Case Study by John deWolf RGD, Vice President, Form:Media
In 2015 the Nova Scotia Association of Architects (NSAA) set out to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to guide the organization over a four-year period, 2016–2020. The Association began by establishing an internal working group to create an RFP for the development of a new website and logo.
Governed by a legislative act, the NSAA regulates the practice of the architectural profession in Nova Scotia. Work in the areas of policy, increased diligence of regulatory function and a stronger public presence were among the goals of the Association.
The NSAA invited numerous firms to respond to the RFP, with a plan to unveil a new website and logo at their Spring 2017 AGM. Form:Media’s “unique understanding of the profession of architecture and their background in brand development” gave them the edge “to deliver a workable vision to meet our needs” says Executive Director, Margo Dauphinee.
While the Association’s website serves as a portal for current and future members, the team recognized the need for greater public awareness of the various aspects of architecture beyond meeting its regulatory requirements. Being a proactive regulator that upholds the public interest is one thing. Changing the conversation between the public and the membership is quite another.
Form:Media began by examining architectural licensing authority websites in Canada and the US. This review revealed that these websites primarily appeal to their membership and industry in the following ways:
- often honour their own by focusing on industry awards;
- use verbose language and abstruse theory that is difficult for non-architects to understand;
- have little to no information for the general public beyond regulatory and ombudsman information.
While industry speaking to industry is certainly required and needed, if the goal is ‘a stronger public presence’ then the public also needed to be a focus. We categorized the website's audience into two groups: members and the public.
For the members
The member audience included the current membership and potential members, future architects (students at various levels) and industry stakeholders. According to the NSAA, members rarely used the website except to source members-only documents from time to time, and every December to submit registration forms and fees. Both of these requirements could be fulfilled through dedicated members-only pages, an improved registration process and emailed links and reminders.
For the public
We asked ourselves: how can we describe the NSAA story with a single, strong sentence? Beginning with the brand statement: "The NSAA embodies all the creativity, skill and professionalism of its membership," we needed to focus on how to back up the proposition. The following key messages needed to be communicated:
- architects are uniquely suited to design buildings
- NSAA members work on a wide range of projects
- architects take a leading role in shaping our built environment, and
- NSAA architects produce varied, high-quality work.
The feel and voice of communications had to be professional, inspiring and serious. Above all, we wanted all communications to be approachable.
The NSAA did not necessarily have a problem with look and feel—although a refresh was required—this was a brand problem. The word architect conjures up many connotations, some positive, some not.
To reference Marty Neumeier, brand is not a logo. It is neither a colour palette nor a tagline. According to Neumeier, brand is a feeling, a gut reaction that THEY (the public) have about YOU (the organization). If a range of perceptions exists, you have a weak brand. In the end, brand is not what WE (the client or consultant) say it is, it is what THEY (the public) believe it be. If Form:Media was to improve the perception of the NSAA, we needed to improve the public’s understanding of the architectural profession and the services they offer.
What makes this difficult? For one, while the NSAA council was experiencing a change in direction, not all members would agree with the shift. For another, we were asked to create a brand that would speak to multiple audiences and transcend conventional architectural branding while still conveying trust and responsibility. We needed to gain buy-in from design professionals who have strong but diverse views on the NSAA's visual identity and design.
For most projects, we try to describe the concept using a single word or two, a sentence and a parti diagram. The parti was inspired by a single idea: architecture, at its core, provides shelter. This resonated with the client. Inspired by the letter A, the parti diagram is just that: the stem (the main stroke) of the letterform A. As a concept, the idea of protection (the Association) and connecting two audiences was key.
Parti Diagram: The word originates from the French phrase parti pris, meaning to make a decision. The concept of a parti diagram comes from the architectural profession. A parti diagram is a concept sketch, a rough drawing, a plan or diagram used early in the design process to represent, or sum-up, a design concept. It is not necessarily a design, although it may be diagrammatic in nature.
The concept: A-words. Words like advocate, approachable and accredited truly resonated with us, not to mention able, accessible, acclaimed, accomplished, accountable, accurate, active, adaptable, agreeable, amenable, analytical, astonishing, attentive and authentic. For the various feelings the public has regarding the profession, there are some gut reactions that we worked to refute, namely connotations like abrasive, absurd, adversarial, aggravating, alienating, aloof, ambiguous, apathetic, argumentative, arrogant, artificial, the list could go on.
Purely from a formal perspective, it was the alliteration of the letter ‘A’ at the end of Nova and Scotia, and the beginning of Association and Architects that we found most intriguing. This too informed the development of the parti diagram. The ‘reverse virgule’, the ‘\’, captured this: to the left of the virgule is Nova Scotia (the public), and to the right is Association of Architects (the membership).
To convey this to the client, we developed a short animation, which premiered at the 2017 NSAA AGM.
Royalty Free Music from Bensound
Adaptability is key. While we developed a logotype, we also encouraged the use of the “\A” and “\A-word” to identify the organization. Business cards have multiple backs, each with one of ten a-words, and the major themes are always associated with an appropriate a-word.
This project is far from over, and content for the website is updated regularly. We started by focusing on content for the registration process and we are currently fleshing out other areas of the site. Former Azure editor David Agnew is interviewing clients and designers to develop stories that support the theme of architects being approachable, attentive and accessible, among other topics.
Form:Media continues to work with the Association and has designed everything from pins to awards, promotion to advertising, even the architect's licence.
The updated design for the NSAA is happening alongside an important change in direction for the organization, from 'promoting architecture' to 'promoting the services of an architect'. While this took members some time to get used to, the change in culture is an important step, which continues to be supported through the use of strategic design that invites clients to interact with professionals who are "acclaimed, accountable and approachable."