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​Five tips for a successful online design review

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The AJ looks at the emergence of the remote design review for schemes which have been – or are about to be – submitted for planning. What do you need to know to make them work successfully?

Digital design review panels are different from their in-person counterparts. Everything from reading body language to visiting sites for context becomes much more difficult. 

But out of new challenges come fresh opportunities. The AJ has spoken to architects who have had their projects remotely scrutinised to provide these five nuggets of advice for getting the most out of – and impressing during – a digital design review.

1. Take detailed notes and rewatch the meeting

Talking to people over Zoom is a less effective means of communication than talking to people in real life. ‘The only key difference [about our digital design review] was the lack of instant ephemeral feedback: the subtle gestures and subconscious ticks we all have but only really pick up in person,’ says Bindloss Dawes co-founder Oli Bindloss.

‘You definitely miss the real-world interaction of body language,’ agrees Tarek Merlin, reflecting on a recent review he carried out with his practice, Feix&Merlin. ‘Presenting digitally is not the same as nuanced conversation.’

Pete Ladhams, managing director at Assael Architecture, has been on both sides of the table at digital design reviews. He agrees that some subtle and immediate feedback is lost – but he has a plan.

Digital panels do, he points out, offer a way to get more out of feedback. Firstly, detailed notes are much easier to take when you are at your computer and are not expected to hold eye contact with the person who is talking.

And, secondly, a digital panel allows you to record and rewatch the meeting so you can pick up on details missed first time around. As journalists already know, it is amazing what you can miss first time around and discover when playing back.

2. Talk less and choose your words more carefully

Staying focused into the third or fourth hour of any meeting can be tough. But, according to Ladhams, digital design reviews are even more gruelling than their in-real-life counterparts.

‘Full concentration on the tone of voice and what is being said at all times is essential, which is exhausting,’ he says. ‘Due to lack of body language and cues, [digital meetings] can be a lot more intense than a normal review.’

Short, sharp and relevant speeches are better received. ‘Less is more when it comes to what you have to say,’ advises Merlin. ‘Make sure you edit down your message to only what you think is absolutely necessary.’

The format of digital design reviews encourages this, as its harder to share productive dialogue, let alone informal chatter, with strangers over a video link.

Andy Inch, director at id architecture, said he found his digital design review to be ‘less conversational than it would have been in a face-to-face setting, as conferencing etiquette made it difficult to respond to questions without interrupting others.’

Refine your key message and resist the urge for frivolous quips, lengthy asides, or non-essential explanations.

3. Use more visuals

Because reviewers cannot visit sites nor absorb the proposal’s context, explaining the location and surroundings in some detail is much more important than normal.

Heike Neurohr, associate director at Hawkins\Brown, says her team is preparing for a panel with a 20-minute virtual site visit. ‘This is a combination of a fly-through animation of the area, based on Google Earth satellite and street-view imagery, recent site photos and context analysis maps,’ she says.

More is more when it comes to visuals in a digital presentation. Never under deliver on the visuals

But, even if your panel has already visited the site, ‘more is more when it comes to visuals in a digital presentation’, according to Merlin. ‘People can get bored staring at the same slide for too long, so, if in doubt, move on to the next slide.’

Neurohr, who has already been through one digital panel, says reviewers were ‘more focused on the material they were presented with than in a traditional setting.’

As everyone has their own screen, its much easier for panel members to see design details and follow explanations of drawings compared to a normal meeting room setting.

‘No need to over deliver on the words, but never under-deliver on the visuals,’ summarises Merlin. However, do make sure drawings and annotations are comprehensible to everybody who is likely to look at them.

4. Bring more people

There is a limit to the amount of people you can bring to a face-to-face design review panel without it being weird. But, over video link, the more the merrier.

‘We’ve found that going digital allows for a larger number of consultants to be on the call to answer questions on their various disciplines,’ says Assael boss Ladhams. ‘It turns what could be a number of calls or meetings into one.’

And it is not only external staff who can be pulled in. Non-presenting colleagues can provide a useful role in the meeting, providing feedback, extra information or prompts to a presenter in real time via WhatsApp or Slack.

‘This is something that would definitely not be conventional in a traditional boardroom setting – as we usually associate, not surprisingly, using laptops and phones as being rude,’ points out Ladhams.

Junior members of staff who would not normally be allowed in the board room for a review panel could also learn their trade by watching proceedings. Others in the practice and even students could watch the recording later – and learn from what has and hasn’t gone well.

5. Prepare for a digital panel

Preparing is clearly a good idea. Here are some extra considerations for a design review panel held over video link:

Firstly, make sure you appoint a chair. ‘Zoom presentations have to be carefully hosted and chaired,’ says Merlin. Neurohr agrees. ‘A clear protocol for speaking, with the chair playing a key role [is vital],’ she says.

Secondly, make sure the technology works: not only the main video link, but also presenting any slides, and side-chatting to colleagues. If your presenter has dodgy Wi-Fi, then you need a back-up presenter.

Thirdly, ensure that all the necessary files are easily accessible – and you know where everything is. It is easier to rummage through papers, folders and files to find a statistic or drawings than it is through a server.

Finally, practise your succinct presentation. Merlin points out presenting can be ‘disconcerting’ as ‘once in full-screen and share-screen mode, you can’t really see other people and most of them are muted, so you can’t hear them either.’

It is worth getting used to this because, unless you are receiving live feedback from colleagues, the only thing to do is plough on and hope people are still listening.

Do you have other suggestions? Leave them in the comments below.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Jonathan Braddick - Architect & Design Review Panel Manager

    I manage The Design Review Panel (www.designreviewpanel.co.uk) and we have held quite a few sessions from across the UK on Zoom now and found it works extremely well.

    In terms of site visits we are now carrying these out using 360 degree photographic tours (https://www.designreviewpanel.co.uk/360virtualsitevisit)

    Oliver is right, conversation does not flow as smoothly & has to be more linear, but as long as the session is chaired well this can actually be a positive, and prevents those taking part from interrupting each other or waffling!

    In terms of presentation, screen sharing, screen recording and the ability to add mark ups are all really useful tools that actually offer some benefits over a traditional face to face session.

    Overall there are many positives to the new way of carrying out design review panel sessions online using video conferencing, not least the reduced travel time and associated emissions!

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