Role of the Regenerative Designer

Two designers sit on a bench in the distance on the other side of a pond.

All designers work to make things better. Regenerative design is a particular type of design because of its declared goals. This isn’t any kind of better. This is a specific kind of better, in which human and living systems can survive, thrive and co-evolve.

So while regenerative designers do lots of the things that regular designers do, (like developing a design brief, having ideas and testing these against the brief), there are two more things that make regenerative designers different. They must

  1. Hold a vision – hold and continually renew a vision for a regenerative future
  2. Create transition – Continuously be working to create a transition to that future.
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Changing the frame

In social science, a frame is how people understand a situation or activity. We can think of it as how we construct our understanding of a situation. In engineering, many projects are perceived from a ‘cost frame’. People looking at a project from a cost frame build their understanding of the project situation from a perspective of cost. In this situation, cost can be come the guiding concern; the parameter for which we optimise.

Time and quality are other common frames in construction projects. These frames guide our thinking by limiting options, which is helpful in some situations, but unhelpful if you want to establish new thinking. 

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Design brief

In design, the design brief is what we test our ideas against for adequacy. If the ideas and the brief don’t match, then either the ideas are wrong, the brief is wrong, or both.

We often think of the brief as something that is fixed but in reality it is something that evolves during the design process. In this entry we explore the dynamic nature of the brief and the patterns that can help us work with a brief more effectively.

Small b design brief

At the start of this exploration of the design brief I would like to loosen our the definition of a brief to include not just those formal, capital B design Briefs, on Design Projects. If we work with the idea of design being the act of making things better (see the Herbert Simon definition under design process diagrams), then we can extend the design brief as being any time someone is trying set some intentions or requirements for a piece of work. Think of this as a ‘small b’ design brief. Whether it’s designing a new font, or planning a holiday with your friends, or writing a report, it is all design and so each of these have a brief. This is helpful because we can draw our understanding of design briefs from a far wider range of situations than those formal ones in the design office.

Design versus shopping

If you fully know what you want at the start of a design process; if you can completely describe the outcome of a design process at the start; then it isn’t design – it’s shopping.

The point about design is that the answer doesn’t exist yet. That is why we do design. To work with an emergent situation and make it better.

So if we don’t know what want, how can we write a comprehensive brief for the project? We can’t, because of the Designer’s Paradox.

The Designer’s Paradox

The Designer’s Paradox says that you don’t know what you want until you know what you can have. I have always heard the quote attributed to my former colleague Ed McCann, but I have also heard it attributed to Steve Jobs.

The more we think about it, the more the paradox rings true. From ordering food in a restaurant to specifying the fit-out of a building, we don’t know what we want until we know what we can have.

Another version is that we change what we want when we know the consequences. You want something until you realise the cost, or the lead-in time.

And for designers we don’t know what we are going to design until we start designing.

As Ed once said to me, the art of design is resolving the resolution of the Designer’s Paradox, iterating back and forth between client and designer to try and get convergence between what is wanted and what is possible.

Design brief versus the contract

The other reason why we might expect a brief to be fixed is that we get them confused with contracts. But whereas a contract is an agreement between two or more parties about what they will exchange, a design brief isn’t an agreement. Rather it is something that they create. That’s because the design brief is itself something that needs creating – that needs designing..

Designing the design brief and the idea together

I once interviewed an official responsible for the procurement of a very large ship. They explained to me that the project started with a series of high-level requirements, which as the design progressed, turned into a more detailed specification. But ultimately, the brief was not fully known until the ship was finished.

Implicit in this story is an important concept. That in design we develop the brief alongside the design. The two develop together. What is required is influenced by what is possible. What is possible becomes clearer as we work through design and changes what is required.

So how to we make progress?

So if the brief is not fixed, and not known at the start of the process, then how are we supposed to make progress? Well, the answer lies in seeing the brief as something that you develop through the design process, so that by the end, what is wanted and what is desired match. Here are some techniques to start us on this journey.

Catalytic Style

Catalytic style is a an approach to having conversations that helps the solution emerge from the client rather than  having it planted by the consultant. I learnt this approach from Nick Zienau at Intelligent Action, and it is well worth taking the time to practise using it.

The rules of Catalytic Style

  • Keep the focus on the client.
  • Ask short, open questions to keep them talking (what, how, but not why).
  • Offer quick summaries to show you are listening.
  • Don’t offer your own solutions – this is about keeping the focus on the client.
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Seedling analogy – working with what is emergent

Seedling analogy - picture shows a sweet chestnut emerging from a tree tube

The aim of conservation work at Hazel Hill Wood is to help accelerate the diversification of the woodland from commercial forest to a mixed-leaf woodland. Why? Because the more varied the woodland, the greater its likely resilience to a changing climate. Of course, in the normal course of things, the make-up of species in the wood would adapt in response to the changing climate. But these aren’t normal times. Human-induced climate breakdown is causing environmental conditions to change faster than the trees can respond. And so part of our work at the wood is to help accelerate this diversification process. 

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Continuous place based design

Diagram is titled continuous place based design and is showing a design process in a continuous loop. The four points in the process are observe, brief, idea and model and test.

Continuous place-based design is a model that creates a transition towards regenerative design.

The key elements of continuous, place-based design:

  1. Design should exist as part of a long-term connection with place.
  2. Design that starts with and regularly returns to a practice of deep observation.
  3. Design that respects the complexity of the human-living system.
  4. Design that tried to work with what is emergent – with what the system is trying to do.
  5. Design that humbly seeks to unlock the potential of place.
  6. Design that is always learning from its actions through long-term repeated practice.
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The Library of Systems Change

Two participants at the regenerative design lab stand in front of three bookcases situated in a forest clearing. The books on the left bookcase are red, in the middle are blue and on the bookcase on the right they are yellow. The different colours represent H1, H2 and H3 respectively in the Three Horizons model

The Library of Systems Change helps us understand how we can make systemic change over time. It combines the future thinking of Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons Model with the systems organisation of the Systems Bookcase. It is another model James Norman and I developed in ‘the Regenerative Structural Engineer’, but which can apply to any system in engineering. The overall effect is a compelling visual model for how a system might change over time.

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The Systems Bookcase model

Have you every wondered why we make the engineering decisions we do? Why, despite decades of knowledge about the climate and ecological breakdown, we continue to design in a way that causes harm to our life-support systems. To help understand the driving forces behind design decisions, James Norman and I proposed the Systems Bookcase model in ‘the Regenerative Structural Engineer’.

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