Drawings and Presentations

From the moment I opened my first commercial workshop in 1984, one of the most enjoyable and important parts of my job has been delivering sales presentations and conducting shop drawing reviews with architects and interior designers. For many years, when I phoned up a client to set up a sales presentation, I have been able to say that “I guarantee the presentation will not be boring”. (This is a lot better than saying that “the PowerPoint will come with a free lunch”). Imagine saying that you guarantee your shop drawings will not be boring! Despite this, I have always felt that a good visual presenation was just as important with drawings as it is with presentations.

Among the staff of architect’s offices, the reputation of “Lunch ‘n Learn” presentations has never been good. After you’ve seen twenty slide shows featuring “unique” drapery systems or “innovative” vinyl flooring, a level of suspicion greets each new candidate, probably similar to the feeling one gets when fielding a telemarketer’s call. Early on I learned that a visually stimulating presentation was vital to keeping people awake and the presentation needed to speak to the real concerns of the audience. Architects are visual people and more likely to trust a fabricator who shares their values and this is just as true with sales presentations as it is with shop drawing submissions.

More importantly, there is a direct correlation between “exciting” shop drawings and useful ones.

The obvious purpose of presentations is to build confidence on the part of the people that make the decision to hire my firm. With custom work, the biggest source of issues is the experimental aspect, which is the very thing that makes the work original. As a result, many exciting projects that escape the bounds of the office catalogue library come with drawings and specifications that don’t define the work enough to guarantee a successful outcome, unless the fabricator is “on board”. The fact is that the ultra-custom features found in lobbies, facades and other high-profile locations are always the focus of extra client expectations, but custom, multi-material work doesn’t fit the typical spec and bid process well. (More on this subject in another article).

So as the work becomes more original, the architect gets proportionaly more involved in the subcontractor selection process. In this context, the purpose of the shop drawings presentation is not just to provide check dimensions, but to explain the issues and proposed solutions while building confidence in the fabricator’s approach.

Through the 80’s I would arrive to these event with a big black artist’s portfolios filled with drawings, photographs and sample boards. In the 90’s I switched to an 11” x 17” format which allowed me to use digital photocopiers to manipulate images and produce hand-out folios and drawings sets. Unfortunately this medium had the disadvantage of being less group-friendly and the size was limited. By 1997 we were using 3D CAD and we had a rudimentary website and image database, so in 2000 I bought a digital projector and a (very slow) laptop and began creating and delivering PowerPoint presentations.

Ten years ago, rendering was well established in architecture, but 3D or parametric design was still new. My design department fully adopted 3D modeling by 2000 and because of their newness, computer-generated images of finely-detailed structures added to the visual richness I sought. In 2007 we went HD, which required lugging a 20lb projector around, but presentations looked great and even featured fly-though videos of project structures. Drawings were still handed out, but usually remained unloved on the table.

Today a full HD projector is the size of a ream of paper and can be powered by an HD tablet (I am one of those 200,000 people who bought a Playbook) so there is no excuse for using a bleached out 800 x 600 LCD projector. I also noted that a bartender serving Margaritas didn’t hurt at presentations (especially in NYC), unless it results in an inter-office email with the subject “Regarding alcohol served by presenters”.

In 2009 we built a working and presenation studio I nicknamed “The Recording Studio for Architects”. This facility features large screen HD projection and a matrix switcher whick allowed us to display screen images on any device in the room. The best comment was provided by Peter Sheffield, a brilliant structural engineer, who stated that: “This place makes all our problems bigger!”

Probably because of my fathers cynicism, I have never used acres of corny text in sales presentations (“leveraging our human assets to deliver projects on time, on budget”….”the beauty and strength of steel combined with the classic lines of……”). Likewise, because I believe all designers including detailers are in the visual communication business, I prodded staff to ensure that views were well selected and drawing notes concise. To encourage critical thinking about presentation, we developed an internal drawing review process reffered to as “Being At Bat” based on the ”3 strikes you’re out” concept. Designers earned a strike for things like a view with the wrong scale, (so the detail in question was microscopic), spelling errors (especially funny ones), objects with no visible means of support or concepts requiring “Unobtanium” to realize.

More than once I showed up for a sales presentation, caterer in tow, only to find a group of dispirited interns gathered like hungry cows waiting for feed. Other times I was greeted by a steely matron with the air of a drummer on a trireme, reminding me of the deadline to get the staff back to work. In most cases the staff had no idea what they were going to see, a situation which became the setting for a one of my favorite presentation moments.

In 2006, after setting up the projector in the tasteful-historical-precinct-boardroom of a Boutique Architectural Firm in Connecticut (I had to bring a screen…), we spent a few awkward minutes waiting for the artisanal pizza to show up. I discovered during a few minutes of polite but stilted conversation that the person who organized the presentation was off sick and no one in the room had a clue what my company did. While we chatted, the slide I was projecting on the screen was a dramatic low angle shot of a realist equestrian sculpture we created for a mall in Dubai, adding to the mystery.

After the pizza arrived and was dismembered, everyone took a seat and I began:

“Thank you for coming. I would like to introduce myself, my name is Julian Bowron, I am the President of the third-largest toilet partition manufacturer in the North East and I’m glad you liked the image of the sculpture I found on the internet. Today we will be discussing my favorite subject: “The 101 Most Common Mistakes in Toilet Partition Detailing”.

Because this was an older crowd and less prone to forced politeness, an audible moan filled the air, accompanied by the sound of chairs being pushed back from the table. I quickly moved on to a slide of our artists at work and told them we actually produced the sculpture in the image.

The relieved laughter started immediately and took 10 minutes to subside!

Final Thought

The punchline of this story arrived two years later, in 2009, when I won the largest modular washroom project on the continent, a job which included all the toilet partitions in a 1.8m square foot office tower. Ironically, over the next two years, a series of suppliers treated me to a real-world education in my least favorite subject: “The 101 Most Common Mistakes in Toilet Partition Detailing”.

If anyone is interested, I am available to speak on the subject……

Julian Bowron 2011