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Design Intent: Creating a Sense of Direction

Learn how you can help create a sense of direction for a community-led design project.

Having a sense of the challenges and opportunities that exist for a community-led design project, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a group to move forward. In many places that the Empowering Design Practices team worked with although many opportunities of development existed, there was a lack of a sense of direction which presented a big obstacle.

For instance, St John’s United Reformed Church in Stourbridge was a vibrant church and had many external partners using the space for a diverse activities, including a theatre company and a radio station. The building was cluttered and in need of urgent repairs. The congregation loved their church but it was relatively small in size and mainly consisting of retired and elderly people. The minister was also about to retire creating an additional sense of uncertainty. The church had clearly a huge potential and many opportunities wot work with external partners in its doorstep. However, one of their key obstacles for taking action was a sense of disorientation about their intent and purpose. There were many different perspectives about the future of the place. Some placed their emphasis on their need for a quiet and uninterrupted Sunday service which was compromised by the vibrancy of other activities, while others focussed more on opportunities relating to the long term sustainability of the place or how it could contribute to the social welfare of the city. There were many opportunities but not a sense of common purpose or direction.

The response

The response to the above situation, is to help create the conditions for people in the community to formulate a design purpose, or design intent. This can be realised by helping a community to map (share and connect) their diverse ‘priorities’, ‘concerns’ and ‘values’ as a basis for creating (co-authoring) a statement of intent. In the All Saint’s Church in Hanley, the Empowering Design Practices project team worked with the vicar, Rev Geoff Eze, to invite a wide range of stakeholders to share their priorities, concerns and values and to develop alternative purpose statements. The day helped the community change their outlook. What was characterised as the ‘impossible church’ became a place of opportunity, and the vicar came out of it with a renewed belief and motivation to attract funding and transform the church to provide a focal point for the whole community.

How it can be done

An enabler, together with the individual or group leading the project can facilitate the creation of a design intent, generally following the steps below. These steps can be organised as part of a workshop, or a series of activities happening over a period of time. Make sure that the place and the timings are appropriate for anyone participating. Participants can be divided into subgroups, perhaps mixing different interest/user groups together (members of the congregation, faith leaders, visitors, local community organisations, local residents).

Collect priorities, concerns and values:

Invite people to record their thoughts on three key themes:

  • Priorities: what people prioritise as an important thing to do/be or achieve in a place?
  • Concerns: what compromises what people want to be able to do or achieve?
  • Values: what principles guide their ideas, what value will be created?

You can use different colour post-it notes to record ideas, or different coloured pens.

Identify individual, shared and controversial ideas:

Invite participants to organise their notes into different categories:

  • Shared (i.e. statements that people agree),
  • Controversial (i.e. statements that people disagree or create conflicts)
  • Individual (i.e. unclassified statements)

You can download a template which can be used to help organise and group ideas here.

Download the template as a PowerPoint

Download the template as a PDF

Download the template as a fillable PDF

Image from a developing an design intent workshop

Generate statements of design intent

Invite participants to select items from the ‘shared’ category and produce a statement that is the product of the three shared items of thought:

Priorities x Concerns x Values = Design Intent

Images of design purpose statements generated at a workshop

The process will help produce some useful expressions of purpose. However, it is even more important that it helps produce some shared knowledge about the priorities, concerns and values that are common within a community, but also those that are in conflict. Differences in the statements are also useful. Such differences may reflect differences in terms of focus, but may have to do with language, or with the audience these are intended for. In any case, these statements are an important vehicle for creating a sense of direction and for strengthening links between members of a community.

Reflect on design intent

  • Can you think of an example of conflicting priorities that might exist in a historic place of worship?
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Enabling Community-Based Leadership in Design: Sustainable Development of Historic Faith Buildings

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