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Design Leadership

Learn what we mean by design and design leadership.

Many people find the prospect of designing daunting; they might think that they lack creativity, or that advanced drawing or visual communication skills are required. The reality is that everyone is able to design or use design in their everyday life.

For example, when you plan a meal you have to imagine ahead of time what your plate will look like, who is it going to feed and what are their requirements, what ingredients you need, what steps you need to take, how you will serve it etc. These are all design decisions, and even if you have cooked the same meal before, there is always room for creativity, adding or substituting an ingredient, or presenting it in a different way.

There is design thinking in everything we do, from baking and knitting, to arranging our room, planning a party, arranging a garden, or undertaking a house refurbishment project. If you are involved in looking after a place of worship, or running activities within it, chances are that you will have already undertaken a small design project, e.g. to organise a fair, a talk, a music event, and this may have involved thinking about the layout of the space and making small changes to fulfil different functions or needs at different times.

What these examples illustrate is that design is not strictly about aesthetics, and that it is something which is within everyone’s reach. Design involves the capability to dream of potential futures, to understand needs, wants and requirements and to explore, generate and test out ideas. Design leadership therefore is not about carrying out the detailed design of your place, nor it is narrowly about managing a project: it is about taking control of the overall design process.

An example of design leadership

It is useful at this point to look at the case of the Sheffield Buddhist Centre. The Triratna community in Sheffield was active and expanding for 12-13 years before they started looking for a dedicated place of worship. When the availability of a former Catholic church building came to their attention, they saw it both as a challenge and as an opportunity. The fact that the building was Grade II listed created uncertainty about the changes that would be allowed in it, or the size of the undertaking. However, they also saw the opportunity to grow into this space and create something that meets their needs and aspirations as a community.

Interior of the Sheffield Buddhist Centre

Once the core community made a consensual decision to take this project on, leadership was delegated to a design committee with Achara (the group leader) acting as the principal decision maker overseeing the process. However, a number of different working groups were formed taking responsibility for different design sub-projects. For example, one group was focussed on the interior design of the building, making decisions about the colour palette used in different rooms and the iconography. Local artists were also brought in to create a Buddha statue and a mural for the main hall. Another group was focussed on planting and landscaping of the outdoors space and garden. While experts were commissioned, for example for the biggest design intervention in the building which was to install underfloor heating and acoustic insulation in the main hall, the group maintained overall control of the design process and took active participation in the design and delivery of the outcomes.

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Enabling Community-Based Leadership in Design: Sustainable Development of Historic Faith Buildings

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