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How to present to planning officers, clients or the general public

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What to do, and what to avoid, when presenting to review panels, heritage groups, and more…


By the time architects have expended the necessary brain-power to produce a decent design, there is little left in the tank to produce a really convincing presentation.

That, at least, is the conclusion one might draw from the frequent failure of architects to do justice to their projects when they are presenting them to review panels, clients, planning officers, heritage groups or the general public.

In each case, the presentation needs to be designed with proper attention to detail; this involves thinking not just about the material available (or which may need to be prepared), but about sequencing, duration and emphasis. What is the specific aim of the presentation, and how will that best be achieved, bearing in mind the target audience?

For example, in presenting to a public meeting, architects need to drop the professional jargon, keep it simple and strategic, and use simple devices, such as a working model, to explain what is going on. Orientation will always be important, making the audience feel comfortable that the architects really understand their town and the area. The presenter who can’t remember the name of an important local street raises hackles; so too do architects who are not familiar with the basic walking and travel patterns in a particular area. And if comparisons with other places are to be made, it is a good idea to think about references with which the audience will be familiar, rather than obscure places you saw on your architectural holiday.

By contrast, presentations to a professional panel (which could be selecting an architect or reviewing a proposal) should be conducted on a different basis. You start with much common experience and a certain amount of professional shorthand is appropriate. But remember that a more sophisticated group will not be interested in marketing propositions; it will want evidence that there is a design rationale behind what you are proposing.

So a few suggestions on what to do and what to avoid, whoever you are presenting to.

  • Models are always impressive; they do not have to be expensive finished pieces. They should preferably show topography, and always show more than the red line site within which you are designing.
  • Everyone is interested in the history of the site/area, so show comparative plans, old photos etc to provide context.
  • Explain how people get to and move around the area under discussion; your proposal should enhance access rather than limit it unless there are powerful reasons otherwise.
  • Show how the proposal will enhance the general area, not just its site, and how it relates to neighbours in terms of height, bulk etc.
  • Put your proposal into a wider context; for example if you are designing a tall building you may need comparisons from a broader area than the immediate context.
  • Show how traffic and parking will work, and how you are addressing issues such as road crossings.
  • Offer a visual explanation of how your design has emerged; the most convincing presentations are those where the audience senses inevitability about the architectural decisions made, and feels comfortable about them.
  • Be clear about what is a given on the site (eg density, height, awkward topography, servicing arrangements), and what are matters that you as a designer have taken a decision on.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to discuss design options which were rejected along the way – discussing them makes you look like someone who is prepared to think, which gives panels a comfort factor.
  • Don’t just present a project in terms of constraints, as though the solution is one big compromise. Convey your enthusiasm for the project you are presenting as a coherent design in its own right – which happens to deal effortlessly with the relevant constraints.

Finally, don’t be thin-skinned about criticism, especially from expert panels. Listen to what’s said, go away, and think about it. If you believe the panel has got it wrong then you should stick to your design guns and be prepared to argue it out. Just make sure your story really adds up.

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