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Trends: Social Media and the Design Profession

About the Discussion Participants

Lira Luis, AIA, RIBA, NCARB, UAP, LEED-AP, specializes in organic architecture. She earned a Master of Architecture degree from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture, Cum Laude, from the University of Santo Tomas. She holds multiple licenses in Asia, North America, and a Chartered Architect designation in Continental Europe. In 2010, National Geographic and the Aspen Institute selected her as Environment Forum Scholar. In the same year, the American Institute of Architects selected her as recipient of the AIA Athena Young Professional Award. Lira contributes articles as resident blogger for ChicagoNow, from the Chicago Tribune.

Tabitha Ponte, Assoc. AIA, is an emerging architect with 10 years of experience in the field, including all phases of design, mostly of public facilities, sustainable practices, and on-site structural construction management. An author and educator, her more recent contributions to other emerging professionals include establishing the WIA (Women in Architecture) Fund, encouraging licensing and promoting diversity, and Chicago’s 26LAB, NFP, a life enrichment program and (sustainable) learning lab using architecture, engineering, and construction education.

Bryant Turnage is an architecture professional living in Washington, D.C. Bryant studied architecture at North Carolina State University's College of Design and currently works as owner's representative for the District Architecture Center project, the new home for the Washington chapter of the AIA. He has experience in a range of project types, including small office buildings, corporate interiors, and single-family residences. Bryant is also a member of the AIA|DC Emerging Architects Committee, an advocate for social media in architecture, and author of the blog, Off the Mall


For those of us who may never have participated in one, what is a virtual discussion?

Bryant Turnage: A virtual discussion is just a conversation that happens online in real time, typically through a social networking medium such as Twitter. 

Tabitha Ponte: It’s also one in which many participants take part regardless of real time and physical spatial constraints. You can be a professional in Europe or anywhere and, at any time, and still participate in a virtual discussion held, say, in the U.S.

What does a participant need to do in order to join the conversation?

Bryant Turnage: At the most basic level, someone only needs a Twitter account and a computer with an Internet connection.

Lira Luis: There are numerous avenues to participate in virtual discussions or conversations. Examples of platforms are Twitter Chat, which requires a Twitter account, online chat rooms, instant messaging, blogs, Facebook discussions.

Tabitha Ponte: It truly depends on which platform is being used for the conversation. In the case of AIA Chat [the Institute’s monthly online discussions] one must be a registered Twitter user and be online at the time of the discussion. One can participate and follow the conversation simply by keeping track of the timeline (#AIANational) and replying to a series of questions, or any other comments and further discussion that may arise.

Twitter works, really, like one very long continuous conversation among small groups.

Bryant Turnage: It's also possible to follow a virtual discussion on a smart phone, but because they often move fast, some people may find it challenging to contribute without a full keyboard. There are also third-party applications and Web sites that can make it easier to follow a discussion than just using the Twitter site, but they aren't necessary for beginners looking to try it out. 

What is the appeal to the passive observer—someone who attends the discussion, but doesn’t necessarily join the conversation?

Lira Luis: Not everyone participates actively in virtual discussions. Some surf these conversations for varied reasons like gaining information, spying on competition, and for entertainment.

Tabitha Ponte: I think at times a passive observer actually has an advantage in that he or she can gather the great majority, if not all, of the thread (conversation timeline). Active participation is very significant, of course, in that you may be disseminating good information, resources, experiences, and opinion to other active participants and to passive ones as well.

Bryant Turnage: Even without contributing, an observer benefits from seeing the thought-provoking questions and many shared ideas that are generated in a virtual discussion. It's sort of like a big panel discussion unfolding in text form on your screen. 

For the past year, the Institute has hosted AIA Chat, a monthly series of virtual discussions through our Twitter group, AIA National. What was the most memorable conversation you participated in, and why?

Tabitha Ponte: I have participated from the inception of AIA Chat, and there have been many memorable conversations. I could not attribute one single discussion as best.

