Welcome to Future Talks by RTF. In this episode, we are privileged to have Ingrid Spencer as our guest. Ingrid is a remarkable individual who has made significant contributions to the world of design and architecture. Currently serving as the Executive Director of AIA Austin and the Austin Foundation for Architecture, Ingrid’s journey in the design industry began in New York City, where she held key roles at Contract magazine and Architectural Record.
Ingrid is the executive director AIA Austin and the Austin Foundation for Architecture, and serves as co-founder and artistic director of Creek Show, the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy’s installation series. A native of Northern California, her path to the design world started in New York City, where she was managing editor of Contract magazine and Architectural Record. She moved to Austin in 2004, serving as contributing editor for Architectural Record and writing for magazines such as This Old House, Cowboys and Indians, Texas Architect, and Tribeza, until starting at AIA Austin in 2015. She lives in Austin’s Zilker neighborhood with her husband Todd and 16-year-old son Dash, and three cats.
RTF: Hi Ingrid, We are glad to have you as a guest on Future Talks by RTF. Thanks for joining us. What are your primary responsibilities in your role as an Executive Director at AIA Austin?
Ingrid: As Executive Director of both AIA Austin and the Austin Foundation for Architecture, I work to serve our 1,300 architect and designer members, and our over 200 allied members, as well as serving the public to help them gain awareness and understanding of the profound role of design in their lives. For our members, I work to create opportunities for them to gain continuing education, to make the profession more equitable, and to make the world more sustainable and beautiful. We have 23 committees with many engaged people working on a variety of activities, everything from making sure kids know that they can be architects no matter what their background, to advocating our city leaders for design excellence, to improving the profession by making it more diverse, to advocating for climate action and improving how buildings are made.
RTF: What is the impact of the work of AIA Austin and its influence on designers and architects?
Ingrid: Austin is now the 10th largest city in the US, and the city is struggling to update the infrastructure to meet the demands of being a metropolis. That’s a good and a bad thing….it means AIA Austin can make real impact on things like transportation, development policy, and the future of the built and natural environment in the city. Our members know too well that things that get built will be there for 50 or more years, so we better get it right up front. Luckily there are so many award-winning smart architects and designers in Austin, and more are coming every day, as the city draws more and more creative people. We have become a partner and a resource with our city leaders, and they rely on our expertise to make decisions that will impact the future of Austin. We’re very fortunate to have that relationship, and I think our members appreciate the work we’ve done as an organization to get us there.
RTF: You have worked as an Editor for a considerable period of your career, tell us about your experiences. What were your key learnings and what major challenges did exchanges with designers, and other creatives present?
Ingrid: I started my career in journalism in the 1990s working with computer magazines in San Francisco and moved to New York to work on design magazines. It was the high point of print journalism and a really fun time to be in publishing in New York City. It was amazing to be at that magazine at that time. Architects like Tom Kundig, Marlon Blackwell, Rand Elliott, Deborah Berke and so many more were up and coming at the time and were always hanging around the office. Architectural writers like David Dilon, Victoria Newhouse, and Blair Kamin and so many more were always around, and great architecture photographers like Alan Karchmer or Tim Hursley. It was a vibrant time. I loved writing for the magazine, and when I moved to Austin in 2004, I continued to work as a contributing editor, remotely, until I started at AIA Austin in 2015. The magazine was before its time with remote work! I could log into the publishing software and put my story directly into a page! I found that I loved writing about design and never looked back! Architectural Record won a National Magazine Award for the October 2011 issue, which was a high point for me. In a time now when online stuff just comes at you all the time, and journalists aren’t so respected, I look back on that time and on the great integrity of the editors and writers I worked with as something really special and profound. Design excellence was truly celebrated and the debates and conversations about what that meant gave me a real appreciation at the necessity for real critical discourse.
RTF: What is your opinion on the relevance of getting published in top publications for architects? And what’s the right way to approach publications for architects?
Ingrid: It’s really important for architects to have their work published. It starts with crafting a story about the project. Every project has a unique story, you just have to find it and tell it in a compelling way. Photography is key. And architects can’t just assume that each publication wants the same story. Architects need to understand and each publication, get to know the editors, get to know what kinds of stories their audience wants to know, and pitch the right story to the right publication. It’s not easy. It takes time and establishing relationships. I’d say take those editors out to lunch and ask them a lot of questions!
RTF: We would like to get your idea of a good pitch and how you differentiate between a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ approach from the architects and designers.
Ingrid: A bad pitch is when the architect doesn’t know who they are pitching to. Generic press releases won’t do. Every publication has an editorial calendar. If you have an amazing K-12 school, find out when that magazine is doing a section on K-12, get great photos and craft a unique story. Make sure to have metrics about the sustainability of a project. That has become critical these days. If it’s a residence, there might be an unusual story about the collaboration between the homeowner and the architect, or some details that really make the house stand out. Find them and tell them. Relevance is key. For example, the pandemic forced us all to work at home. Home offices became paramount. Audiences wanted to see how architects were doing those kinds of things.
RTF: What is your idea of a perfect media kit for designers? If you could elaborate on this for our readers, what should it contain?
Ingrid: Well, it goes both ways. From the publication to the designers, a perfect media kit would have a year-long editorial calendar, a list of contact info for the editors and writers and what “beat” they cover, and some info about the audience. Do they accept unsolicited work? Do they require high-res photos or will they come take the images? Then the designers could tailor their submissions to specific audiences, themes, and editors. I’d say even though photography can be expensive, it’s crucial to have good photos for every project.
RTF: What are the biggest challenges that architects face in the USA?
Ingrid: Architects are highly educated, really amazing problem solvers, and creative as well as technical. They also care very deeply about humanity and have a lot of integrity. These are wonderful qualities but it often leads them to give their work away, or devalue what they do, which makes the rest of the world also devalue what they do. They need to continue to work hard to make their relevance and importance known to all. Other professions might be able to build something that checks the boxes, but it the architects who make our cities livable, walkable, pleasurable places to exist, and the goal is equitable, climate responsive, beautiful cities. Without architects that isn’t possible. Architects need to keep advocating for their relevance and importance.
RTF: How does your off-the-table life shape your professional life?
Ingrid: What off-the-table life?! HA! My world is very wrapped up in the design community, and I definitely never stop thinking about it. My family is also very design oriented. We live in an architect-built house and my son and husband are obsessed with car design right now, so we’re immersed. When we travel we want to go to great cities and see architecture! In another life I would have been involved in fashion, so I’m obsessed with that world too!
RTF: What fuels your creativity? And what are the things you resort to when not working?
Ingrid: Travel fuels my creativity the most. I’m from California, so I do love going there, and going back to places I loved as a child, like Santa Cruz, Big Sur, San Francisco, the beaches of San Diego. I love New York City so much, but I’ll go anywhere! I was in Baltimore recently and really loved seeing that city. I love European cities like Edinburgh and London. My mother is from Chile so I really enjoy that beautiful country. Seeing old cities and other cultures really excites me.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It has been a pleasure getting to know about you and your work. We’re sure that your insights will be highly valuable to our audience which includes architects and design students. We look forward to publishing this interview on our website soon.