Why (most) architects don't get digital

For super smart people who spend so much time imagining the future it seems odd that, when it comes to digital, architects are so stuck in the past.

Don't get me wrong, I love architecture and hold the profession in high regard. But I'm mystified as to why the digital revolution has been largely ignored by a profession so proud of integrating emerging technologies.

We recently carried out some research as part of a commission to develop a digital strategy for an established practice in London. We wanted to check the state of mobile adoption in the sector. We figured a good place to start would be the big guns, the award winners, and the ones that others want to be.

We made up our list* and visited each practice on a smartphone. Oh dear. I wouldn't advise you do this – it's a dispiriting experience that could make your fingers hurt and your eyes bleed.


Only 5 of the UKs top 140 architects have a responsive website

We discovered to our dismay that, of the 140 most awarded/respected/talked about practices in the UK, only 5 have a responsive website (take a bow dRMM, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Woods Bagot, HTA and Stiff + Trevillion). Don't architects own mobiles and use them to access the web? You'd be forgiven for thinking not.

It's a puzzling phenomenon when you consider that architecture is a fascinating, complex profession capable of delivering magic. Practices are full of gifted people producing rich visual, narrative and mathematical content that many of us mere mortals would find fascinating – if only we could find it on the device of our choice.


Endless Stair - by dRMM. (photo: Gary Knight)

Utility, elegance and delight

What really puzzles me is why user centred design considerations such as utility, accessibility, elegance and delight, so commonly used in the design of buildings, are abandoned when it comes to web. No self respecting architect, or client, would be happy with a finished building that made visitors struggle to get in the door, or find their way round and get so lost that they exit via the fire escape.

And yet many brilliant practices are represented online by the digital equivalents of buildings that are simply not fit for purpose. That have been built with in inferior materials, outmoded technology and not to current standards. And by this they do themselves a disservice.

Convex and Concave, 1957, MC Escher.

Digital DIY

For a profession so accustomed to collaborating with experts in associated fields (engineering, energy, transport, interiors etc.) in the digital realm, the will to accept others' expertise declines. It seems digital is devalued as something that can be home spun or outsourced on the cheap.

So far as I can tell, architecture is largely a people centred profession. Human considerations affect everything from space planning, ergonomics, safety and designing moments of delight. But the absence of human centred thinking and care for the user's experience, is at the core of why so many practices fail in digital.

We are in the relatively early phase of a building boom in the UK. Our architecture is admired everywhere and exported all over the world. I'd like to see the brilliance of our architects celebrated and made visible online. Accessible anywhere, on any device, with----out-----the-----struggle.

So, if you want a responsive website, how do you go about it?

1. Understand Responsive Design

Responsive design has been called the next stage in mobile and is widely accepted as the most effective way to provide mobile users with a positive experience whatever device they are using. In short, the content and layout of your site will automatically ‘respond’ to the size of device it is being viewed on. It offers businesses a highly flexible and efficient way to meet the increased expectations that people have for quality content, speed and usability while on the move.

2. Do some rapid user testing

The best way to understand the experience that your site offers visitors on a mobile is to gather together some colleagues and view it on your mobile/tablet. If you need to pinch/zoom to read text, you’re not providing a good experience for visitors and they will not thank you for it.

3. Put content first

Designing for mobile optimisation requires a rethink of your content. What works well on a desktop might not transfer well to mobile. You need to think about what is the most important content your visitors will require and prioritise that. You will face difficult decisions to make about what stays, and what goes.

4. Call in the experts

Finding a decent design agency to help you is easy. If in doubt, visit their site on your mobile. A decent agency will be able to take you through a rigorous but sensible process of defining your strategy, researching your audience needs, business requirements and content plan, all before showing you what the finished product will look like.

5. Plan for content

The importance of producing good content on an ongoing basis cannot be over stated. Work out who is best placed in your practice to collect, collate, curate or create the content that your audience wants, and give them the time and resources to make your new responsive site a winner.


* Sources:

Manser Medal 2013 (shortlist)
Stirling Prize 2013 (shortlist)
Architect of the year 2013 (winners)
Housing Design Awards 2013 (shortlist)
AJ100 (top 40).

Photo of Sean O'Halloran

Sean O'Halloran

Managing Director

Sean provides the operational leadership and spearheads strategic services offered to UXB clients. A seasoned entrepreneur and agency head during 2 decades of unprecedented business and technology advances, he has provided digital strategy advice and counsel to senior level clients in several public and private sector verticals.

Having studied fine art and then worked as a practising artist, he later set up a number of creative businesses with Paul Nunneley. The pair have worked together for 20 years.

Sean is responsible for all commercial dealings with clients and for making sure our expertise and services fit with client needs.


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