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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Breaking down jargon in design and placemaking

Posted on 20 April 2022

Written by:

Elly Mead

This month’s Glass-House Chat, Breaking down jargon in design and placemaking, explored the role language, and specifically technical, industry-specific jargon, can play in how we think, plan, design and build spaces and places. We welcomed a diverse mix of  participants from across the UK into this online Chat, from design specialists and engagement professionals to community activists and artists, to talk about how we can remove or mitigate language barriers from our design processes and beyond.

Key themes

We started this month’s Chat by digging into how use and access to language can create barriers to engagement, stifling conversations around wider place-based issues as people do not feel empowered to engage with local issues that they may not have the technical terms for. We discussed how using complex and jargon-heavy language can be a result of institutionalisation, and how some may feel that jargon can be used intentionally to prevent accessible and communal conversations, but often it is simply a symptom of the bureaucracy of planning and building systems. We spoke of the importance of design professionals acting as interpreters in certain spaces, breaking down complex terminology into plain language to give people a better understanding of design processes and systems, and the value of this approach in creating safe spaces where people can ask for definitions if unsure.

Time, time and more time

Often cited as the resource in shortest supply, time comes up again and again in our Chat spaces as a limiting factor in many projects and interactions. We need to give time at the start of design projects and engagement processes to lay the foundations for building a shared vocabulary and an understanding of design terms, phrases and acronyms. By creating this shared language base at the start of collaborations, we are not only building connection and trust, but also providing the tools to allow people to engage with designers and decision-maker. Investing time at the start of projects is key to ensuring their success in the future, empowering communities to take part and giving space to not only equip people with design terminology, but to also understand the language and words each unique community and group uses to improve communication more widely. This also allows for a conversation about how communities want to be engaged, again bringing them into a project as stakeholders and collaborators instead of simply as users.

It was acknowledged that too often we are not given the space or time for language sharing and building, particularly when we are considering environmentally-driven projects. Of course, some projects will always have intense timeframes and deadlines, but we need to balance this speed with conversations that allow people to engage meaningfully with the process. By taking the time to have conversations before projects happen, we can avoid communities feeling like projects are happening to them and their area, and instead build a shared project journey with communities and places that grow together collaboratively.

Language is complex and ever-evolving

Our language is continuously changing and evolving, and as language changes over time, phrases and buzzwords move in and out of fashion and acronyms change. We tend to build up smaller lexicons within each of our different social groups; our colleagues, friends, partners and within our families. Language is the gateway to creating shared understanding and collaboration in design and engagement projects, and in order to achieve this we need to share both our working and cultural lexicon with others. 

Acknowledging this, we discussed the importance of setting clear definitions and a shared glossary / vocabulary with those we collaborate with, as not only can words have different meanings over time, but they may be perceived differently in different professions, communities or cultures. Words we use casually may have a loaded meaning for specific groups, so it is important that we set up clear communication within projects to understand these turns of phrase, and be able to speak to a community with a language, or sets of languages, that they feel comfortable with and understand. This can not only help us work with different communities, but also across professions to promote collaboration and joined up thinking across our built environments.

Recognising our individual and collective power

We questioned how power, and decision-making power in particular, is strongly related to who uses and ‘controls’ (uses and perpetrates) the jargon during engagement processes. One of our participants, a young professional, spoke of their experience with jargon and how this often made them feel inexperienced and on the back foot, particularly in conversations about business or legal issues. It was acknowledged that we may regurgitate or use jargon to feel more ‘professional’ and fit into certain spaces or situations, but that this did not necessarily help communication. Being direct, and using clear and accessible language can help challenge perceptions of professionalism, but this type of clear articulation can be a difficult skill to learn and nurture. 

In order to shift culture in this space, we each need to recognise our own power to change our language and use of jargon, as well as the collective power we hold as organisations, institutions or practices to break down these language barriers within our work. It is important to avoid complacency within language, and placing the onus on participants or new-comers to highlight difficult words or turns of phrase. The responsibility lies with each of us as individuals to create an open environment where people feel comfortable raising their hands to say ‘I don’t know what this means’. We should each strive to use the clearest language possible and to create an environment where people feel comfortable and confident asking questions.

Language is part of all of our lives, whichever language each of us speaks, reads or signs, but sometimes we do not give the language we use the scrutiny it needs to ensure our ideas and thoughts are being conveyed clearly and in an accessible manner. Many roles in engagement are about interpreting professional jargon and communicating these ideas more openly, but if each of us recognises our power to use more accessible language and takes the time to build shared vocabulary with others, our design processes can continue to invite people into wider conversations about placemaking, and we can facilitate knowledge sharing and exchange in whichever sector of work we find ourselves.

You can view our past Chat takeaways here.

Please email with your suggestions for new Chat topics.

You can sign up for our next Chats via our Events page.