Why Do Community Design Process At All? / by istudio

This is a question asked frequently in the design community. The community design process is not an easy fit with the way that many design firms operate. ISTUDIO contends that developing mechanisms that provide communities with design services is both a crucial development in our culture’s response to the crises affecting our urban neighborhoods, and a crucial development in the maturing process of the design profession. All professions have made organized, broad-based efforts to provide services to under-served communities.

This practice of offering services based on the greatest need, rather than the greatest availability of resources, has created great organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and Doctors Without Borders. This brings us to a crucial point; if designers truly believe that their services are indispensable to creating healthy communities, they must find ways to extend those benefits to communities in need. This focus re-imagines the design process as, first and foremost, a method of caring for others.


Since design is a process, it is useful to establish some benchmarks in the process, and some general guidelines. First, community design must be a two-way street in order to be effective. Designers must be willing to learn from communities and vice versa.

Further, good interpersonal relationships will be crucial to creating a smooth process. Therefore, designers must be intentional and focused on developing connections, both professional and personal, with people and organizations in the community. Failure to accomplish these ends results in a lost opportunity for designers to learn. Diminished trust means community members will be less invested in the final product, less likely to provide the necessary support for completing the project.

What do designers learn through workshop process?

- Designers learn which issues community members care about, and how residents think about the space, its use, its purpose, and each other. Designers gain insight into the specific language each community uses to talk about itself. This local language is influenced by culture (and the mix of cultures), class, race, religion. All of these form the basis for our aspirations for the future, and for people’s understanding of changes as positive or negative.

- Designers can clearly define their role as community advocates. They should recognize a possible need to take on roles outside or beyond their roles as defined in standard practice. Professionals should figure out what the project needs, rather than limiting themselves to what designers are “supposed” to do.

- Designers can develop long-term connections with communities interested in reinventing themselves, and help build community capacity to manage those changes.


What do communities get from the workshop process?

- Stakeholders can develop a unified vision for a community, and document that vision in a way that is easily understood.

- The design process can build a constituency to a create change. That base group, once formed, can work on other issues, solidifying community involvement.

- New relationships can develop between existing community members and organizations during the process.

- The workshop structure allows communities to access expertise from organizations or individuals in a regularized fashion. Communities gain a new method for group problem solving. The workshop process can be applied to other community problems, and function as a “safe place” in which to discuss group problems and propose solutions.


Seen in this way, the workshop process provides three products. First is the design proposal, a solution to the specified problem and a plan for implementing the solution. Second is a community-building effort that organizes existing individual and group assets of for change. Third is the workshop process itself; a structured, familiar mechanism to address future problems.

  • Michael Hill, ASLA