How do we communicate with our clients in a way they will understand without relinquishing our credibility? practicemakes_ explores a key take-home from the AIA’s recent NSW Country Division ArchiMeet in Katoomba.


“Amenity? Isn’t that where I do a wee?” That was comedian Tim Ross’ response to a question about how he thinks the general public want to be spoken to by architects. It is a valid point, a bit like a graphic designer trying to explain the nuances of typography through technical words like leading and kerning, when really the statement should just be “It is designed that way to make it easier to read.”

Comedian and presenter, Ross’ free-form talk to the AIA’s NSW Country Division in Katoomba on Friday raised eye brows through its content as much as his favoured and rather flavoured vocabulary. It was refreshing to hear someone speak so directly about architecture and yes, there more than a few F-Bombs thrown in.

Though the theme for the day was tourism, Ross’ comment created a tangential discussion among those who attended. Bravely, he suggested that architects generally communicate well individually but as a group they fail and that the public perceive them as being a little, um, arrogant. Surprisingly this went down pretty well in a room of fifty less-than-arrogant regional architects.

Along side Ross, architects John Whittingham of Allen Jack + Cottier and Todd Henderson of Cumulus Studio spoke about their work in the tourism sector. Whittingham discussed their master-planning of Broken Hill while Henderson walked us through his Tasmanian studio’s approach and stunning portfolio of tourism related projects.

To round out the day Janne Ryan hosted a Q&A with Whittingham, Henderson and event curator, Mudgee-based architecture Cameron Anderson. In the absence of Ross (who had to return to Sydney), it was interesting to see the conversation shift from tourism to the topic of communication – clearly he had struck a chord.

Henderson, who is currently working on a revitalisation of the Cradle Mountain visitors centre in Tasmania spoke of the challenges they face in working with government to get major public projects off the ground. He highlighted that, while the MONA effect has shifted the mainlander perception of Tasmania, it is still very much and island trapped in the past. With vast unemployment and the demise of the logging industry many don’t understand why the government would fund such an expensive project when the money could be better spent in creating jobs.

Using industry jargon implies a level of intelligence and after all those years studying why not show that we are well-educated?

Whittingham faces similar challenges in Broken Hill and suggests that if there was a local architect to collaborate with the Sydney-based practice might have found it easier to avoid what he described as the blow-in effect where they are perceived as outsiders. Such a collaboration would have enabled them to engage with and understand the local community in a more efficient and beneficial manner.

The challenges both of these architects’ face are based on perception and with the word ‘arrogant’ fresh in the audience’s mind – the conversation led to how this can be resolved. Education was identified as one source of the problem, it was suggested that architects are trained to speak in a certain language and indeed, in any creative industry we are taught the dialects of our discipline.

That said – ArchiSpeak or DesignerTalk is important – especially when discussing the value of your work with peers, colleagues or with councils and government. The big words show that we know what we are on about and reinforce the importance of engaging with our professions but when it comes to broadcasting the message to the general public perhaps we need to reach for a different dictionary.

Using industry jargon implies a level of intelligence and after all those years studying why not show that we are well-educated? Well, sure but if we come back to the point that Ross was making, we need to retain that intelligence but be more intelligent about the way we communicate. In-short, we need to pick our audience and speak appropriately.

Yes, it is true that some clients might feel empowered by a little insider-knowledge and some clients might already have that knowledge but at the end of the day – to engage the public in our process we just need to explain that the piece of design they are being offered functions, or should we say works. Regardless of discipline we need to do that in a way that makes sense to the person who is listening.

To dissect Ross’ statement, your local council will understand the word amenity but the average punter just wants to know where it is they can go to the loo.


Tim Ross is the presenter of the ABC series Streets of Your Town.

To become a member of the Australian Institute of Architects or the NSW Country Division head here.

The next Country Division ARCHImeet will be held in Byron Bay – late May.