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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Making as a design engagement tool

Posted on 17 May 2022

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

This month’s Glass-House Chat, Making as a design engagement tool, explored the act of making as a catalyst to enable conversations and improve places and neighbourhoods within larger design engagement journeys. We welcomed a diverse mix of participants from across the UK into this online Chat, from artists, to local authority representatives and architectural educators to talk about how we can use making and craft as a pathway to understanding different perspectives, experiences and to broadening conversations.

Key Themes explored

We opened the conversation by asking participants what making means to each of us individually and how it manifests in each of our practices. We agreed that making is naturally a part of our everyday lives; from cooking to gardening, building flat-pack furniture and more traditional ideas of making like buildings and sewing. We highlighted that as children, making is a core tool used for learning. In addition to this, we felt it important to acknowledge the diversity of making and the power of using less-traditional methods of making in design engagement processes, especially when these are connected to our culture, heritage and aspects of our everyday lives. As we move into adulthood the idea of making as a creative task loses its popularity, or social acceptance, as a learning tool. Something that we recognised in all of our work was the difficulty and hesitation of adults when engaging in creative design tasks, and we asked ourselves ‘how do we mitigate this fear?’ It is often the first step or mark on the page that is the hardest. Finally, we recognised the power that making has to find common ground, and its ability to unearth shared values between different stakeholders, people and groups.

Making with non-traditional materials and methods

Using non-traditional materials and methods in crafting and making can help to challenge preconceived notions of creativity, or lack of, which we often encounter when trying to engage adults in creative design engagement activities. By moving away from traditional ideas of creative tasks, such as drawings or painting, which people may have negative experiences of, we can begin to shift how people perceive the task of making within the wider context of design engagement. There were many wonderful suggestions for using alternative materials in making, such as reusing felled timber to make a local paper type, as well as drawing on everyday making practices to invite conversation from a diverse range of participants, as well as the idea of using familiar making tasks to create a comfortable environment. 

One of our participants spoke about an amazing example of these principles from within her current professional role, which saw invited residents to create a tea blend for their local area. Often, it is not the outcome of the making task which is the most valuable aspect, but the conversations and connections that occur whilst our hands are busy.

We also spoke of the potential material choice plays in sparking broader discussions during making activities. One of our attendees relayed her experiences of using large cardboard boxes to build spaces with children, and how the use of recycled cardboard prompted the children to discuss the environment, climate change and homelessness. Making has the potential to catalyse these larger discussions, prompting the exchange of knowledge and empathy building. It is the act and process of doing/making something together which translates into an effective engagement tool.

Making IS for Adults

Childhood is a comfortable space for making, and creative activities are often used as  learning tools during our time in school. But, as we progress into adulthood there is a shift in how we think about making, how comfortable we are making things and therefore how we express our creativity. A hurdle many of us spoke about during the Chat was this reluctance and hesitance of adults to get involved in engagement workshops which use making as a tool. How do we mitigate against this hurdle and invite adults into this space with more confidence? Within The Glass-House we introduce all of our engagement sessions by assuring the participants that you don’t have to be ‘good’ at making, it is the doing that is the important part. Often, by making alongside participants or creating the first mark, we can create a low pressure environment that invites everyone to get involved. Within the group we also speculated that the idea of using familiar making tasks has the potential to generate spaces of comfort for adults, creating a gateway into design engagement processes.

We also touched on the belief that being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a creative task (or anything for that matter) is symptomatic of early schooling (from a British perspective), with the fear of failure or being ‘bad’, perpetuated by a system that groups children based off their academic ability. It is important not to lose the value of making and creativity in the face of subjectivity, and perhaps part of the power of using making is removing this association and encouraging people to be more creative generally in their lives. We also pondered collectively if this undervaluing of creative expression as adults could be why creative engagement is often overlooked or undervalued in design journeys and conversations.

Finding Common Ground through Making

We often have more in common than not and within our work at The Glass-House, we find that making is an excellent tool for creating accessible engagement processes that encourage people to unearth their shared values. By using making activities to create this strong foundation of shared values between all stakeholders, we can create further opportunities to expand the conversations about local places and people. We touched on the importance of making for children, and how we can find common ground with children through creative tasks which give their opinions, space and power, to allow them to connect to their local spaces and develop a sense of identity. This sense of identity is also important for adults, and making provides an avenue for adults to explore their identity through craft. We all recognised that seeing yourself in things or spaces that you have created strengthens your connection to that item or place, and therefore the want to care and look after it.

We interact with the idea of making every day, but we often undervalue the social power of making and how it can connect us to other people and the places around us. Through making, we can give power to our ideas, thoughts and feelings, and connect with others to build empathy and generate ideas. We need to shift the culture around making and creative activities, especially in adulthood, making space for creative expression to bring social value, but also to help build skills and relationships through placemaking processes.

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.