We hear you

Hugh Pearman sifts the main messages from our first Litmus test

What is an architecture magazine for? More specifically, a members’ architecture magazine? This one, in fact? We have been going since 1893. In November 2018 we shall be 125 years old. Expect some kind of party.

Slightly alarmingly, I find I have already been editor for 8.88% of the magazine’s existence, so I’m going to get some analysis in early. Luckily I don’t have to do this alone because, earlier this year, we set up the RIBAJ ‘Litmus Group’ of around 40 members and readers from all types of practice who have kindly agreed to offer views, opinions and criticism. 

In fact, we did a remarkably detailed consultation exercise before we relaunched the RIBAJ in its present form in September 2013. Independently-run focus groups involved architects carefully selected for their variety and geographical distribution. We watched through one-way mirrors and backed the process up with phone and email surveys. The result was a mass of inevitably sometimes contradictory data but you know what? I don’t think it told us anything very different from what any six architects would tell you in the pub. Just in much, much greater detail.

The Litmus Group is a way of getting a continuing, slightly less  informal response from readers and it’s done remotely, pub ­attendance not required. The first such exercise looked at two issues of the Journal and ribaj.com. Crunching down the 40 pages of responses yields five key ones.

  • 1921 cover designed by CFA Voysey.
    1921 cover designed by CFA Voysey.
  • Our May issue, designed by Linda Byrne, was Litmus tested.
    Our May issue, designed by Linda Byrne, was Litmus tested.
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First, the vast majority likes the overall look and feel of the RIBAJ. ‘Stands out in the pile of other magazines’ was one comment.

Then in the Buildings section – well received on the whole – there’s a desire for more drawings. One critic sees our building studies as ‘puff pieces’ along with the profiles. Crikey – we can be woundingly critical, you know.

Intelligence and Culture sections are seen as strong – though some feel that academia is neglected. Some want the Culture section expanded, one wants to see more practitioners rather than critics writing.

Our annual awards issue – broadly welcomed – had some dissent. One said it was ‘just a glorified list with tiny pictures and some brave words cut down to fit the pages available – I want to know more.’ In contrast another called it ‘a really engrossing read’.

Finally, it’s print rather than digital that is still the prime interest – almost everyone concentrated on the print offering even though there is twice as much material (including a much-expanded Culture section) available at ribaj.com, free to members who register. We’ll be taking a good look at that. 

That was a really instructive first Litmus Group outing – thank you to the members who gave their time and insight. We are in increasingly challenging times economically but I hope we’ll keep as many of you as happy as possible. What came through very clearly is that members rightly critique their journal as we do their projects, but they value the RIBAJ as the ‘quality object’ part of their membership. And you don’t have to be a Litmus Group member to join this dialogue. Anyone can – just email us with publishable comments and suggestions at letters@ribaj.com. We really value it. Conversation is always better than monologue.