Preview: Design and the Media

Want to see your work in print—or pixels? It's all in the pitch. The Design and the Media panel at Dwell on Design, taking place on Friday June 26, will look at what it takes to craft an idea that makes the mark. As a sneak preview of next week's conversation, we asked our expert panelists to tell us the stories behind the stories of pitches they've received that worked.

Vanessa Choy's compelling story about designing a modern farmhouse in LA landed her in the LA Times (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Vanessa Choy's compelling story about designing a modern farmhouse in LA landed her in the LA Times (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Finding the best design stories to transform into compelling content is not an exact science, as any writer, editor, reporter, publisher, journalist, blogger, or Twitterer (Tweeter?) will tell you. But there are a few tricks when it comes to getting the attention of a a group of decision makers who are bombarded with reclaimed barn doors and low-emission paint from the moment they sit down at their desks.

We asked three heavyweights from very different publications to tell us what works: Frances Anderton, Dwell's own L.A. editor, and host of the public radio show DnA: Design and Architecture; Paul Petrunia, founder and editor of the architecture website and community Archinect; and Craig Nakano, Home editor for the Los Angeles Times (who just launched a nifty new blog, L.A. at Home).

Of all our panelists, Nakano's position at the Times has him sifting through the most would-be stories. "I get 200 to 300 legitimate story pitches every day," he says. "Cutting through that clutter can be difficult, I'm sure, but Vanessa Choy managed to do it with two simple strategies: persistence and candor." Choy was a grad from the Southern California Institute of Architecture who had come to Los Angeles from Hong Kong, and she submitted photos of her own just-completed Studio City house. "When I finally called her to learn more about the house, I loved how openly she talked about the construction process," remembers Nakano. "'You know, my neighbors hated it as soon as it went up,'" she said, to my amazement."

Choy never gave Nakano the dreaded laundry list of design features that makes any editor's finger inch towards the delete key. Instead, says Nakano, she told a complex story about the clashing forces—family, budget, neighbors, careers—that drove the design. "She was willing to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly," and that resulted in a stronger narrative, he says. "In the end, we got more than pretty pictures. We got an interesting story rooted in the design challenges that Vanessa faced." Her story landed the house on the cover of Nakano's section: "Farmhouse modern in Studio City."

Ensamble Studios' smart photos of their Hemeroscopium House propelled it into Archinect's ShowCase (Ensamble Studio/Débora Mesa)
Ensamble Studios' smart photos of their Hemeroscopium House propelled it into Archinect's ShowCase (Ensamble Studio/Débora Mesa)

Sometimes, it's the images themselves that can make or break the pitch, says Archinect's Petrunia. "As a web publisher I know that this medium has probably the shortest attention span, so imagery is crucial," he says. "I've seen bad architecture get a lot of attention online, and great architecture get ignored, as a result of image quality." Petrunia also gets inundated with email pitches every day, but he remembers the exact moment that Madrid-based Ensamble Studio's photos of the Hemeroscopium House landed in his inbox. "The house expressed an extremely unique structure consisting of enormous concrete beams and a dramatic pool cantilevered far beyond the perimeter of the house," he describes. "It was ridiculous and beautiful at the same time." He knew immediately he was committed to publishing the project.

Petrunia cautions potential pitchers that the architecture does not need to be dramatic or different, as long as the imagery is carefully considered when sending to publishers for review. "An image should capture the essence of a project, and communicate why it is worthy of publication, rather than relying on lengthy text descriptions," he says. Ensamble selected shots with moody skies and unique angles that gave their project a worthy jolt of drama. Petrunia posted the house in Archinect's ongoing ShowCase feature—"ShowCase: Hemeroscopium House"—where it generated plenty of buzz from Archinect's engaged community and beyond.

Frances Anderton was so impressed by John Chase's authentic pitch, they became best friends.
Frances Anderton was so impressed by John Chase's authentic pitch, they became best friends.

Our own Frances Anderton has a rather distinct challenge in her role as a design writer: She must tell her audience about design using the visually-deprived medium of radio. So Anderton must truly rely on enthusiastic, articulate personalities to captivate and educate her listeners. When she first came to L.A. from England in 1987 to write for Architectural Review, one such character quickly materialized: John Chase, who is now urban designer for the City of West Hollywood, but worked then for Disney's Imagineering. "John heard I was in town and called me almost every day for two weeks to try and get me to come see what they were doing at Imagineering," Anderton laughs. "I kept telling him the editor of the Architectural Review was not interested in Disneyland, and he still persisted."

Finally, when Chase realized Anderton was not going to budge on the Disney pitch, he offered to personally take the newbie Angeleno on a tour of L.A. "It was the most intelligent and entertaining tour I've even been on," says Anderton. "And, incidentally, I did persuade the editor to do a story on Disneyland a year or so later, so in the end, the pitch reaped rewards." But this pitch has an even happier ending: That authentic proposal for such a generous, personalized meeting turned into more social engagements, and Anderton and Chase have been best friends for more than 20 years.

See Frances Anderton, Paul Petrunia and Craig Nakano on our Design and the Media panel, during the Dwell Conference on Friday, June 26 at Dwell on Design. Purchase a Dwell Conference Plus or Dwell VIP Passport at dwellondesign.com

Lead Image: Ensamble Studios' smart photos of their Hemeroscopium House propelled it into Archinect's ShowCase (Ensamble Studio/Débora Mesa)

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