#17 Tabitha Pope – Participatory Architecture – Show notes

Tabitha Pope is an architect and lecturer, with a specialism temporary structures and participatory architecture and a passion for work that sits at the boundary of art and architecture. In this episode, produced in support of International Women’s Day, my colleague Lucy Barber interview Tabitha about:

  • What is participatory design and what benefits does it offer us in the climate emergency.
  • Challenging power in order to make architecture a more inclusive space for all under-represented groups, not just women.
  • How her practice of carpentry allows her to intervene in the design process in a different way.
  • Establishing a nature connection to help designers and citizens alike tackle the biodiversity crisis.
  • Stepping into a space of vulnerability in design in order to do things differently.
  • Creating spaces for joy and encounter to tackle loneliness and build resilience in communities.

Listen on Apple Podcasts , Sticher or by download here.

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Building creative culture in engineering companies

An illustration of WIlbur's Four Quadrant Model used to support a discussion about building creative culture in an engineering organisation

I am starting to shift my attention away from creative tools for engineers. Tools are still important. But I’ve realised that unless you need a creative culture for individual creativity to thrive.

Recently, I rediscovered in Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations‘ the Wilbur four-quadrant model. The model descrives how culture, systems and worldviews interact. We can use this model to understand a phenomena in an organisations from four different perspectives:

  • How the phenomenon can be measured from the outside
  • How the phenomenon feels from the inside – intuiting how it feels
  • How the phenomenon appears to the individual
  • How the phenomenon appears to a group of people.

Like all engineer-friendly models, Wilbur’s is a two-by-two grid. The columns divide the grid into interior perspecitve and exterior perspective. The rows divide the grid into individual and collective perspective. According to Laloux

Wilbur’s insight, applied to organisations, means we should look at: 1) people’s mindsets and beliefs [individual interior perspective]; 2) people’s behaviour [indvidiual exterior perspective]; 3) organisational culture [collective interior perspective]; and, 4) organisational systems (structures, processes and practices) [collective exterior perspective]”

From Reinventing Organisations, Laloux (2016)

Applying the four quadrant model to organisational creativity

I’ve assembled some quick thoughts on how the four quadrant model might apply to understanding creativity in an organisation. I have written the statements for a fictional ideal case. This difference between this ideal case and reality can give us some suggestions for what we might need to do to build a more creative organisation. 

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Notes from IStructE Academics’ Conference 2018

There was great energy at today’s IStructE Academics’ Conference, the theme of which was Creativity and Conceptual Design.
If you are visiting this site for the first time, it may have been thanks to Chris Wise’s kind recommendation in his keynote presentation – thanks so much Chris.
I presented a session on how to have ideas. Usually when I’m billed with this title, I run a workshop on idea generation, but I thought for once, I would stand up and say what I think about the subject. I’m glad I did because it seemed warmly received. It was also a chance to talk through themes that will be included in the chapter I am writing in a book on scheme design – more details to follow.

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Secretly teaching design – notes from our curriculum planning day at Imperial

I am just back from taking part in a Design Thread workshop at Imperial College, the aim of which was to co-ordinate activity between the various design-relevant courses on the undergraduate civil engineering course at Imperial. Here are some reflective notes as I whiz home, during the writing of which I came up with the notion of ‘secretly teaching design‘. Continue reading “Secretly teaching design – notes from our curriculum planning day at Imperial”

Working notes: building a questionnaire to characterise design

I struggled to find an image to go with this post. When I typed design into my image database, this came up. It is rather fine, isn’t it?

Today at Think Up I am writing a set of questions that can be used as a diagnostic tool to characterise different stages in the design process. The questions will go into an online questionnaire through which we will be trying to establish a link between different types of design problem, the design process they require and techniques and tools that designers use. The aim is to help students understnad what might be suitable approaches to use in response to different design problems.

I am fortunate to be working with my colleague Bengt Counsins-Jenvey who knows a huge amount about design thinking in a range of different contexts. He is working on the other part of the questionnaire that is characterising the design problems.

Here’s some reflections and notes from today’s working:

  • Reducing long-form answer questions on questionnaires. They are easier to write but I’ve learn the hard way on other projects recently that long-form answer questions take so long to analyse it is really worth taking the time to come up with good numeric-scale or mutltiple-choice questions. Having done an initial round of interviews is helping me determine the right language to use.
  • How succint can I get the questions? I am trying to weigh up writing questions that everyone can understand and keeping the questions short. Again, having done some initial interviews helps me know what language people are likely to use.
  • I’ve realised my design world view was initially shaped by ‘blank-piece-of-paper’ designers. My interviews on this project have shown me how few design contexts require blank paper. I hope this process gives me greater understanding of design contexts where the operating context is much more complex.
  • What number scale to use? I’ve gone for 1-4. I don’t want people to think about their answers for too long and I don’t want them to sit on the fence. It will be interesting to see the impact of this choice.
  • I have been daunted by putting this questionnaire together, so last night I just set myself a simple target of writing three questions for each of the main stages in the design process. This much less daunting task was easy to do – the questions almost wrote themselves – and then I was easily able to supplement them. Later Greg Downing explained to me that this process is what he calls skeltoning: you quickly put in place the outline and everything else follows.

