Original drawings and freehand sketches impress competition juries far more effectively than the glitziest of digital renders, says Malcolm Reading
There’s a constant across all design competitions that essentially they frame an opportunity, and within that one headline chance, there are a number of concentric, smaller moments of potentiality.
Sometimes, at the jury interviews, one sees a competitor sense intuitively that they can win. They step in and own the presentation. Very often there’s an element of drama. But is the drama just showmanship, a form of perfected selling event? Or is something deeper going on?
In one of our early competitions for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge I vividly remember the great Ted Cullinan keeping the jury spellbound as he sketched ideas on an overhead projector. Certainly, the client was entranced by a feeling that their building would be graced in every detail by the hand of the master architect himself.
That was merely technique. But perhaps the essence of this act was that the jury had a glimpse into that rarest of alchemies: ideas becoming architecture.
That was only 15 years ago. The presentation techniques du jour are now glitzily tech: CGI renders, Z-Maps and wire fly-throughs. Some would argue that this provides clients and stakeholders with a better sense of the finished product. However, quietly and unobtrusively, something is being obscured or forgotten: the loss of connection with the creative energy of the designer.
Let’s look at what gets in the way of the crucial messages. Typically, there is too much information on a slide or board; unreadable font sizes; no contrast or hierarchy in the pattern of information. These prevent a full understanding of the scheme being presented, squarely the responsibility of the competitor. To quote Einstein: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’
I’m convinced that many of these errors are not intentional but a consequence of digital drawing systems. Working on a screen gives an artificial visual result: it’s great for one-to-one communication but falls apart in a bigger context.
I had a life-drawing tutor who told me to half-screw up my eyes when looking at a drawing. This sends everything to shades of grey and highlights lack of contrast, so it’s a great way to test whether something can be ‘read’ at a distance greater than a screen’s width.
A really valuable resource on the subject of communication and presentation is Edward Tufte. Tufte is a statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale. His four books on data visualisation are a brilliant and persuasive treatise, making the case for clear synthesis and communication.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough
Hugh Broughton, a successful winner of competitions, refers to the jury wanting to see ‘the hand of the architect’. Like it or not, most juries assume sceptically that digital renders are produced by architectural assistants or offshore providers. These visuals interpose themselves between the architect and the design. So, if you must use them, add in some original drawings – better still do a sketch in front of the jury, like Cullinan. This not only demonstrates your skill and personality, but is a deep and direct engagement with the client or jury.
Competitions often have restrictions on how a design can be presented – even defining the scale of plans and viewpoint for perspectives. But keep your flair intact. There is no rule saying you can’t refresh a drawing in an interview to emphasise a point or respond to a comment. But do it for emphasis, not for every question.
Malcolm Reading is chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants, a leading independent organiser of design competitions