What is good communication and why in design it mostly means perfectly organizing myriads of decisions

Good communication is about clarity of expression. That’s what we were all taught from the early days, and that’s the first mistake. Asserting that the control of communication is in the hands of the sender while ignoring that interpretation at the receiver’s end is as crucial, is the exact recipe for the Tower of Babel. We do not get taught enough how to correctly interpret the information that we receive or negotiate clarity along the way. As a result, we are all convinced we send the information out accurately, and, naturally, it’s everyone else’s fault for not getting it right.

The reality is that communication is a two-way street where a sender composes a message, and a receiver interprets it. If you consider only 50% of the process, it goes to follow that you will only get 50% clarity. Well… I have news for you: that number is in fact much lower, it is 10%.

According to Entrepreneur.com, 50% of emails get misunderstood; according to other business sites, 75% of information received is misconstrued. According to some linguists, 90% of information is misunderstood, and the transference of intent of meaning from sender to recipient is only 10% accurate. Getting more on the same page requires a sequenced system of progressive clarification.

Now picture this: in construction, you have:
100 or more people working on a home
400 or more people working on a school
1000 or more people working on a high-rise
and thousands of approvals and big and small decisions by all these people that shape the final product.

And these are conservative numbers.

Image by Krakenimages via Unsplash


The good news is that in construction and design, unlike literature or political discourse, two distinguishing factors can potentially save the day: the visual character of 75% of the design communication – meaning the drawings and finishes boards -, and the fact that many items that are to be communicated are non-linguistic but rather actual objects that, unlike literary texts, have an inherent clarity to them. For example: if you want to use a particular wood veneer on a custom nightstand and you put in your documents that this is to be a natural colour American walnut with a matte finish and that you’re asking the supplier to give you samples, or vice versa, you provide them with samples of how it is to look, there is little unclarity about what you want that to look like. Even more straightforward, if you’re going to use a particular tile, you will list the store that carries it together with the name of the tile, size, surface sheen and all other physical parameters.


So why is it that in the construction industry, much like in others, there is still so much miscommunication? Why is it still that one of the main problems on a site is someone wondering, “why is this looking this way when I thought it would be that way?”

Because all this listing of what to do sounds so simple, yet it’s not.

The problem remains that the two examples above are a small fraction of the thousands of decisions needed to be made, sequentially recorded, and tracked to correctly execute a project.

Underneath the initial decisions, when you think you have it all figured out, lies an entangled mangle of changes and adjustments, impossible to decipher by any client on their own, even the ones that are “in the business” of construction. The reason? In any design that has some pretence of sophistication, the connectivity between compositional elements is profoundly disturbed when changes are made. And trust me, changes are always made. So without someone holding the reigns on how every seemingly insignificant modification affects the space as a whole, you are in a considerable predicament: your room will lose precisely that tailored, stylish sophistication, and you’ll be left with … well… just four walls, a floor and a ceiling. I’ve seen this happen so often, and clients understood it too late.

Image by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

Now, there are those rooms out there that are ok with four walls, a floor and a ceiling. These are rooms where you don’t necessarily have the interior architecture play the prime protagonist role, but rather, the room is made into what it is through decor. Those are relatively easy by comparison. Those cases are indeed a bit simpler, but even then, it is essential to not lose track of the impact of the on-the-go changes.

Especially since many happen in a milifraction of a second. A small, tiny question, on a beautiful Friday afternoon, the client having a quick stroll taking a look at the work progress of his home before going out for dinner, the plumber, happy to have caught him, grabs him for “just a quick question” and asks:

“I need to move the sink drain left by 3″ because there is a stud, but don’t worry, it’s very little and still in the cabinet, so it does not affect anything.”

“Ok,” says the client, “sure, sounds good.”

“Great. Any plans this weekend?” the plumber turns around and marks his install note on the problematic stud.

Smoothly, like frosting on a cake, a decision was given and immediately inked into the frame

Later on that week, the millworker comes to the site. He looks at his vanity drawing and at the off-center pipe on-site and says to the client:

“I can’t build the drawers the way you have them drawn here because the pipe is not centred.”

And there, in one tiny swoosh, you lost the vanity design.

Was it the plumber’s fault? No. Was it the client’s fault? Maybe; not because he made the wrong or right call, but because he made a call instead of having the designer do it. If the integrity of the design matters, it is crucial for clients to know that someone needs to monitor and ensure that. Every professional on a job has a role. None of the hundreds or thousands of trades and consultants on a site are interchangeable; they all have unique expertise.

Image by Avel Chuklanov via Unsplash

Now, some decisions are indeed less consequential than others. The problem is that you may not know that until it’s too late.

Even if the client is in the business, even the sheer fact that, after all, the plumber is “in the business” has nothing to do with the problem that this situation generated. The issue came about because of a lack of anticipatory thinking. The butterfly effect all over.

Because as you see, being in one business or another does not mean you communicate any more clearly nor that you know the impact of small changes.

That requires disciplined and targeted attention. Substantial training and practice can get anyone there, but not everyone is willing to put the good old brain muscle to such a daunting task. Once you get the know-how, it’s easy. But to get to know the know-how is pretty much like living on Babel and trying to be the scribe.

Einstein said: “True genius is the ability to find valuable information quickly.” and I could not agree more.

Most problems on a construction site arise from such misunderstandings or by things believed to be one way by some and another way by others.

Professional designers ensure that, before the start of construction, the builder gets a set of documents that tells him how to build. A sort of “manual” of construction. This outlines everything from where the walls go to what tiles and wallpaper you want to use and where, the design of cabinetry, placement of lights and so on.

Image by Krakenimages via Unsplash

Separately, the decorating bits come into place, and those, usually, are purchased and installed directly by the designer, with no involvement from the contractor – thus, less “translation” is required.

I cannot tell you how often we ran into issues where this has been a significant hurdle.

If the designer were to be on-site during that encounter between client and plumber, a good designer that is, would immediately think of the impact on the vanity, pull out a drawing and tell the plumber that instead of him moving the pipe, they will instruct the framer to reframe and make room for the pipe on center.

One can only do that by keeping a very strict tally of designs, drawings, decisions, changes and work progress in general. And while on larger jobs, there are usually project managers that have a full-time job just doing that, in-home construction that is not the case yet, amazingly, every single homeowner I’ve worked with expected this from their contractor.

My advice to the homeowners: you need a project manager, and don’t expect the contractor to be that by default. Some are, but not most – at least not for free!! Who does anything for free these days? Project management is an entirely different task than general contracting.

You, however, can be the project manager if you know how to communicate and stay organized on the go. Learn how to track decisions, read drawings, and make sure you have the time to do it because it is at least a 20-hour job per week for the duration of a medium-sized residential project. And if not, do not worry! Get a designer who can do it; you do not want a project manager per se, but a designer or contractor that offers this service in addition to their respective responsibilities.

This way, the design is maintained, and the job stays on course. And like with all things that fit well, they are invisible, and that is how you want it. Only problems shine like gold in a pile of dirt.

This article first appeared in My 2 cents on design
how to curate a better lifestyle through design
part of  Creativity \\ a DOCHIA FOCUS monthly lifestyle series

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