or parking are. Some jurors like to ask these questions and by not mentioning them and yet being prepared for them. You will end up sounding knowledgable and thoughtful. Nevertheless, the main aim in the question period is to get a discussion going about the design, its associated concepts and what it says about the designers attitudes towards the particular type of architectural or urban problem the design encapsulates.

Public Speaking 

Don’t speak as if you are channeling a bad power point slide. A badly formatted template with crap images and too much detail on each slide. Keeping it simple is best.

I once saw the director of an architectural firm destroy his firm’s chances of getting  a $150M project by the ineptitude of his presentation. After 10 minutes everyone in the audience felt the same. After 10 more minutes I wanted to stab myself in the eye with a biro. The problem was that the presentation went on for another hour. It was scheduled to be only 35 minutes. The firm did not get the job and the primary topic of conversation in my email inbox, by other attendees, the next day was how bad it was. I just hope someone told him.

All the rules of public speaking apply. Don’t forget to wear your bow tie or best shoes. Get a good nights sleep before hand and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. Practice in front of your grandmother or your non-architectural friend’s. See if they get it. After all it could mean the difference between getting the architectural commission or doing the Uber thing: Who wants to be an Uber driver after seven years of study?

 

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