Owen Matthews

“The focus on interesting content continues to evolve and expand”

Owen Matthews is a director of Ten4 Design, a prominent digital agency with many clients in the built environment. We talked with him about the changing trends of websites of the built environment companies.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?

I studied Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins. After a year or two in advertising and publishing, I joined Ten4, which was then just two people. I became a director the following year. In the early days, we did whatever came our way … exhibition design, print design, branding, a few websites here and there. Neither me nor the other directors were trained in web design or coding so we relied on freelancers for a lot of the heavy lifting.

We started working with major record labels and did websites for Sony, Warner Brothers, Universal and so on. When marketing budgets shrank and more labels got in-house teams we decided it was time to diversify.

Through a random connection, we made a website for a small property developer, and then for the architect they worked with, which happened to be Stiff + Trevillion. Our work with architects, engineers, designers and developers can all be traced back to those two websites.

Congratulations on turning 20 this year. It must have been hard succeeding in such a competitive market for two decades without losing your focus? How do you define the points that make Ten 4 different from its competitors?

I think one of the things that make us different is that we’re not ultra-focused on one industry or type of client. Sure, we’ve done a ton of work with organizations in the built environment, and that gives us the confidence to keep winning new business in that area. But we also work with charities, big broadcasters, arts and culture clients, universities; all with their own particular challenges. Working with different types of clients lets us build a deep and wide pool of knowledge. If we only worked with architects, the occasional left-field request might throw us off track, but having so much experience outside of architecture means we’re more likely to have met similar challenges before. Our biggest project to date is the recently launched Cundall website. Large multidisciplinary practices have more complicated comms challenges than pure architects, so they provide a good opportunity to apply learnings from other types of work. We also have a well-refined process, a great technical team (all developers are in-house), and a fundamental focus on usability.

Cundall Website

Even though your clients are from a variety of fields, you have a reputation for being experienced in designing and developing websites for companies in the built environment. Since the initiation of Archiboo Awards, your projects have either been shortlisted or won an award. How did this happen?

Working with architects is fun and challenging because they’re highly trained in design. The process works best, though, when each side respects the others’ expertise. This doesn’t always happen, but in the case of our Archiboo Awards wins and nominations, it’s definitely true. There’s a balance between what you focus on with any design project. Lean too heavily on usability and your site might lack visual flair, or not align with the practice’s brand. Go too heavy on styling and the site can become hard to use. Some practices want to take risks, which is usually what gets noticed by the Archiboo judges. Again it’s about balance. If you break too many norms at once you can quickly lose the plot. It does help to set goals — AWW said early in the process that they wanted to win an Archiboo Award (I think it was a listed KPI in our proposal). That aspiration gave us a licence to take a few risks. Apparently, there was a fair amount of push-back from the board against some of the decisions we (Ten4 and the AWW website team) made, but we were firm that award-winning projects have to stand out from the crowd. It was amazing to get nominated, let alone win the Best User Experience trophy.

The audience of the website of architectural practices is pretty well defined. The content structure -projects, people and news from the practice- is also almost written on stone. How do you succeed in creating a well working and also differentiating website for architects?

There’s usually at least one or two things about a practice that differentiate it from others. We try to find what that is and work to accentuate it. It’s true that a lot of these sites have very similar structures so we also encourage new ideas. Knight Architects, for example, is a bridge specialist and very strong on the engineering side of things. They wanted to show construction images without messing up their shiny case-study pages, so we created two sections: one for case studies and one that serves as a visual blog of construction progress. It’s great content. The only other practice site I’ve seen with equivalent content is Foster + Partners. User interface and visual design come into play, too. We could develop exactly the same website —same structure, content, logo, everything— 100 different ways. There’s definitely enough variables to keep things fresh and exciting for each practice we work with.

Knight Architects Website

How do you work with your clients? Do you start with a brief that’s handed to you or do you develop the brief together?

We usually get a written brief that goes out to a few agencies. We respond with a call, a written proposal and hopefully a face to face presentation. The briefs vary enormously in content and requirements. Some boil down to: “we want to look like a cool practice to work with” and sometimes that’s all we really need. Some are about changing the perception of the practice from a safe bet to a more challenging, design-led practice. Some are about reflecting the organisational change. Whatever it is, it’s important to speak with someone at the practice to find the vital element that only comes through in conversation. The only consistency is our process: we speak to people at the practice to understand the business and what makes it special, establish the structure, do wireframes, visual design and UI, and develop in-house.

In two decades of your professional history, what are your observations about the changing trends of the architectural and engineering practices’ websites? 