Bryant Turnage: I think one of the most memorable was the one on social media for architects and architecture firms. Even though everyone in a virtual discussion is already an adopter of social media, conversations about its use and benefits tend to create a lot of comments and debate.

This is probably because there isn't really one right way to use social media, and even among those who use it, there are often strikingly different ideas about the best ways to implement it. 

Tabitha Ponte: Oh, one that was very good was the one about marketing. That particular session allowed me to get a rare insight into marketing strategies for large and successful practices.

Another discussion that I really enjoyed was the session about pro-bono work. I, myself, am a firm believer that pro-bono (and not free work... two very different things) should be inherent to professional practice. It is always necessary to give back—good for the profession and the community.

I should note that, each time, I have left with one more valuable contact.

Based on your experience with AIA events, what are some of the topics that are guaranteed to generate a lot of discussion and perhaps even some heated debate?

Bryant Turnage: Topics that generate a lot of interest and even passion in the real world do the same in online discussions, such as sustainable design, economic issues, and the future of the profession. 

Lira Luis: Controversial topics like licensure, to be or not to be a member of the AIA, and crowdsourcing architecture work are some of the discussions likely to result in heated debates. There are strong viewpoints and counter viewpoints that could be elicited.

How do those topics mirror the kinds of discussions you’re having with colleagues face-to-face?  Or are they different issues?

Bryant Turnage: Most of the time when I am talking to other professionals face-to-face, it is with other young architects and interns. A lot of our conversations tend to revolve around the future of the profession and our own career paths.

Because most organized virtual discussions have a moderator and an agenda, we talk about a wider variety of topics. In addition, virtual discussions have the benefit of including professionals from all experience levels from many different places, giving a much greater view of an issue as a whole, rather than just a local perspective. That is one of its greatest benefits.

Tabitha Ponte: In all honesty, I find that my virtual discussions (especially when participating in these moderated events) far surpass the richness and content-value of my face-to-face discussions. It’s a strange thing, but true.

Lira Luis: These topics are being discussed in face-to-face discussions. How people put their comments out there varies. Some people tend to write things in virtual/online discussions that they won't normally or don't have the confidence to say to someone face-to-face. It gives a false sense of confidence when one is hiding behind a computer, as opposed to face-to-face interactions.

Does the method of discussion change the discourse in any way? In other words, if you discussed a similar topic online or in-person, would there be any difference in how the conversation occurred?

Tabitha Ponte: I find that this method of discussion is much more effective, at least when we are considering content-value.

Most people participating in the chat are truly interested in sharing valuable content, or input, therefore you only get really good stuff. No fluff. Once in a while you may get a strong opinion or two (and I apologize for that), but it is always pertaining to the content.

Bryant Turnage: With a virtual discussion, you have a constant written record that doesn't exist in face-to-face conversations, so it's easy to clarify something or reference a point made by someone else earlier and bring it back into the conversation. Since everyone is reading and typing at the same time—not waiting their turn to speak—it means that people are actually more likely to focus on the question at hand, rather than lead the conversation to an unrelated topic, as sometimes happens in face-to-face interactions.

I suppose some could think that a discussion is no different than posting to any social media site. However, since discussions happen in real time, I’m assuming conversations can often take interesting turns. How can participants really determine the direction a conversation goes in?

Tabitha Ponte: Since it is a timeline, and unfolding in real time as I mentioned, the best way to keep up is to read the thread—that is the original post and subsequent ones relating to or in response to it. There’s no shame in jumping in to provide some input. It is exactly what everyone else does.

Bryant Turnage: The most common way this happens is when someone asks a related question or brings up a point that opens up a new avenue of discussion related to the original question or topic. In some cases with the monthly AIA chat, a member has asked for clarification on a question that actually led people to think differently about the topic than they may have originally, and the conversation branches off from there. 

