Ned Cramer


Ned Cramer
  • Architect magazine
  • One Thomas Circle, NW
  • Suite 600
  • Washington, DC 20005

Tell us about your background. How did you enter the publishing world?
It became clear to me during architecture school that I lacked the right temperament for conventional practice. Architecture is a hard addiction to give up, so I decided to look for an alternative career in the field, as a writer or curator or something. After graduation, I was lucky to score a fellowship with the Design Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, in Washington, D.C. As the NEA gig was winding down, an assistant editor position opened up at Architecture, the official AIA magazine at the time. It sounded like a great next step. I was a decent speller, and I could tell a Frank Gehry building from a Richard Meier building. One of my neighbors, Reed Kroloff, had just started at Architecture as an associate editor. Reed put in a good word with the editor-in-chief, Deborah Dietsch, and she hired me. It was like boot camp. Deborah is an old school, no-nonsense journalist. She taught me how to write in plain English and how to detect B.S. from miles away.

When was Architect first published?
We launched in fall 2006 after doing a ton of research to identify information gaps in the marketplace. The profession handed us a super-clear mandate, one that jibed with our instincts as editors and publishers: The design press is very, very good at celebrating aesthetics, but architects felt underserved when it came to the pragmatics of technology and business. Our mission is to put all three—design, technology, and practice—on equal footing. And the secret sauce is our understanding of architecture as a community of individuals who design and build in service to humanity.

How has the magazine evolved over the years?

We’ve remained true to the mission, but we’ve definitely told the story in different ways. For example, at the beginning, we deliberately put people on the cover. Mostly folks you’ve never heard of before. Partly we did so to distinguish ourselves from the competition, and the tactic worked: Nobody mistook us for Architectural Record. But it wasn’t just about being different for the sake of difference and gaining an edge in the market. We hoped our readers would embrace Architect as a kind of community center, where they could meet and learn from their peers—and not just the famous ones. Some architects feared that putting people on the cover was actually perpetuating the celebrity culture. We got compared to People magazine. Ouch. After a couple of years, as the brand and mission became better known and understood, we switched up the cover formula. Now we use whatever imagery and language works best to convey the idea we’re presenting in a compelling way. That may be a portrait of a person, but it might be a picture of a building, or a streetscape, or an infographic, or what have you. So our cover formula is to avoid having a formula—it’s the difference between, say, Vanity Fair, which always shows you a heavily Photoshopped celebrity, and the New York Times Magazine, which is all over the place but in a wonderful way.

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As the magazine of the AIA, how does your publication serve the A/E/C/ industry? Is your DC location an asset to producing your magazine and website?

One thing we’ve done that no other AIA magazine has done is to give the AIA a dedicated section at the front of the book. It was designed by Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who created the Architect graphic template, so it stands out without being jarringly different. The AIA completely controls the content of the section—they plan and execute it themselves. The Architect staff produces the rest of the magazine, and our contract with AIA gives both parties editorial autonomy. So in a way, the profession gets the best of both worlds—the AIA’s clear official voice, and an independent one. We collaborate frequently—to present the AIA’s biennial compensation study, for instance, and the annual awards—but we also have the freedom to politely disagree and explore different viewpoints on a single issue. It helps that both the magazine and the institute are based in Washington, D.C. Collaboration is far easier over a cup of coffee than it is via Skype. Sure, it’s counterintuitive for us to operate outside of New York, where the design culture is so amazingly vibrant. I lived that life for five years and still miss it. But honestly, I find I’m a much better journalist here in D.C. In New York, it was too easy to lapse into a kind of provincialism, as though the rest of the world didn’t exist. In D.C., it’s much easier to appreciate what’s going on in the entire country.

Aside from the AIA affiliation, what makes Architect different from its competitors, and who are they?

Architectural Record is the big one. There’s zero value in duplicating the Record formula—it would be bad for us, bad for Record, and bad for the profession—and I’d like to think we’ve managed to avoid that trap, in the ways I described above. The editors at Record are remarkably good at their jobs, and that’s how I like it. Competition keeps you lean and lively. It’s just sad that there aren’t more of us. The U.S. market seems unable to support more than a couple of architecture magazines at a time. The emergence of so many web-only brands does give me hope, though. There’s so much diversity—from quirky solo acts like Bldgblog to UGC sites like Architizer and Archilovers.

In your time at the helm of Architect, which industry trends have you seen come full circle or reinvent themselves? How has the recession been a factor in these?

It’s fascinating to watch as limited credit and rising energy costs lay waste to the starchitecture phenomenon and the blockbuster building project. Forget form for form’s sake. These days, it’s all building-integrated photovoltaics and onsite wastewater recycling. And that’s pretty much a good thing. Buildings can be good-looking and good for you—and now we can prove it. Sustainability is shifting from good intentions to hard science. And to top it all off, business isn’t a dirty word any longer—it’s just one more variable in the design process. Look at SHoP, one of the hottest firms on the planet—by learning to speak the language of the developer like a native, they enjoy far greater than usual control over the fate of their designs.

What are the typological trends you are observing now? Healthcare, education, and infrastructure have been architecture’s beacons of hope through the recession…what’s next?

Follow the demographics. If a building type is useful to an elderly person, there will be a market for it, the most obvious examples being retirement and assisted living facilities. And as the United States gets more ethnically diverse, we’ll see the conventional house plan completely transform: lots more multigenerational compounds, spice kitchens for Asian families, and so forth. It will be fascinating to see whether development patterns change when construction of large, urban-scaled projects resumes. Since the recession hit, lots of pundits have been proclaiming the death of suburbia. I’m not holding my breath—we Americans love our cars. But when the price of gas hits $10 a gallon, then people will think high-density, transit-oriented development is just fantastic.

What are you noticing in the print versus web reading habits of your audience?

Despite rumors to the contrary, the web isn’t going to kill off print. Television didn’t kill radio. Every time a revolutionary medium enters the picture, there’s a moment of panic, and then a kind of logical reshuffling—each medium finds its place and purpose. The audience gravitates toward the medium that suits their needs best. Twitter’s good for breaking news; print still dominates when it comes to visual presentation.

How has your publication unfolded in the age of social media? What new technological platforms are you adapting?

If it’s a platform, we’re on it. No surprises there. The real technology innovation is happening behind the scenes. Compared to the unbelievable advances in communication tools for consumers—Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and so forth—the technology for larger-scale media brands is stuck in the Stone Age. Every media company on the planet—mine included—is trying to figure out more effective ways to gather, produce, and disseminate their content.

If a design firm has a relevant story to tell you about one of its projects for print or online, how should they pitch you or your staff?

Build meaningful, long-term relationships with editors. Think like a consultant, and not like a sales person. From a purely logistical perspective, email is the best way to communicate, and pictures convince much better than words.

What is your vision for Architect for the next five years? Beyond?

We do audience research every year, and our mix of business, design, technology, and community is still what architects are asking for. I don’t see that changing too quickly. What will change for certain, and with considerable frequently, is the way we fulfill our mission. We’ll try new technologies, identify new topics of concern, promote new talent, and forge new partnerships. Whatever serves the community.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our members?

I can’t imagine doing my job without you. Thank you.

Interview by: Debra Pickrel, Principal of Pickrel Communications [/expand]