In the early 2000s, most practices’ websites looked the same. When responsive design took off after the exponential growth in iPhone and Android ownership, architects were pretty slow to adopt. So it was easy to run through the AJ100 and see who needed a new website and who didn’t. Now it’s harder to tell how new or old a website is. I’ve definitely noticed a shift to a different kind of writing in recent years. It used to be about the end-users of a building (if it’s a research facility, what is actually being researched there, and why) as well as the usual context, response to the environment and so on. Now it’s about telling a more human story. Video has come through in a big way, with lots of practices investing in drone footage as a matter of course. Practices are often keen to be transparent about their process now, with early sketches, models and construction images becoming just as important as flashy renders and final photography. Design trends come and go, but it’s my hope that the focus on interesting content is what continues to evolve and expand.
Since the BLM protests in the summer of 2020, I’ve had a lot more conversations about diversity and inclusion in the industry. Addressing these issues will take more than changing a couple of pages on a website, but it’s encouraging to see practices taking steps to attract more diverse people into architectural careers.

One more thing we’re doing a lot more of now is private sections — portfolio pages you can only access if you have a password, or a special URL. Practices can quickly put together pages to support their bid process, follow up on requests for information and so on. We’ve even developed bespoke project management platforms and intranets. But those kinds of projects tend to be part of or come after a standard website project.

AWW Architects Website

Without nice images, it’s really hard to form a website especially for a company in the built environment sector. Do you direct your clients in obtaining good photographs or producing images suited well enough for the design you’re developing or do you design with what you have at hand? 

Usually the latter. It’s definitely a challenge for new practices with only a few projects. But using more varied types of content (sketches, end-user information; renders, contextual and research material) can help create a lot of visual interest, and create a more textured story of the practice and its projects.

Similar to images, the written content is an important element in designing a website. Its volume, style and tone of voice determine the overall feeling of the website. Do you have in-house content editors while developing websites or is this a third-party service that the client uses?

Our general advice is to engage a copywriter for the static info — the practice’s approach, process, careers copy or anything else that’s unlikely to get updated regularly. Sometimes there are people within the practice that can write well, but it’s not all that common. Case study content is all down to the practice and how much they want to produce in future. We never want to design something that’s going to be a nightmare to add to as each project gets written up. Some practices just want bare-bones information and to let the pictures do the heavy lifting. We certainly don’t offer case-study writing at Ten4 because you need the expertise of the architects and background knowledge to make it authentic and interesting to the reader.

SEO is an important part of digital content. Do you provide SEO services to your clients or do you work with external service suppliers for this part?

We advise on aspects of SEO and we definitely prepare the content management system and coding with that in mind. With the larger practices that we work with, though, SEO tends to be less important than other forms of marketing. Getting published in blogs and industry press, winning awards … those kinds of things seem much more important. The practices that see real benefit from SEO would be high volume, lower-value projects: extensions, loft conversions and so on. We tend to work with practices at the higher end of the market whose projects take several years to complete. In those timescales, the decision-making process is much more complex than Googling a thing than buying a thing. That’s not to say high quality, original content (the real driver of SEO) isn’t important, because it is. It’s just that the thread between the click and the deal being done is too long and tangled to get stressed about it.

What are the essential elements and key indicators of a successful architectural or engineering practice’s website? 

It all depends on the goals of the project. I would say getting across those unique aspects of the practice —whatever they are— is important. Certainly leaving the user with a good understanding of the breadth of work, and some idea of the process. From a technical perspective, we use a range of criteria to measure the quality of our coding. The site should show nice big images but be fast, work great on all devices, adhere to accessibility standards and so on. The design should be unique to the practice, it should be easy to update via a well-structured content management system (we use Craft CMS). We don’t usually measure success against analytics criteria like dwell time or new vs returning visitors but it can be good to keep one eye on those metrics, too. Really, though, the big indicator of our success is whether or not the practice is proud of their website and considers it a true representation of the organisation, its standing in the industry or its aspirations.

With the evolution of social media mediums, the workload of marketing people has increased. Keeping the social media channels constantly updated and also maintaining an up to date website is challenging. What would your advice be to marketing people in architectural and engineering practices in easing their job on that matter?

Again, it’s about embracing as many different types of content as possible and not being too precious about it. Lots of companies want to have a consistent theme on their Instagram and fret over filters and subjects. Variety, though, is what keeps people interested and engaged in social content. Sketches, on-site images, end-user stories — all of that creates a richer picture of the practice, as well as widening the net of content that you can draw on. We always tell practices not to start a blog if they don’t have people in-house who enjoy the process of writing. Likewise, if there isn’t a desire to engage with the Twitter community, don’t force it. Bringing the whole team into the marketing fold is a great idea too. Hold a monthly meeting to see what’s engaging and exciting for people in the practice. Include that in a post or newsletter.

What was the most challenging project of your career and why?

Every project is challenging. The most challenging ones, though, are when there’s a mismatch between what the client wants, and what we recommend. That’s frustrating for everyone, and the end result suffers.

What do you do when you don’t design and develop websites?

I have two daughters — 3 and 6 — so my free time is almost always with them — at Victoria Park, Epping Forest, swimming. My six-year-old likes skateboarding. If I need to treat myself I’ll go on a long bike ride.