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019 S.ARCH Conference, Havana, Cuba.

“Architecture is Branding”, a paper presented at the S.ARCH international architecture conference in Havana, Cuba. March 5-7, 2019.


Architecture has long been regarded as a balance between two systems; artistic ability and scientific methodology. A balance between emotion and structure.  This paper seeks to introduce a fundamental and crucial third system; perception.

In business terms, perception is referred to as brand. The Dictionary of Brand specifically identifies a brand as “a person’s perception of a product, service or experience or organization” (Neumeier, 2004).

Although the value of brand has long been a powerful tool in the hands of an MBA and CEO, it has largely been ignored by architects as it seems too removed from our profession to really matter.

This paper’s quest is to bring to light the significant value of branding as a design tool for the architect.

Let’s not forget that the profession of Architecture is a service.  A service delivers value to a client in the marketplace.  As such, understanding the underlying relevance of a service in a marketplace requires basic business fundamentals.  Those fundamentals teach us how to be clear and focused in identifying the value added proposition that we are striving to make.  A strong brand did not happen by accident, it was carefully researched and executed, and it is that specific process that I want to explore in this paper as it relates to design.

As architects we always speak of art and science, of form and function, just think of branding as a third language that will help you design and bridge the gap with the user.


The meaningful element of architecture is that it requires humans as participants.  Architecture is alive, it needs people to fill its space, it needs to be experienced, it needs to be engaged. Describing architecture, even in a philosophical sense, “at a bare minimum, we can say that it features some connection to human use.” (Zalta, 2015)

If no one interacts with a structure, or if it does not impact anyone by its mere presence, then it really isn’t architecture per se.

Hence the dependence of human interaction and its eventual perception that forms a complete architectural experience.

We have been practicing architecture for millennia and although evolving technology has markedly changed how we shape our buildings, one thing that has not changed is that humans still formalize a perception based on their own experience.  From the pyramids of Giza to BIG’s latest project, and every building in between, humans (let’s call them Users, as in User Experience) have always formalized their own perception, consciously or not.  It was never up to the architects to dictate the perception, that was simply never in their control, the user decided what to think of the structure, independently of the designers dictum.

Architects, not all – but certainly many, have traditionally shunned business strategy as an unnecessary distraction.  We have been indoctrinated with the thought that our work exist in an alternate level that is judged strictly in terms of ‘design’.  Hence our affinity for adopting the latest philosopher that utters the word “architecture” or “design’, such as Heidegger.  In ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ he needed architecture to make his points, however, architecture does not need Heidegger to design buildings (Davies, 2017).  Although a good understanding of philosophy is helpful to an architect’s grounding it should not come at the high price of excluding or being in conflict with business strategy, branding in particular.

But it often does.  It’s part of our pedagogy, it’s how we were taught to think.

The regrettable problem with design for design sake is that it assumes that the end product is strictly a search for form.  The user is merely an inconvenience in an exercise that is happening above his or her station.

Let’s not forget that the true value of design is the solution it provides to the user(s).

Lastly, in talking about brand, we designers have to adopt the position that beauty is relative, that there is no such thing as absolute beauty.  In like manner, the user’s judgement of beauty is also relative and could very reasonably be different than yours, they have an independent perspective that could or could not coincide with your judgement.    

Desired Result

The first thing to give shape to a design is the desired result.  Design is purpose driven, it seeks to achieve a goal.  Sometimes these goals can be banal, as in shelter from the elements, and other times they can be inspirational, like a monument; either way they are clearly putting a stake in the ground for what needs to be achieved.

The naturalness with which architecture and design need to speak lies at the heart of any real world design challenge; “how do we achieve the desired result?” Unless you are building a remote cabin for yourself, you will most likely want to solicit a particular response from others relative to your design. “It looks modern, it looks classical, it makes me feel …”.

Hence the real definition of a brand; it’s what others perceive your design to be, not what you want it to be. A brand is nothing more nor nothing less and your desired result will be judged against that perception.

  • Engineers build, Architects brand.

The role of an architect has evolved over the years.  We are no longer the “master builder” that Vitruvius described, singularly responsible for everything involved in erecting a building; engineering, design, construction, landscape, etc.

Fortunately those roles have been separated, since it would be asking a bit much for one single person to be responsible for the latest elastic theory for beams, the list of regional native perennials and to provide the labor and equipment to build.

Being relieved of those Vitruvian responsibilities, an architect today can concentrate on realizing the user’s desired result.

Meanwhile, an engineer needs to build a structure that will resist specific wind loads and allow floors to handle a precise live load capacity. It is an objective assignment, either they achieve this or they don’t, and if they don’t they will be looking for a new job.

Designers, however, need to design a structure that is perceived in a particular way by many (…and to do so within design constraints). If Designers do not achieve the desired perception that the desired goal requested, they too will soon be looking for a new job.

