Back to Blog

GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Digitising Design Engagement

Posted on 20 May 2021

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

(14 May 2021)
The last year has meant a forced dive into new digital technologies for most of us, and in this Glass-House chat, Digitising Design Engagement, we were keen to explore how people are using different tools and platforms to engage people in design and placemaking. We were joined by another interesting mix of participants representing a range of sectors and disciplines, and joining us from around the UK. We opened the discussion by asking people about their experiences of the last year, and thus began an extremely interesting shared exploration into digitising design engagement.

Key questions raised 

How have people managed co-design activities online in the past year?

How have you used on-line collaborative tools/methods with groups to gather ideas and encourage creativity?

How can we widen the engagement process in a more interesting way?

Key themes

Though we all had quite a lot of experience in engaging with communities through design and placemaking, we collectively admitted that the past year had involved a huge learning curve in using digital tools and platforms, and that we were still experimenting and learning new things all the time. Because of the engagement experience in the room, we moved quite quickly into exploring what was different about engaging online, and what we saw as both the opportunities and challenges of the new methods we were testing. We also talked about how to bring digital and in-person activities together creatively.

The importance of continuously testing and iterating

One of the defining qualities of digital technologies is that they are continuously evolving, with new platforms and tools emerging all the time. While none of us can expect to be a master of all tools, our engagement methods have benefitted from us delving into these new spaces and experimenting with the functionality of the tools, how we use and adapt them, and how our facilitation techniques need to adapt to the way we are interacting with people. 

There was a general consensus that video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Skype are creating new opportunities to invite people in, and in particular, to bring people from different places together efficiently. We were dialling in from England, Wales and Scotland, and we spoke of the ease with which we are now taking part in international conversations and collaborative actions, aided by these platforms.

We explored the co-design and co-creation tools such as Miro and Google Jamboards, that provide interesting spaces to work together in a visual way. As we become more familiar with the tools, we are also being more creative with them, carving out spaces for discovery as well as collaboration and co-design. We also talked about the potential for gaming environments to unlock the creativity of children and to empower them as design enablers.

Recognising diversity of experience

Each digital tool has its strengths and weaknesses, and each of us is more comfortable with some tools and platforms than others. People have varied experiences of the digital space and online activities depending on: whether they are on a computer, tablet of phone; whether they have paid subscriptions for the software they are using and if so, which packages and features they can access; the quality of their broadband; the environment in which they are working, and so on. 

Being faced with managing these variables has made us think a great deal about accessibility and inclusion with the tools we are using, and has obliged us to be creative, to experiment and to learn as we go. This has also helped us think about some of the basic values and principles underlying design engagement, and encouraged us to revisit how we approach design engagement in broad terms. For example, our interactions in Zoom, and the ability to see so many people at once in your field of vision, along with activity in the chat, has given us a different window onto how individuals interact with the facilitator and each other, the hierarchies within a space for conversation, and the balance of contributions.

We also spoke of generational differences, and that if we looked beyond the obvious changes in the age at which people have been introduced to digital spaces, we had actually found that we have managed to engage people across age groups. In some ways, digital approaches can shift the power balance to empower young people, while in others, they can simply level the playing field.

Taking a hybrid approach

There are lessons and approaches we are learning from all of this that we can take back to and combine with in-person spaces. We had all found through our experiences that there are certain limitations on how we engage with the digital tools, which need to be recognised and managed, but that also gave rise to experimenting and combining different tools and platforms. 

This included combining physical, tactile workshop spaces, prompts and activities, with digital spaces. Here are just a few of the examples shared and explored: recording and sharing experiences of woodlands through social media; bringing people together through video conferencing to model together, each with the physical materials they had with them, as a means of exploring and sharing ideas and experiences; Zooming into classrooms and creating hybrid workshops with virtual tours, digital treasure maps alongside modelling with household recyclables. We also began to explore how we could create looser frames for design engagement and co-design activities through integrating social media platforms, and combining event-based activities with others that people could do in their own time.  

We have only scratched the surface of using digital design engagement techniques, and how best to combine them with in-person approaches. We left the chat with a desire to keep experimenting, innovating and to keep sharing what we learn.

You can book on for our June and July Glass-House Chats below.

June: Building Design Engagement Capacity in Local Authorities

July: Community design review panels: how could they work?