Standardization and creativity — Does one lead to another in construction marketing?

NIST virtual library xray
X-Ray standardization, historical image from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (ISO) virtual library — an example of (on the technological level) the importance of standardization, and its history.

Bernie Siben’s recent blog posting on standardization should be on your reading list. In it, he advocates that architectural, engineering and construction businesses should have clear standardization guides for logos, spelling, and the like — because the inconsistencies cause conflicts, and waste energies. Yet there are complications because, especially in the AEC space, what do you do when your own standards conflict with those of potential clients — and their standards diverge, as well?

Things are easiest, of course, when you have national clients with standards and you want to create a unified brand effect.

A fourth (A/E) firm decided that since they had land development departments in all their offices, and some of their land development clients had offices in every city the A/E firm did, those clients should receive the same treatment no matter which office client staff was visiting. So they set up standards for client interaction to make sure the client’s people were treated the same way in all of the firm’s offices.

This last represented a major breakthrough that ultimately helped the staff in all its offices “get” the idea that they were all one firm, a shared understanding with which they had previously had difficulty.

Simple, eh.

But what do you do when client A spells a key word one way, and client B another — and your job is to write the proposal documentation (and we could throw into the mix that you spell things different from either A or B.)

Siben cites stormwater, for example. Or is it storm water or (in some contexts) storm-water? You surely don’t want differing spellings in the same document, but do you want to match your style with your diverse clients, or keep things, well, standard?

We solve some of these challenges in our own business, with an internal style guide. Without it, our publications would lack credibility. I mean, you would wonder about a magazine that spells the same word differently in several different places.

This stuff creates conflicts, occasionally, in client-submitted materials. Generally, we firmly push back on their style, saying that we need to follow our own in our publications, and explain the reason. The clients usually agree. In rare cases, when there is enough money involved and the client insists, I’ll break the rules and hold my nose.

Multiple spelling variations still are a fact-of-life in our style guide, however. Our business is domiciled in Canada but we have a U.S. corporation and publish regional U.S. websites and magazines. Hence, colour in Canada becomes color in the U.S. — no need to offend national sensitivities and publish what are in effect incorrect spellings in the wrong market areas.

Generally, I agree with Siben: Standards ARE important, and you should have systems and rules in place. The exception to the standardization rule would occur when you have to meet your clients’ standards to win the work. Here, you need to trade-off your internal consistencies with the requirement for external compliance — but be careful — when you are switching from your own standard to the client’s, the chances for mixed messages are much higher than normal.

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