Epistle Crafts Voices of the Built Environment

Aishwarya Kulkarni takes us into the world of architectural communication putting the spotlight on an architect-led communications consultancy, Epistle. She takes us through the story of its creator, Tanya Khanna who drove the success of the firm from a solo founder to a 65-person team across five cities. Today, Epistle has fostered an architectural discourse and outreach, democratising architecture communication, giving designers and architects a story that touches everyone.

My first steps into Epistle last year felt like stepping into a creative beehive of a community passionate about design. Conversations (and sometimes, spirited debates) buzzed about architecture and design, straying from conventional topics of favourite buildings, sustainable practices, and trends in the field; Instead, they focussed on capturing the communication of a building – how to best translate a drawing, a concept, even a complex construction detail, into something that a layman can understand. Architecture Communication is a common practice today, but in 2011, when Epistle was born, it was a revelation! Architectural schools teach us to build, but rarely to talk about what we’ve built.

Epistle office is located in South Delhi, India.

Epistle is India’s first architect-led communications consultancy based in New Delhi, India- by architects, for architects and designers, focusing on creating content-driven communications in the built environment.

Striving to narrate compelling stories about the built environment, over a decade, they’ve evolved from a solo founder to a 65-person team across five cities. Today, Epistle has fostered an architectural discourse and outreach, democratising the field through broader communication. The organisation is led by Tanya Khanna, Founder, along with Sana Jhamb (Director, Public Relations), Suneet Zishan Langar (Director, Editorial & Brand Strategy), and Mariyam Hasan (Director, Strategic Partnerships).

Keeping communication channels wide open, Tanya Khanna along with a team mate at Epistle.

We talk to Tanya Khanna, Founder of Epistle, and discuss everything related to communication and the tools used to curate a carefully crafted narrative that enhances our appreciation of architecture and design.

SCALE: How can new design firms best define their goals when starting? Are there frameworks to guide this self-discovery?

Tanya: One challenge we’ve faced is the lack of a precedent for what we do, so there are no set rules. However, over time, we’ve developed some consistent frameworks and parameters. For example, engaging in a conversation about who you are, the type of work you want to do, where you want to be, and what distinguishes you is incredibly helpful. This framework assists a firm in introspecting on their goals and aspirations, providing clarity on their direction and identity.

SCALE: Architects are trained to let their work speak for itself; but strong branding is essential. How do you bridge this gap and encourage architects to embrace self-promotion?

Tanya: In traditional industry operations, the focus has always been on design and drawings, with the belief that the work should speak for itself. However, a lot has changed, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media, digital presence, and content have become significant, not just in our industry but across various industries.

Tanya Khanna was selected to give a talk at NeoCon, Chicago on ‘Democratizing Architecture’

For some firms, the goal is to generate better business; for others, it is to attract better talent and for many it is overall brand positioning and a strategic approach to their communication activities; we work towards achieving any or all of the above. An analysis of the impact should be done mid-year and year-end reviews and maintain a constant dialogue with clients to understand what’s working and what’s not.

Epistle team at FOAID 2024.

For a design firm, good results are often driven by effective positioning, attracting top talent and projects, and being able to attract the right clients and projects. For a product brand, the goal is to reach as many design professionals as possible, and for their content to be aligned with the product, ensuring that the distinct product USP stands out. It is less about driving sales directly, and more about brand visibility. Thus, the strategy should be curated accordingly, with a range of varied deliverables tailored to their needs. For example, Pinterest is a strong tool for a high-end design brand, and LinkedIn maybe more suited to a firm that does more commercial and corporate work, but both may not be suitable for others.

SCALE: With shrinking attention spans and less time for reading, what’s the best content format for architects to engage clients in today’s social media-driven world?

Tanya: Contrary to popular belief, long-form content is doing well currently. LinkedIn thrives on long-form content, and so does  Instagram. With the advent of AI, long-form content is easier to produce. Carousel posts with long captions perform well because the audience is more informed and interested in narratives and storytelling.

Epistle team at AD100 2024.

However, the best form of content today is dynamic content, which is a mix of text and imagery. Video content is particularly effective because it leaves no room for misinterpretation. Videos allow you to showcase your ideas through words and visual storytelling, making the content more engaging and less likely to become boring or monotonous. With the rise of OTT platforms and YouTube channels, there’s immense potential for dynamic content in the architectural field. By leveraging video content, one can communicate complex architectural and design concepts and details in a manner that is accessible and appealing to a broader audience.

SCALE: Epistle pioneered design communication. What new gap are you addressing now, and what future needs do you see emerging?

Tanya: When Epistle started, we set a new agenda for communications in the design and the built environment. It is humbling and flattering to see many similar agencies now exist, and we believe that there is so much opportunity for this industry to grow. Not only is there a growing need in the industry, but there is also room for enough talent.  Our goal is to connect the dots of what a brand needs from both internal and external communication perspectives.

