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    Credit: Viktor Koen

What’s the first item of business when starting an architecture firm? Choosing a name for your firm. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. The choices are varied and the ramifications are staggering. The name of your firm is a major component of your overall brand—the first thing people will hear, see, and judge. Because the personality of the firm is going to be projected by the name, the decision on what to call the firm is critical, so you had better take it seriously. Everyone else will.

In the 19th century, before architects were licensed professionals, professionalization meant attaching credibility to the practice of architecture to distinguish it from other trade crafts, such as carpentry. Architecture firms looked to established and respected law firms for examples of how to name their firms and followed suit by stringing together the last names of the founding partners: McKim, Mead & White; Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge; Burnham and Root; Adler & Sullivan. The list goes on.

It’s not the most creative method—but it’s still in place for its simplicity and elegance, as is the later advent of initialed firms such as HOK, RMJM, and RTKL. In a highly scientific study (conducted by me), I asked the first eight architecturally educated people I know under the age of 40 to tell me what the initials in those firms stands for. Nobody knew. (To wit: Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum; Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall; Rogers Taliaferro Kostritsky Lamb.) Even if the original named, or initialed, partners are no longer around, the abbreviation remains a classic approach for its brevity—though it can be a bit cloudy.

A popular alternative to proper names is advancing an idea or brand identity through a firm’s derived purpose. Seattle architects Kevin Eckert and Andrew van Leeuwen are straightforward about their approach. “We named our firm ‘Build’ to underscore that we get stuff done,” Eckert says. Unsurprisingly, because they are a design/build firm, this approach made sense for them as they established their brand—not to mention potential phonetic challenges had they decided to string together Eckert and van Leeuwen.

Naming can also be highly personal—a branding device that lets people know what you care about both in and out of the office. Fivecat Studio (formerly McCarthy LePage Architects) in Pleasantville, N.Y., is piloted by Annmarie McCarthy, AIA, and Mark LePage, AIA. McCarthy and LePage, who are married as well as business partners, are lifelong animal rescue and adoption advocates who have quite a few rescue animals at home. “We searched for a name that could not only separate us from the crowded pack of ‘Smith and Smith Architects,’ ” McCarthy says, “but that could also fuel our passion for helping helpless cats and dogs.”

Firms that choose to work around the “Smith and Smith” naming convention often privilege an idea or quality over the principals behind those ideas. Jill Finn, Assoc. AIA, owner of TANGERINEdesign in Berkeley, Calif., says that choosing her firm name had more to do with practicalities and marketability than identity. “I didn’t want to name it after myself, as I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it in the architecture field. I wanted a name that could represent some of my other creative endeavors,” Finn says. “I kept saying to myself, ‘I want something tangible,’ and there was something about that word ‘tangible,’ which became ‘tangerine.’ And since I’m a redhead and come from an advertising background, I knew the color reference would be something to stand out and help clients to remember me.”

While some architects feel that deviating from the traditional route of partner names is more inclusive of the firm’s identity, most architects still hold that having specific names incorporated into the firm’s name is the most effective approach. For instance, 46 of the 50 firms from the architect 50 survey last year featured names or initials of either current partners or founding partners—firms such as Perkins+Will, NBBJ, and Ann Beha Architects.

There’s another side to this, too, which has to do with the life of a brand. Established firms with venerated partners, respected track records, and cultural currency are disinclined to jeopardize that foundation for fear of erasing their reputations in the very fickle collective consciousness. New York’s Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership) is a notable exception. But, in this case, that kind of fearlessness seems to be part of the firm’s DNA: It’s the fifth name change in 50 years.

Still, there’s something to be said for sticking to the tried-and-true. When Andrew Hawkins, AIA, got ready to hang a shingle for his College Station, Texas, firm, he “toyed around with other nontraditional names—but I didn’t want potential clients to think they weren’t dealing with the firm’s principal, simply because I was younger.” He also felt that “Hawkins Architecture” wouldn’t evoke the kind of work they do, even if it was clear that it was an architecture firm. In the end, Hawkins added the tagline “Think+Create+Sustain” to Hawkins Architecture. “While I did go the traditional route,” he says, “I wanted to add a bit of flair to let people know that we were anything but traditional.” —Bob Borson, AIA aia

Bob Borson is a Texas-based architect and blogger at lifeofanarchitect.com.