For more info on this piece of research see this post on the Think Up website.

Trust me, I feel your pain, I have a plan – tools for selling design

The final stage in the arc of design thinking workshops that I have been developing at Think Up with my colleague Nick Zienau is developing the ability to convince other people to adopt your design. In these workshops there are three areas we work on with participants: building trust with the client; three elements of content; and giving effective feedback.


Building trust with your client is absolutely essential if you are going to connivence them of anything. There are two things we concentrate on here. The first is being mindful about the first impressions we create. We all create first impressions, whether we like it or not, but we might not be aware of what those are. In our workshops we help people become more aware of the impressions that they create, and help them think about how to create the impressions they want with clients.

The second thing we concentrate on is developing trust through showing vulnerability. To show vulnerability to someone is to show that you trust them; if you can trust others then they are more likely to reciprocate. In our workshops we help participants explore how they can show their vulnerabilities, such as what they are worried about or where they feel their weaknesses are, and use this as the basis of building trust with others.

Together, managing first impressions and building reciprocal trust with our clients we call ‘gaining entry’.

Three-phase content

For many people, the starting point for any pitch is to work out what they want to say. Aristotle said that for a speaker to convince an audience of anything, then the speaker needs ethos, pathos and logos. Having ethos is to be trustworthy. Having pathos is having a shared sense of their feelings (in particularly their pain). Having logos is to have a logical argument. We can think of these as three phases we need to develop in our pitch.

In my experience, many engineers are most comfortable starting with the logos phase, the logic of the solution. The trust-building that we start the workshop with is an important element for developing the ethos phase, as is the reputation of the companies that participants work for. For many, the hardest phase is developing pathos. To develop good pathos you need good understanding of the client’s perspective, which is easiest to gain if you have a good relationship with them based on trust.

Giving and receiving honest non-judgemental feedback

We now have a plan for getting the content together, but how do we know if the pitch we have put together is any good? Here we rely on feedback from others. But for many, the idea of receiving feedback is dreadful – it isn’t all that fun for the feedback giver either. But when done well, feedback is an invaluable tool for improving our work, and it can be fulfilling for the person offering it too.

To make feedback work really well, we require the person giving the feedback to be really honest, but also non-judgemental. So they should say how something makes them feel, and why that might be, but not to judge it. A judgement is too final and puts the listener on the defensive, whereas talking about feelings offers the person listening the chance to find out more about why what they have done has elicited these feelings.

Equally, good feedback has requirements of the receiver too: they need to be open to receiving it, grateful, and not defensive. The last part is critical if the exchange is going to be useful. If the person receiving feedback can hold off on defending, and instead show interest in the other person’s views, then they can really deepen their understanding.

Taking these tools together, we can build an effective pitch for ideas that says,: ‘trust me, I feel your pain, and I have a plan’.

[This is an adapted version of a post I originally wrote for the Think Up website, posted on 1st November 2017].

Does going for a walk improve design?

Taking a walk at Port Eliot Festival

I have just read an interesting piece on the Stanford university website, ‘Stanford study finds walking improves creativity’ (article found via this news piece on the Hazel Hill Wood website). The article describes research that has for the first time investigated the impact of ‘non-aerobic walking on the simultaneous creative generation of new ideas and then compared it against sitting’. I had an intuitive idea that going for a walk improves the quality of my ideas – an example that springs to mind is a catchy tune I wrote on short walk back from the library at college. This research shows that ‘creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.’ What’s more, they stayed high for a short period after sitting back down again.

But the striking thing revealed by this research is that the walking environment doesn’t seem to make a difference. I had assumed that going for a walk outdoors in the woods would be good for my creative thinking, but this study shows that the boost to creative thinking is just as powerful when you take a walk on a treadmill in a featureless indoor room!

This result has obvious implications for how we set ourselves up to do good design, but there is another significant finding reported further down in this news article that also has important implications for design. While walking helps to boost divergent thinking, it is shown in this study to impede ‘more focussed thinking, characteristic of insight’.

So how can we use these findings when think about how we do design work?

In the design training that we have been developing at Think Up, we describe design as a process that starts with identifying a need and establishing a brief, that moves through idea generation and testing, and moves on to choosing the best ideas. These stages are linked by iterative loops which take you back through the process many times.

The obvious place for divergent thinking is in the idea generation phase, but there are others. Right at the start when we are identifying the need, we often need to think around the problem to check if it has been framed properly. We also need to have an open-minded view of the client brief if we are to unpick the unwritten and implied elements of what the client wants. We also need to apply some divergent thinking to enable us to think of all the factors that are going to determine whether our ideas are good ones, rather than simply relying on the usual tests we apply.

