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Unpicking Design Engagement

Posted on 17 November 2022

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

What The Glass-House refers to as “design engagement” is often quite different from the standard consultation we see on most schemes and planning processes. Below, we’ve outlined three key elements to design engagement, as we see it:

Image Credit: The Glass-House

1. Raising awareness about the role that design plays in all our lives

We are all constantly interacting with design and design thinking. From the homes and spaces we inhabit, to the design of our services, our gadgets and our clothes, we are constantly evaluating, reacting to and making choices based on how we feel about their design.

We are also all designers and design thinkers in our own right, shaping and personalising our environments, developing processes and systems to organise our possessions and our lives, choosing how we present ourselves to the outside world. Most of us have also dabbled in engineering through play, with building blocks, Lego and Meccano, train sets and with the now incredibly sophisticated design software in online gaming.  

Design is part of our daily life, yet for some reason, it feels out of reach or irrelevant to most when it comes to the design of our shared built environment. 

We believe that placemaking offers a unique opportunity to invite people into a conversation about how design impacts on our lives, how it stimulates our senses and emotions and how it influences the way we interact with the spaces around us and with each other. 

The first step to effective design engagement is therefore opening people’s eyes to their innate design expertise and unleashing their confidence to use it in a collaborative process to shape their neighbourhoods. 

2. Empowering people with the sense of agency, confidence and skills to take part in or lead a design process

Like any process or profession, formalised design practice brings with it its own guiding principles, systems and vocabulary. It is perhaps naïve to believe that you can invite people into a design conversation and that they will make a meaningful contribution to design decision-making if they are not familiar and comfortable with the stages and lexicon of that design process.

We need to communicate clearly and simply about design and placemaking, creating pathways into exploration and dialogue about the principles and processes that underpin them and the solutions they can potentially offer (or not). 

In our experience, it is useful to begin with a broader place-based conversation about how design affects how places work, how the elements fit together and the impact of design on our lives. Sometimes, diving straight into a discussion about a particular scheme, and being confined by its red line boundaries, can mean that people find it difficult to contextualise how that scheme fits into the surrounding neighbourhood, or into the complex socio-economic landscape in which it is located.  

An example I often give is in reference to density in urban design, which refers to the number of people living in a geographic area, generally calculated as the number of inhabitants per hectare or square mile. To the average person, their experience of a design conversation around density is most likely based on housing targets and pressures to squeeze as many new homes as possible into an area. Few realise that design offers a great opportunity to explore how to achieve the same density in a number of different ways. Many assume that the only way to get as many homes as possible into any given landscape is to stack them into a tower block, but this is not always the case. One only needs to look at examples of different cityscapes in the UK and abroad to see that there is more than one way to achieve any density target. 

There is also very little dialogue about how density affects the successes and failures of an area. While there is a shortage of housing in many parts of the country, other parts of the UK are struggling because there are simply not enough people living there to support local services and amenities. This is not just a UK-based problem, but one that affects communities across the world as populations and urban masses shift with changing societal trends. There is also a dialogue to be had about critical mass, the minimum number of people living and working in an area required to make it function well and sustainably, when we are talking about the density of our neighbourhoods. 

At The Glass-House, we do a great deal of training for community design groups convened to lead or to engage with a particular project or scheme. The core objective of this type of design capacity building is to create a safe space for these conversations, and to build confidence within communities to explore and contribute to design decision-making in a more informed and confident way. 

3. Empowering people through their engagement in a design process 

This is not just about giving people a voice in what happens in their area. While a meaningful role in decision-making is a core objective of design engagement, it should not be the only one. By the same token, the built outcomes of any engaged design process, and their subsequent local impact, should not be the only measure of its success. 

A creative and engaged design process, the design journey itself, offers fantastic opportunities for social impact and social value. From simply participating in a shared and collaborative creative process with others, to developing new confidence, skills and networks, engagement in design and placemaking can provide a flexible frame for connection, collaboration and empowerment at an individual, group, organisational and community level. 

An engagement process can give as well as take. 

An example of this is the use of creative methods to give voice to those participating, for example using photography or video to capture people’s views and ideas about a place and how it is working. What if rather than just asking people to submit their photos or videos, you offer a space where people can learn more about the production and editing of photography and video? What if those creative outputs were also celebrated as such through an exhibition? What if the design engagement process could join up budgets for planning, regeneration and development with those for the arts in the community, youth programmes and for employability? 

We are also really interested in exploring the role design engagement can play in empowering people as champions and mentors. How can we better create pathways for those who have already been involved in a design process to step into and support others in the projects they are involved in?   

Think bigger

The key message here is that we should be much more ambitious about what design engagement can do. It should never just be about ticking boxes and getting buy-in. It should be about meaningfully engaging people in a design journey, empowering diverse people and organisations to explore and experience the creative process of design, to meaningfully contribute to decision-making about how we shape the places around them and at the same time, create social value opportunities by creating spaces for connection, collaboration and empowerment. 

This blog is the first in a series of think pieces, which we hope will serve as prompts for discussion, innovation, reflection, and iteration around engaging communities in design decision making, and to encourage others to share ideas, approaches and stories. You can read the rest of the series here.

If this blog, or any other in  this series, spark some thinking or experiences you would like to share, we invite you to write your own blogs on these themes or simply to get in touch and explore how we might collaborate on them. You can contact The Glass-House team at

Feel free to join the discussion on social media @GlassHouseCLD.