Lira Luis: With the lack of body language clues in an online interaction, people are left guessing about the real meaning behind comments or statements. This could result in some misunderstandings. For example, in Twitter, where you're only allowed 140 characters to send your message across, there are times when being concise is effective. There are also times when the brevity could get lost in translation and misinterpreted the wrong way. These are the potential directions that online conversations could take.

What would you tell someone who was considering participating in a virtual discussion?

Bryant Turnage: Just go for it! There are guides online to give you a basic overview, but the easiest thing to do is find a conversation that interests you and join it.

Most of the participants are very friendly, and happy to answer any questions you may have. It's a great way to share information and meet other professionals. The conversations do move pretty quickly, so it can be a bit overwhelming at first. It's helpful to remember that when it's all over, there is typically a transcript you can read to catch any important points you may have missed during the virtual discussion. 

Tabitha Ponte: If someone is new at participating in AIA Chat, or any other virtual discussion, I would advise them to observe at first so they get a sense of the speed. It is a really fast process. Then I would advise them to remember that effective social media is always a healthy balance between good content and social interaction.

We want readers of this transcript to continue our conversation. I thought we could conclude by asking a couple of questions about the profession. Certainly, the economy has had a severe impact on architects. What do you feel is the single greatest challenge facing architects today?

Tabitha Ponte: I find our greatest challenge, first and foremost, is the fact that the general public truly does not have much understanding of what an architect does—therefore not much value is being place on the need for architectural services.

I think the disconnect between trades, and how we’ve stepped back from a master-builder role, and with that from taking on responsibility for our own work, we have almost brought that upon ourselves. It is now imperative for us to work hard to patch our reputation and, hopefully, regain our value.

Bryant Turnage: I think the most important thing we as architects must do is plan for the future of our profession. Many of us are struggling in a challenging economy, and there is both hope and uncertainty over what role architects will play in the coming years.

A vital piece of that is making sure that we find and keep the best of a new generation of talented and skilled young architects. There are many people facing tough choices about whether to stay in architecture, and lots of young professionals have had trouble finding work over the past several years. We need to reach out and find ways to keep them when possible, as their talent and ideas are a crucial link as we move forward as a profession. 

Lira Luis: Architects, with the advent of technology and its related fields, are now being confused with "Information Technology". The biggest challenge is helping the public really understand what we do. When you say you're an architect for example, they ask, "What kind? Do you design Web sites and deal with IT?"

What about the profession holds the greatest potential to change the way we live—whether in our homes or in our communities?

Bryant Turnage: Worldwide, population growth and accelerating urbanization means that the built environment will be as important as it has ever been.

I think we have a great opportunity to help shape the future of our culture in the way we approach the design of our built environment. Building smarter, more efficient, and beautiful buildings and communities is not only important for our planet, but for the health and happiness of people.

Architects are an important part of the challenge, and how we accept that challenge and act as leaders throughout the process is up to us. 

Tabitha Ponte: Architects are generalists. We become creators. We can conceptualize an inexistent and novel idea, develop a plan, and execute that plan for it to become a reality.

That said, we have the capacity for shaping a more sustainable, livable, accessible and enjoyable future, at every level and scale.

National Architecture

April 10−16, 2011

Join us for an annual
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National Architecture
Week activities are
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AIA Chat

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of each month from 2 to 3:30
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Participant Resources

Lira Luis, AIA

on Twitter

Tabitha Ponte, Assoc. AIA
26 Lab

(WIA) Women in
Architecture Fund

Design Studio 26 (emerging)

on Twitter

Bryant Turnage
Blog: Off the Mall

on Twitter

AIA and Social Media

AIA Social Media Program


Facebook/AIA Fan Page

LinkedIn (AIA Members only)



AIA KnowledgeNet

Podcast: Where Social Media
and Design Meet

A conversation with Ned
Cramer, Assoc. AIA, and
Marc Kushner

Whether it’s used to find
clients and new design
opportunities, to recruit new
designers to the cause, or to
engage the public with
architects’ work directly,
social media is helping
architects lead new
conversations about the
importance of design.



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