There is also an obvious place for convergent thinking: at the part of the design process where we are refining our ideas, and when we are testing them for adequacy against the brief. But there are other places where we need insight: when we are trying to choose the factors in the brief that are going to dominate the design; and when we are trying to make a decision based on hard-to-compare factors.

So there is a place for walking and a place for sitting in design.

Unfortunately, from what I have observed in design offices, we tend to do too little of the latter and not enough of the former. What we could learn from this research is to be more mindful of the type of thinking that is required at any one time and to move or stay still as appropriate.

We should also beware of metaphorical trip hazards. There’s no use in going for a divergent thinking walk if we are distracted by our smart phone en route. Turn it off! And our creative reverie stands a good chance of being extinguished if when we return to our desks we find a set of monthly sales figures demanding our attention. In other words it is probably a good idea to think about that environment you will be returning to at the end of your walk.

Related posts


Designers: turn off your phone – harness the wandering mind

Fireside reflection at Hazel Hill wood. Photographer: Peter Clarkson
Fireside reflection at Hazel Hill wood. Photographer: Peter Clarkson

I recently read Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Focus, and I have been thinking about how our ability to focus affects our ability to design. This thinking was the basis of a workshop session that I recently wrote about harnessing ‘wandering mind’, that mode in which the brain roams freely and forms new associations which are the basis of creative thought. I piloted this material as part of Think Up workshop on creativity that we ran at Hazel Hill wood in July, which seemed to go down well, so I am sharing it here.

Below is a modified extract from some of the course materials associated with this activity. I’d be interested to know if anyone reading recognises these phenomena or tries the approach I am recommending.

In his book Focus, emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman explains that the brain can really be understood as having two distinct sets of circuitry: the lower brain and upper brain. The lower brain whirs away in the background working on solving problems without us even noticing. Its activity only comes to our attention when it produces an idea as if from nowhere. The upper brain by contrast is the seat of self-control and is the part of the brain that we actively focus on a problem.

In evolutionary terms, the lower brain is the older part. The lower brain is the source of our impulses and emotional reactions. The upper brain can repress these impulses, but at the cost of diverting our attention from the design challenge on which we want to actively direct our focus. In this instance, the lower brain circuitry is causing a hindrance to creative thinking.

However, the lower brain does have a crucially important role to play in design. Research shows that in the moments before people achieve creative insight, their lower brain has been in a state of open awareness. In this state, the mind wanders freely, widely and without judgment to create new associations. When these new associations are made, the upper brain then locks in on them and fishes them out into our active attention.

In order to harness our wandering minds as part of the design process, our upper brain needs to be ready to spot a good idea when it emerges. To do this we need to do two things. The first is to make time in which we stop actively thinking about things and let out thoughts come to us, for example, going for walk or even going on holiday. The second is to minimise distractions, which divert our active attention away from spotting new ideas as they emerge from the lower brain. In other words, making time we when turn off our smart phones and blocking out interruptions.

What makes a good conceptual design statement? – working notes

Gateshead Millennium Bridge
Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Today I am working on course material related to defining what is a good conceptual design. I think, in construction at least, it is quite difficult to identify good conceptual design from the finished project. One can judge a finished project on the basis of the final outcome, but unless you have had an overview of the whole design process, it is hard to know how much the final project resembles the original concept design.
One clue is in competition sketches, if they are available. It is tempting to suggest that if a simple early-stage sketch exists that closely resembles the final project, then we have a good conceptual design. Good examples might include Paxton’s sketches on a napkin for Crystal Palace or the Utzon’s competition sketches for the Sydney Opera House. But (and I’m not suggesting it was the case for these two examples) it is not beyond designers to create a post-rationalised concept diagram. And while this idea of the simple sketch is also beguiling, it is much more appropriate for projects that resemble a sculpted object, rather than a complex system.
From a training perspective, if we were to stand in front of a building and seek to judge the quality of the conceptual design without knowledge of the early-stage design process, I think we’d be on shaky ground. The approach we will adopt instead is to spend time defining what a good conceptual design statement looks like so that designers can judge the quality of their conceptual designs at the start of the project.
There are lots of definitions of what a good conceptual design statement is. My colleague Ed McCann has pointed me towards a helpful description from the world of interior fit out. In his book Shaping Interior Space, Rengel describes the three elements of a good conceptual design statement as:
1. Talking more about the solution than the problem
The place for the statement of the problem is in the brief.
2. Selective
Here he means it talking about the dominant factor which is going to define the design approach. Is it a question of how a long span is going to be achieved, huge forces are going to be resisted, or what the human experience is.
3. Economical
Careful use of words to pack the most into the fewest words.
These three elements are something I can work on with a group of learners. We might begin by asking them to compare different conceptual design statements, and get them to elucidate these rules; and then get them to create their own statements.
One key modification I will make to this set of rules to make them equally applicable to sketching as to words.
If you are reading this and have either your own definition of good conceptual design statements that you use, or particularly good examples of conceptual design that you’d like to share, then please comment below.