How to Pick a Houzz Profile Picture
Dear Louis: I have to pick a profile picture for our Houzz listing. This task is turning into my worst nightmare. – Please advise before I drown in a whirlpool of possible images, blurred past all recognition.
I’ve got to tell you we have tens of thousands of photos, drawings and BIM renderings on our Instagram page. Each one represents long, non-reimbursable hours of research, back to back meetings, site visits in downpours, missed conference calls, unstuck post-it-notes lost in space, over-joyed, teary-eyed clients — the whole gamut of daily practice.
So which one to choose for that one critical first impression? A 1200 x 250 pixel impression that captures our essence, that sets us apart but not too far apart (we don’t want to look like we’re nuts!), an impression that somehow addresses every concern from comfort and utility to style to status. Yes, status — let’s not be coy in a crisis such as this.
Of course, I am aware of those annoyingly persistent project slides when you first search Houzz for an architect. But you still have to drill down to that one defining image. Then there’s Twitter’s and LinkedIn and Pinterest profiles, all scaled differently, wouldn’t you know!
Feeling the Blur in Buffalo,
Dear Feeling the Blur: Well, I’m thinking of a jowly dog I once saw on YouTube that picks stocks better than professional brokers, just by placing a forepaw on an open page of listings. Maybe get one of his offspring to select your profile shot. Can’t you just hear yourself saying, “Here Design Dawg! Come, check out our Instagram page and choose something for us!”
Holding that option in reserve momentarily, let’s explore your nightmare, this whirlpool of project photos sucking you down unfathomable depths of lost time. The problem is to find one that defines your practice as much as possible, that tells your story in the click of a mouse, that sets your firm’s whirlpool apart from all the others billions of other, competing whirlpools out there.
Now let’s pose a question: Would you compare your marvelously diverse and creative practice to an onion? The idea being that if you keep peeling that onion image after image, it will be possible to find your company’s essence, and, hopefully, it’s one defining shot? Or would you compare it to garlic with its many cloves all in a cluster? How to show this organic complexity clearly and instantaneously the second a Houzz visitor clicks your page?
Going with the garlic metaphor, let’s set aside the notion of an all-defining, alpha and omega image right now. Because such a thing just doesn’t exist. Instead, let’s sort through the archives for that one picture that’s a relationship builder, that carries an emotion, that invites a response, a dialogue, leading to many a great new client.
Such poetical, soul-connecting images are extremely rare, even if you have tens of thousands. Just closing my eyes for a second in a scan for unforgettable, architectonic images I come up with a few favorites. Steichen’s Flatiron Building at dusk, Matisse’s 1905 open window on the Mediterranean, Cartier-Bresson’s 1965 Turkish staircase, Juan Franca’s radiantly upbeat Brazilian bus terminal, Tim Soar’s UK kitchen, one of his many exercises in rhythmic and engaging geometric patterns.
Sure, dramatic diagonals such as infinitely long parallel porch rails express boundlessness and excite the imagination – at the same time you need a vertical somewhere – a conversation pit or column to plant the idea of Home in the mind of the Houzz visitor. Because profile pages such as Houzz, Twitter, and Facebook force you into a horizontal, this vertical/horizontal calculus becomes even trickier when keeping in mind that people read photo left to right, top to bottom. Upper left quadrant, then, is for whatever is occupying pride of place in the shot – bottom right for negative space.
A word about this negative space wherever it figures in your photo. Despite the + theme of this year’s AIA Convention, – is often the insignia of status. Take fashion magazines. The more upscale, the more negative space: Harper’s Bazaar vs. Cosmo, clean lines vs. clutter. As sociologists and psychologists have shown in various studies, aggregations of brand name luxury goods and luxurious furnishings serve mainly as status symbols for those left behind economically.
Option One. I would go for Baroque. Find something in your architectural project you’d like to focus on, whether it’s a vase or a vestibule. Houzz users will thank you because they hate no knowing where to focus, where their eyes are meant to land. Make that one thing – that vase or vestibule luminous and central – the Madonna and Child of the photograph. Surrounding that one element, let everything else array itself in adornment, architectural orders as supporting cast of angels and cherubs, laurel leaves and Florentine hills.
Option Two. Rather than emulating Baroque’s grand scale down to an intimate vignette – a shaft of sun on a slice of siding, a window and inside the reflected leg of a Barcelona chair. As the poet Stephane Mallarme once said, ‘To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.’ Indeed, an image that suggests allows room for the Houzz visitor to imagine filling in the rest, while a super-balanced, “objective” photo of a place or space, minimizing every shadow to maximize every detail can be intimidating, ending all dialogue, or as Mallarme would say killing it.
And ironically enough, this is what we require of our architectural photographers, definition, and documentation over emotion and poetry. For portfolios, this rigorousness makes a lot of sense. However, documentation is not what’s going to capture the imagination and interest of Houzz clickers.
Option Three, do what I often do. Trace the contours of your garlic-like and complex identity celebrate each knotty clove by creating a collage of images within the horizontal profile picture frame allowed on Houzz. Make a dynamic juxtaposition of places and faces adding up to more than the sum of these parts. After all, juxtaposition is something you do every day.
What, then, should be the content of this poetic photo? I would say any symbols and signifiers that show you are on the same page with clients. That Barcelona chair, for example, will speak volumes regarding comfort, utility, style and status.
Architect and UC Berkeley design professor Galen Cranz reminds us in “The Chair” (Norton, 1998) that the upper class has since the 19th-century industrialization of furniture-making dedicated to showing its distance from the middle-class strivers below. It also seems that for high-status men this repugnance for the mass-produced can come at the cost of comfort altogether, while women will consider comfort on equal terms with status. Therefore, if your profile shot in Houzz features an assembly line Chippendale reproduction – well need we say more? Upper-Class, C-Suite types will run in the other direction no matter how comfortable it is. Why? Because retail “luxe” brands and looks scream affordable middle-class.
Which is not to say it would be preferable to put in a one of a kind sculpture cum chair, no matter how artfully constructed from recycled toothpicks. Indeed, such an idiosyncratic piece would not give off the tell-tale odor of middle-class mass produced. However, I would urge caution against showing your firm as overly “crazy” about custom one-off pieces. Limited production pieces may be a better choice when styling your home or office interior shot, more a Euro-centric choice, furnishings and fixtures made in batches of a thousand, not millions.
Are you still flipping through project photos in search of the perfect one? I can feel your agony and frustration. Here’s a parting suggestion: don’t use one of the zillion photos from the archives. Commission one specifically for profile pictures. Find a photographer whose work moves you, even if her “thing” is shooting Lost and Founds and Super 8’s. Signing her up will surely beat calling upon the talents of Design Dawg to choose your first and best impression!