How understanding tone of voice can help architects, designers and creative businesses win work and get noticed.
When I go into an architecture practice as a freelance writer, one of the first things I do, after a good nose around the projects, is get a sense of their tone of voice. In some cases, this has been thought about by someone; it’s easy to pick up and is consistently used, so I adopt that style. In others, there is no specific guidance, anything goes. Sometimes, I’m there to help a firm work out what their tone of voice is and put together a style guide, or ‘brand book’. In this article, I’m going to look at what tone of voice means for creative studios, how it’s used and why it’s important to get it right.
What is tone of voice?
In writing, tone of voice is two things: your voice, which is consistent, and your tone, which varies according to the situation. It’s what you say and how you say it. As an architect, designer, or any creative business, whether intentionally or not, your choice of words will paint a picture of your brand and what you stand for. A distinctive voice can cut through the noise of social media and raise your profile. A memorable, well-worded approach can help you win work. Your written personality can influence whether people want to work with you, for you or buy your products.
“You have to point people to the innovation in a building, explain how something works, why it’s interesting and what sets you apart from every other Bjarke, Frank and Harry.”
It’s tempting to think that design speaks for itself, but you can’t afford to be enigmatic. There are projects to describe, planning documents to be publicly scrutinised, competitions judged partly on design statements, films that need scripts, images that need context. You have to point people to the innovation in a building, explain how something works, why it’s interesting and what sets you apart from every other Bjarke, Frank and Harry. And for that, you need to find the right words.
Branding for creative businesses is a large subject, which I won’t try to do justice to here, but tone of voice is key. When you’re determining the personality of your brand, the advice is to start with adjectives and choose a few that express your values. Consultants have invented many methods to do that, but put simply, what do you stand for? Or, what do people come to you for? It might be your integrity, because you are approachable, your technical prowess, diligence and efficiency. They might come to you for a provocative, unexpected solution, or they might appreciate your refined taste. It might be because you’re famous, or because you’re affordable. If you understand the qualities that people value in your business, you can amplify them through your choice of language.
What do values look like in a piece of writing? It’s the difference between a ‘utilitarian garden structure’ and a ‘shed’. It’s in the way you use pronouns like ‘our’ or ‘the’, whether you can find and allow humour, rules about sentence length, a preference for active or passive prose, positive and negative language, whether you would start a sentence with ‘and’, even how you punctuate: are you a semi colon or em dash? Like architecture, it means getting to grips with materials, building meaning with vocabulary and syntax. The blueprint is your tone of voice, set out in a style guide.
Style guides – the ‘brand book’
There are advantages to producing a style guide, beside setting out the best intentions. It’s easier to write confidently when you understand the expected tone and have a framework to help you. It can let you bring in freelancers and train new hires. The challenge is getting people to read and apply it. The writing of the style guide is therefore just as important – people are more likely to read it if it’s concise, accessible and explains its purpose.
There’s a lot to say about the principles of good writing, but a few general rules are particularly useful for architects. If you want to be inclusive and understood, don’t use jargon. No ‘fenestration’, ‘materiality’ or ‘programmatic adjacency’. Don’t use too many numbers in prose. Don’t try to ‘write well’. Don’t follow rules to the exclusion of sense. Be authentic in your style, don’t stray far from your instincts, or you’ll find the pretence a struggle to maintain. Be consistent, it builds trust. Firms often ask me to work on key practice texts, like their mission statement or ‘about us’ page. These bits of writing are important and establish the tone of voice, but to be credible, that voice has to be carried through to other channels.
One of the most visible, but precarious, places to address tone of voice is online. Social media has allowed architects to connect with a much wider, more general audience. In 2014, critic, Alexandra Lange wrote a column for Dezeen on its missed opportunities. There was a hope that these platforms could help to break down stereotypes about the profession, humanise large firms, even allow them to engage in more critical debate. Seven years on, few firms have done that. Most have used it as an extension of their existing communications, in the same broadcast mode. The only difference in tone is the use of contractions – ‘we’re delighted’ instead of ‘we are’ – and lots of ‘check out’ this or that. Established firms can find it hard to adapt their tone to be engaging online. It’s easier for young, growing practices – you feel invested in their progress, willing them on with every new project and press clipping.
The architects that do well tend to have an authentic tone of voice and understand the relationship between text and image. Norman Foster instinctively grasped the medium with his selfie on an inflatable unicorn. Everyone follows John Pawson for his golden hour photos. I follow Frida Escobedo’s photo diary, William Smalley’s terrier. Their captions reflect the medium, short and to the point.
Content marketing, not slogans
Longer opinion pieces and blogs also give a sense of the people behind the designs. A distinctive voice can make them more quotable. It can be challenging to allow individual voices to be heard within a collective — a political as much as a stylistic dilemma. Firms can be resistant if the release of information has traditionally been carefully controlled. A consistent tone of voice, which is well understood and adopted internally, is a helpful tool.
There are other things I haven’t touched on here: understanding the evolving use of pronouns, for example, and navigating politicised language. Another is slogans. Sometimes, I’m asked to come up with ideas for a pithy catchphrase. I don’t like to, it feels contrived. They all tend to sound like they’re plucked from the same transformative-innovation hat. Not every firm wants their voice to stand out — some want differentiation from their competitors, but still want to represent the same service and values.
These are a few of the things I have learnt during my time in design firms, establishing and being a custodian for the brand voice – perhaps the most important lesson is authenticity. Get in touch if you would like to discuss a project. There’s a quote I like in one of Peter Zumthor’s books, “the design process is based on a constant interplay of feeling and reason.” And so is writing. When you combine clarity of purpose and method with feeling, people might actually listen.
Sarah Simpkin is an architecture and design writer based in London.