For us, we like to look at the bigger picture and big bucket of communications, over and above PR, socials or digitals. We find ourselves adding the best value when we look at all of these things cohesively, with the foundation of content. Any one of these tools cannot make a true impact unless they work with content as a premise, or with the brand narrative.

Conversation and communication is a cornerstone in Epistle’s ethos.

We understand what the firm’s ethos is, and tailor a strategy that works specifically for them. There is no set menu from which to choose; we create customised solutions, and that is our strength. No matter how much the industry evolves, these are principles we aim to always keep. As for the industry needs in the future, with the continuous evolution of digital platforms and communication tools, staying adaptable and forward-thinking will be crucial. We predict that the need for integrated and holistic communication strategies will grow, and we are committed to evolving alongside these changes to meet future demands effectively.

SCALE: How do you maintain creative freshness in branding across online platforms considering the limited number of tools? Does strategy need to evolve to avoid redundancy?

A few members of the Epistle Team.

Tanya: The fact that we are a collective of diverse design professionals is key to maintaining creativity. If I were doing this alone, it would inevitably become repetitive. However, we have a diverse team of graphic designers, interior designers, architects, writers, and more, which ensures there is always a fresh perspective and new ideas.

Additionally, creativity is a core value for everyone on our team. As soon as we feel we are repeating ourselves, we change our strategy. Repetition would diminish the impact of what we do.

SCALE: Do clients sometimes bring projects that lack a clear narrative? How do you help them create a compelling narrative around their design?

Engaging in discussions with clients

Tanya: At Epistle, we operate on the premise that every building has a story. It may not be a grand or dramatic story, but it has a story nonetheless. Even if it’s just analyzing the client brief and creating a plan, there is always a narrative. You cannot say there is no concept.

We are not critics, magazine editors, or judges of design. We are authors who facilitate the communication of design; Our role is to help articulate the firm’s story to the world. We are not here to create a concept for them, but to help communicate the narratives that serve as a tool for communication.

SCALE: Given architecture schools lack marketing/communication training, how is Epistle addressing this gap?

Mariyam Hasan (Director) and Suneet Langar (Director) recently conducted a workshop at CEPT University (one of South Asia’s leading architecture, engineering, and planning schools in India) on offering the students and course tutors valuable insights on how to work on content refine their presentations for impact.

In my time as a student, writing wasn’t even offered as an elective. However, in the past decade, an elective focusing on writing or history has been introduced to help students develop their communication skills. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of time combined with a desire to give back to the system led us to create an online course in architectural writing and communication. Recognizing that the industry needs more than just talent, we’re hopeful to launch a full-time course or even an academy by the end of this year; We’re actively working on it right now.

“We are not critics, magazine editors, or judges of design. We are authors who facilitate the communication of design; Our role is to help articulate the firm’s story to the world,” says Tanya Khanna, Epistle.

SCALE: Sometimes a fantastic project with a compelling narrative might lack high-quality photographs. Do you believe written content can suffice on its own?

Tanya: A balance between text, drawings, and images is crucial. There’s no substitute for great photography; it’s simply essential. Today, good photography is considered standard practice, and the industry understands that. Even smaller firms can showcase their work on ArchDaily by including drawings and some photographs. Even student portfolios and fresh graduates’ work can be fantastic visual materials. I love how easy it is for recent graduates to create websites and present their work today. The industry has undergone a significant shift, making branding a vital tool for standing out from the competition.

Further, we collaborate with photographers who are shooting for clients during the briefing process to ensure the photographs align with the narrative being created.

SCALE: What are the biggest challenges you encounter when working with clients during the initial stages of a project?

Tanya: While there aren’t necessarily clear-cut “big” or “small” challenges, the initial client introspection process can be quite engaging. It’s not necessarily a hurdle, but it is a crucial step we all have to take. The frustration arises when it takes longer than expected to see results or measure the impact of our efforts. This can be challenging for both us and the client. For instance, during holiday seasons, results might be slower, or an unexpected algorithm change might necessitate adjustments to the quarterly strategy.  However, these are smaller hurdles within the larger process and can be addressed with prompt reviews and clear solutions.

SCALE: How did Epistle help architects embrace digital tools during COVID-19’s construction slowdown, and what did you contribute to the design industry as a whole?

Tanya: As an industry, I feel, we were quite disorganized. Most firms before the pandemic had never considered cloud storage, remote work, or adopting digital communication tools. Those who had dabbled in these areas quickly adapted, but others had to step back and make a conscious shift, including the product design industry. However, challenging times often necessitate adaptation; We facilitated the transition from in-person studios to online platforms by hosting webinars, Instagram Live sessions, newsletters, and website updates. Everyone finally had the time to update their websites, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This period allowed design professionals and firms to step back and reassess their operations. They could restructure their talent pool and organization, rethink content creation strategies, and move away from autopilot mode towards strategic decision-making –  a process that is often neglected during busier times.

All Images Courtesy Tanya Khanna, Epistle.