Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you decide to work with architects after working many years in the publishing business as an editor?
Words have always been my thing. For many years I worked with people who wrote words for a living, as an editor at Penguin Books. Then I left my lovely job at Penguin for a short stint in Paris (which is another story) before taking a leap and setting up on my own.
As well as editing, I was teaching on Creative Writing courses, and that’s what led to something a little bit different: running workshops for people who weren’t writers – and didn’t want to be writers – but had to write things.
It was a bit of an epiphany. Words are something we all need, and whatever job we do it’s likely we’ll have to write things. Yet for many people writing is a real stumbling block. A brilliant idea isn’t worth much if you can’t find a way to express it, and what you write really can make a difference to whether people decide to work with you.
I’d been cloistered in the world of writers and publishing for long enough, and now I was ready to leave it all behind. But I soon realised that I needed to narrow down my market and work out who I actually wanted to work with.
The answer came to me pretty quickly: architects.
This was a profession I’d be very happy to work alongside. And when I started doing some serious research, scrolling through hundreds of architects’ websites, I realised architects were clearly brilliant at what they did but they just didn’t know how to put that across to the rest of us. Here was something I could definitely help with.
What you do is a unique creative support service for many architectural practices. How do you work with architects and what do you provide for them?
In the first few years of running Architypal, I was doing a lot of writing for my clients. At the same time I was running workshops – for the Museum of Architecture, for the RIBA, and for quite a few practices too. So on the one hand I was saying, ‘I can do the writing for you’, and on the other I was saying ‘Writing is a great way of developing your thoughts and getting to grips with what really matters to you. It should be an integral part of what you do’.
The two threads of my work weren’t quite joining up, so that’s when it was time for me to get my own story straight. It was time for me to decide what really mattered to me, and how best I could help my clients in the long term. So now, to borrow the old Chinese proverb, I teach people how to fish.
Coming up with the words for a new website is such a great opportunity to get to the bottom of what you do and why you do it. It means you can ‘own’ your story – both in terms of being comfortable telling it, but also in terms of welcoming new chapters and allowing it to evolve. So many architects fall into the trap of launching a shiny new website and then seeing it become dusty and out of date. That doesn’t need to happen.
After giving my clients the tools to write about themselves and their work, I often stay on board to act as editor/sounding board/fresh pair of eyes. And sometimes I come back on board as a writer, but in a very collaborative way – my clients are fully involved in the process.
How do architects realise they need such a service and find you? Or is it the other way around; do you approach them first?
A lot of architects don’t realise they need me. They’re getting work, and they’re doing just fine. But are they really going in the direction they’ve chosen, or are they simply reacting to what’s landing on their desk? Are they appealing to their perfect potential clients so as to get more of the work they truly want? Probably not. Most of us are so busy doing what we do (and I’m guilty of that too) that we don’t stand back and think about where we’re headed.
When I first started out, I had to be very proactive about going out and finding clients. That was worthwhile in itself, and I enjoyed going to industry events (pre-Covid!) and making connections. But now I don’t need to be so proactive, and I much prefer it that way. I want my clients to be hungry – and excited – for what I can offer them.
Often it’s simply word of mouth, from one architect to another. But I’ve got a great network of fellow consultants – communications specialists, other writers, business coaches, web designers – and we all support each other. If I can see, for example, that it would really help one of my clients to work with a business coach alongside the work they’re doing with me, I’ll make the introduction, and that works in the other direction too.
It’s great for clients because they’re tapping into a whole network of people who can help – and, for us, it’s a lovely way of finding new clients. There’s trust and connection even before you start.
Can you tell a bit about your client profile and your recent works? Do you work with PR agencies as well?
I love working with small practices with a strong vision. There’s often a passion and a purpose there, and everyone is fully on board with the process. And running workshops with small practices on Zoom can work brilliantly.
But I also work with larger practices. At Studio Egret West I ran a workshop for the whole studio (this was before the first lockdown), and you can see the results of that workshop on their ‘People’ page. It’s amazing how easily the words flow if you give someone a different way of approaching the blank page; these bios give such a good sense of the energy and creativity within the practice.
I used to feel it was really important to meet my potential clients in their studios or offices – that was a crucial step in forming a rounded picture of who they were – but obviously the first lockdown made that impossible. And one of the interesting things for me was how quickly I adapted and how quickly my ‘catchment area’ grew as distance became irrelevant.
Until then most of my clients had been in London and the South East, and then within the space of a couple of weeks, I had new clients in Cheltenham, Manchester, Glasgow, and Reading. It was as if my world expanded at the same time as it was shrinking. I see that as a real positive of an otherwise difficult year.
I have a few PR agencies within my close network, and they’ll put me in touch with their own clients who I might be able to help, and vice versa. So I work alongside them rather than for them. And I don’t write press releases – that’s a very particular skill, and I quickly learnt that it wasn’t my forte!
Architects often like to use technical jargons and ostentatious metaphors while describing their projects. Considering that you didn’t receive architectural training, do you have difficulty communicating with your clients?
I’ve worked with architects long enough to have a good idea about what they’re trying to get at when they slip into jargon. But my lack of architectural training is a positive – I’m like a potential client, someone who’s really excited by what you can do and wants to hear, in clear and simple language, how you can help.
It can be useful to think of jargon as shortcuts. It’s not always bad, and between architects it does speed up discussions. But clients are unlikely to be fluent in your particular jargon, so if you’re using it to talk to them, your words won’t hit home. Imagine them asking ‘So what?’, and drill down to what it means for them. It’s the same as turning features into benefits – yes, this is what it is, but how can it help? In other words, don’t explain what the design is but tell them how it will work.
For obvious reasons, architectural practices are having hard times like all businesses. What would your advice be for young and small practices who wish to enhance their written materials but cannot afford to hire someone like you?
When times are hard, finding your voice and getting your story straight becomes particularly important. And it’s not just about your written materials. It’ll make you better at talking to your clients, explaining your work, and understanding the value in what you do.
Firstly, hold your ideal client (and their worries as well as their hopes) firmly in mind, and remember that you’re writing for them. If you try and appeal to everyone, you’ll appeal to no one.
Now find a piece of writing that you think of as ‘bad’. It’s probably vague, cold, cliched or stilted (or all of those things). In other words, you can’t feel the human hand behind it. So imagine writing that is the opposite – specific, warm, unexpected and natural – and aim for that. That’s much more like how we speak, and there’s no reason why writing shouldn’t be like that too.
And tell a story. Give yourself a beginning, a middle and an end. If you’re writing about a project, these could be inspiration, challenge, and success. Framing a project in that way makes it so much easier for you and so much more meaningful for your readers.
In my podcast with Rion Willard for Business of Architecture UK, I talk about other easy ways to make your writing more powerful, like switching from passive to active. Larger practices often lean on the passive voice (‘Services are provided…’ rather than ‘We provide services…’), but professional doesn’t have to mean impersonal and wooden. After all, whoever your potential clients are, they’re almost certainly human.
If you want more tips and tricks, get in touch. I’ve recently started offering one-off workshops for small practices who don’t quite know where to start, and just investing in a short, sharp session can give you exactly the kickstart you need. I’ll give you easy ways of approaching the different things you need to write, and I’ll show you that it’s not so difficult after all.
Juliette Mitchell is the founder of Architypal, a writing consultancy for architects and designers.