Solving problems of reality versus solving problems of perception, that’s the basic difference between an engineer and an architect, and for the architect that’s where the real value of design can make a big difference.

  • Real world examples

The pyramid of Giza is a great example of branding in architecture. “Immortality” was most likely the desired result demanded by the Pharaoh.  The 20 years and 4,000 slaves it took to build it was solely to achieve that purpose, that desired result.  To a large degree they were successful, the proof is that they still exist in a meaningful way and that we are still talking about them today. If the perception would have been any different, it would have been a total failure.

A great design challenge today would be, how can the Pharaoh achieve immortality at fraction of that effort? I am sure that there are plenty creative designers out there that would say “Yes! And I have an idea.”

Architects are designing to a desired perception. Perceived value = brand value.

Bernini, one of my favorite designers, was a master of branding. He understood that design is a perceived value better than anyone else from the Renaissance. While Michelangelo during the previous century was busy saying that ‘David’ was inside the rock already and he had only to carve and set it free, Bernini was busy loading the fountain in Piazza Navona with metaphors. The result is a moment of pure design genius. Next time you are in Piazza Navona, go to the Fontana dei Fiumi and stand behind the cowering Rio de la Plata figure as it faces Borromini’s church and see what you perceive. I am sure that you will perceive something pretty close to what Bernini’s had set as his desired result.

He did this again with the colonnade at St Peter’s Square, he liked Michelangelo’s dome but disliked Maderno’s façade which obscured it, so he pulled the center of the piazza back in order to reveal the dome. His design was directly connected to achieving the desired perception of “what a majestic dome” for the common man strolling to or through St Peters.

A more contemporary example is Philip Stark’s work, particularly the many hotels he did for Ian Schrager. The directive (desired perception) was very simple; make the guest feel like they are a walking on a stage, that they are the starring actors. That was the desired perception, and boy did he hit the out of the park. If you were lucky enough to walk through the Royalton on 44th st in Manhattan before it was ridiculously remodeled, you would have felt exactly that way and it felt wonderful.

Understanding a Brand

The value of a business is made up of two parts, its operational side and its brand value. This is why Coke’s market cap with brand value = $120 Billion, while without brand value = $50 Billion.

Figure 1. Example figure

Before we go any further we have to clarifying 3 very common misconceptions

about brands.

  • A Brand is not a logo

A brand is a reputation, a brand is a promise fulfilled, ( or unfulfilled in the case of a bad brand.)  A brand is an assimilation of opinions and experiences, some yours, some by others. That is why a brand can have loyalty, because it has earned it. The logo merely identifies that experience (ie. the brand).

  • People tell you what your brand is, not the other way around

You don’t get to tell people what your brand is, they tell you. Just imagine if you stated that you offer the most advanced green LEED certified design services in the city, yet every building you put up gets shut down by the EPA for being dangerously toxic. It would be fair to say that your claim is hogwash and indeed your reputation, your brand, would be the very opposite of what you promised. Your brand loyalty would be negative no matter what you said you stood for. Your brand is what others say your brand is, there is no escaping that reality. So lesson one, be careful with what you promise, because you will have to deliver it.

  • Branding is a Position

And lastly, branding is not something you do to sell a product, branding is a position you take in relation to a product or service. Branding should not be confused with marketing and advertising; the latter are tools to speak about the product after the fact (or the design in our case).

  • Basic steps to Branding

Brand agencies have a system that gets the essence, the clarity, the focus out of a client that the client never knew they had. Indeed that is the very reason why companies go to a branding firm.  To Focus.

  • Target User

Who are you creating value for?

  • Offering

What customer needs are we solving? What value are you delivering?

  • Research & Analysis

What is currently in that space and where are the opportunities?

  • Differentiation

How are you different from the others, what makes you unique?

  • Positioning

The promise, distilled and concise, that you have formulated to convey the previous 4 steps.

From Positioning Statement to Design

The basic definition of a brand; perceived value = brand value.

Figure 2. design vs experience.


The veneration of architecture is not good for design, we should stop building monuments to the earth, the genius loci, the Phenomenology of Architecture, the earth doesn’t know, it doesn’t care, however we humans do know and we care. We are the “segment” that the added value proposition of design enriches.

If we want to design things to make this a better world, we have to convince its inhabitants that it is going to make it a better world. We have to deal with us.

So the challenge of design is intrinsically connected with the challenge of perception. Perception is what we believe something to be. For a designer its realizing that intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value.

So before you pull out the sketch book, think big, think desired perception, think brand.



  • Acknowledgements

The organizer gratefully acknowledges the work done by Programme Committee and Lecturers of the International Conferences S.ARCH-2018 for efforts done for the success of this event.

  • References

[1]  Neumeier, M. (2004). The Dictionary of Brand. AIGA Center for Brand Experience.

[2]  Zalta, E. N. (2015). Philosophy of Architecture . The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.