Getting it in writing

A senior Plan A Design Manager was recently chatting over lunch about their experiences at University and specifically exposure to responsibilities related to being a Lead Designer.

The role isn’t just about good design. The Lead Designer – typically the Architect – has a responsibility to lead the design process and co-ordinate activities including design programme. All too often these leadership responsibilities are deferred to Project Managers who may not necessarily view the importance of quality in the same light as a designer would. Universities it was felt are getting better in this respect to equip future architects and designers in providing a more rounded approach and exposure to the nitty gritty elements of the Lead Designer role.

However, one aspect which we often come across is how contractual correspondence to Clients is either deferred or avoided. Whether it is a request for additional fees or clarification of brief (check out the recent ‘wonky’ cinema court case), it isn’t glamorous or sexy but getting it in writing is a key part of the leadership role.

  1. Firstly, do it. There is a stigma in the industry about ‘being contractual’. Using the contract in a way that impedes progress or provides a smokescreen to a wider issue doesn’t help anyone. However, under appointments such as NEC, consultants are actively encouraged to communicate and get it in writing.

  2. Correspondence most importantly communicates what you want in a way that cannot be forgotten, helps avoid misinterpretation and tells your client that you are on top of the important issues.

  3. Keep the English simple. A reader is more likely to take on board what you are writing if the message is clear and simple. Avoid jargon, unnecessary acronyms and keep the sentences concise (around 20-25 words is a good rule of thumb).

  4. Write the letter as if it will be read by someone who is not familiar with the project. If the topic is related to fees or a contractual issue for example, it could be passed on to someone who doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of the project. Start off with a quick background on why you are writing the letter and what it is relation to.

  5. Client not paying? Writing a contractual letter that vents your anger may provide a short term hit but keep it factual, to the point and avoid the emotion. It is not a good look and the correspondence may be brought out months later as part of a final account. You don’t want to be defined by a momentary lack of control.

  6. Avoid rambling and make it clear what you want from the correspondence – what is the purpose and what are you looking to get out of it?

  7. Put yourself in the shoes of the person reading it – how will they respond to the contents? If possible, pre-empt how they will respond and include mitigating text in your initial correspondence.

  8. Overall and whatever the subject - be positive. If you don’t agree with something that has happened on the project or a position taken by the Client team, it can be all too easy to come across as moany. Don’t just complain – provide suggestions of what you would do in their position or the options available.

  9. Particularly when working overseas, we have found from experience that it makes sense to combine correspondence to the Client with a phone call. This could be either beforehand to mitigate any adverse reaction on reading the letter or afterwards once sent. Personal preference is to make the call in advance but be careful of being swayed into not sending at all.

  10. When our Design Managers prepare correspondence on behalf of a practice, we always make sure that irrespective of grade or experience, someone sense checks the text. Does it read in the same way that you intended it to? Likewise, it is best to print the document also in draft as gremlins in formatting or typos are easier to spot on paper than on the screen Finally, don’t forget to send as a pdf version rather than in an editable Word format.

When working on multiple projects, it is sometimes tricky to remember what happened the week before let alone a year later. The benefit of getting it in writing will be felt at the end of the project. That final account, claim or tricky dispute will be infinitely easier when you have the records on hand to back your case.

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