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Design Navigators: Developing a Strategic Rationale for Change

Learn how to help communities navigating the design process and develop a rationale for change.

Even when there is a clear design intent, it is easy to get lost in the journey. The journey of making design changes in a building (however big or small) is a long and complicated one, especially when this building has religious and historic significance. It requires technical or specialised knowledge which is difficult to gain and requires engagement with a variety of different people who may have different priorities and expectations.

Any change in the fabric, arrangement, or use of a historic place of worship needs to take into consideration and balance multiple needs: the need for sustainability has to be balanced against liturgical, pastoral and wider social needs, as well as requirements that relate to the architectural and historical characteristics of the space.

In many of the projects that the Empowering Design Practices worked with, people felt disempowered by this situation. This was often the result of a feeling that they don’t have the knowledge, expertise, connections or capacity (e.g. available time) to lead design project and therefore expected the role to be fulfilled by some other ‘expert’. Depending on the case, this may have been a heritage expert, a historian or a conservation/ecclesiastical architect. However, all the knowledge, ideas, and understanding that different stakeholders or participants bring in the process are important and in a sense, there is no single one person or expertise that has the bird eye view of the whole project.

This ‘intersectionality’ of places of worship is clearly a source of power for any design initiative but it is also a source of ‘power struggle’. Developing a design language to be able to communicate with architects and design is one way to fill this power gap (see week 2). However, this again is not alone sufficient. There needs to be a shared rationale or narrative for change which can be communicated to different people for different purposes: to apply for funding, to communicate with faith and other statutory bodies, to commission an architect, to fundraise or to enthuse people in the community to join in.

The response

In response to the above situation, the Empowering Design Practices research team worked with different places of worship to ways to help them develop this strategic design rationale to guide the decision making process.

In very simple terms this strategic view of a design initiative is about creating a shared space (e.g. a collaborative document or a wall chart) where people can view and ‘connect the dots’ between different aspects of a project. There are four key questions that a group needs to be able to collaboratively answer:

  • Why are changes needed or wanted? i.e. what are the reasons that drive change and what are the desired outcomes of that change?
  • What changes are needed or wanted? i.e. what are the physical alterations and additions that are envisaged?
  • Who needs to be engaged? i.e. who are the people that need to be engaged in decisions?
  • How will people be engaged? i.e how people will be engaged in the process and in defining the answers to these questions?

How it can be done

The website called Design Thinking Guide was developed specifically as a tool to help enable community groups to develop a shared design rationale. It also has a series of templates which can be used in a workshop setting or as part of a reflective process. You may print multiple copies so that you compare different ideas developed for example with different stakeholder/interest groups. You can alternatively use post-it notes, an online collaborative document or a (physical or digital) whiteboard.

A simple step by step process to facilitate the use of these tools is as follows:

Step 1

Record all the different reasons that drive a design initiative (i.e. answer ‘why questions). Place each reason on a different card and fill in as many cards as you want/need (individually and/or as a group).

A ‘reason’ can be an outcome, that you want to achieve, a key issue that you want to resolve, or an assets that you want to sustain or develop.

Think about who else might need to be engaged to help find out about other reasons for change.

Step 2

Record as many ideas as possible about the actual changes that you want to see (i.e. answer ‘what’ questions). Place each idea on a different card and again fill in as many cards as you want/need (individually and/or as a group).

An idea can be an idea for a physical alteration, a new activity, event or service.

Think about how different ideas for changes may affect different people who use or visit the building.

Step 3

Connect reasons and ideas to create ‘units of an argument’. One argument per card, fill in as many as you like. In this step you are connecting ‘why’ and ‘what’ answers to create alternative ‘rationales for change’.

Step 4

Evaluate your argument units. For each argument record your thoughts about limitations or issues with this argument. This step will help you differentiate the value and function of the different arguments and understand whether/how they can be combined and whether they can be staged. Think about the people/needs who may excluded in the different arguments and how you can potentially engage them (answer ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions).

Image from workshop using the design thinking tools

The set of arguments produced should be seen as a guide, or compass, but this does not mean that it should remain rigid. Although it has the function of helping justify and communicate design decisions, it is important to see this as an evolving narrative. It it important that you continue involving people in reviewing this narrative as the project progresses.

Reflect on the Design Thinking Guide

Spend 10 minutes browsing through the Design Thinking Guide and respond to these questions:

  • Share one thing that you found in this guide that you think would be useful for a community to know.
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Enabling Community-Based Leadership in Design: Sustainable Development of Historic Faith Buildings

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