Herding Cats: A Lesson in Writing // Tanner James
For anyone who has the joy of knowing me it is immediately apparent that I have many phrases that I like to use on a regular basis. “Six to one, half a dozen of the other.” “Teach a man to fish” and “There’s no I in team.” However, there is one phrase that I often use to describe my role as communications director for Design+Make.
Last year I took a professional practice seminar, a requirement for my degree. Being a small class the course had the luxury of being informally set up. Twice a month we would sit around a conference table in the evening discussing issues pertaining to the field of design with various professionals. Our instructor Lauren Wendlandt, herself an architect, would act as moderator introducing topics and giving us ideas of what to ask our guests. On one particular night our panel of guest consisted of individuals outside of the design field, who nonetheless took an active role in managing a business. One of the individuals present was the last to introduce himself. When asked what his career was the guest said that he was a part of the chamber of commerce for one of the neighborhoods of Kansas City.
To this Lauren jokingly replied, “He herds cats for a living.”
While I had never heard this phrase before I immediately envisioned myself trying to herd my childhood cat, Morris from one side of the house to the other. Needless to say, Morris stayed put while I became more and more frustrated. Immediately this became one of my favorite phrases. And I have found in the past months that getting 15 architecture students to write fits this description all too well. In fact I recently discovered this little gem of an illustration:
While I am still trying to figure out who has a goatee in our studio, or who would wear a tie on a regular basis I still feel this illustration perfectly captures our dynamic when it comes to writing. Through numerous basecamp posts, multiple emails, and even more text messages I often feel as though I am herding a group of stubborn felines. Drafts are often late, visuals are usually missing, and no one ever knows what to write about.
So what is the issue? It is not that architects are not capable of writing. In fact many can write quite eloquently. And through the process of graduate school we find ourselves writing quite often. However, in reflection I have found that we are not trained in writing. That is to say, we are not trained in writing for the field of architecture. While as a part of our education at Kansas State University we are required to complete six credit hours of expository writing, these are open-ended courses meant to give a broad understanding to any major and in many ways to thin out the herd. I often recall going to a writing critique only to have the student I was paired with tell me to not change anything about my writing. My frustration? The paper was written an hour before class and was nowhere near perfect. On many occasions there would be no thesis, only an unorganized jumble of my thoughts. However, to the student barely struggling to maintain a 2.0 the paper was gold. While I still learned a great deal from the courses I still felt that I had no idea how to write about topics in the field of architecture.
Because of this my experience with writing for the field of architecture has consisted of what I have learned from studio professors. Often as students at APDesign we are asked to write a description of our projects, explaining our reasoning behind every move. I have had some professors ask me to write as a narrative, explaining projects as if I was walking through it. While others have asked me to focus more on expository writing, presenting a point and then giving supporting evidence. While this method forces students to adapt and gives multiple perspectives, it also can create confusion; leading us to ask what the best method of writing is for a particular project when left to our own devices. It is no wonder that we become confused. While through the design process we see in shades of gray, when writing everything suddenly becomes black and white. Leaving us when we are given a writing task to become confused and say, what do I do?
Writing for Design+Make has changed this greatly. In the beginning I found that everyone was confused, seeing in black and white, leading me to envision myself surrounded by stubborn felines. But as time progressed thoughts became more clear, writing increased in length, and topics have branched out. Early on I would often see drafts given to our professor that would need multiple revisions. Now each blog only needs a few. I feel that the improvement has been simply through practice. By being given a blank slate we have found our own style of writing, not having to fit to what a professor tells us.
While I still find myself at times trying to herd cats, trying to get images or receiving files without proper names are a constant struggle, I can honestly say that I have seen great improvement, giving clarity to writing for the field of architecture.
Written by Tanner James