Careers Advice: Better decision-making in design

Hilary Satchwell director at Tibbalds

Design remains an important part of the planning system. The most recent revision of the National  Planning Policy Framework subtly refreshes its emphasis on the importance of design quality. More local authorities are commissioning design guides and design standards to explain the qualities and characteristics they want in the good places that will get built in their district, and it’s a topic high on the agenda during community and stakeholder engagement.

What this means in practice is that everyone in the planning profession needs to develop their role in supporting good design and good placemaking. Most of us work with the planning system so that we can be part of delivering well-designed places, but how can we move forward our thinking to make that more likely to happen?  

1) Grow your own, personal understanding of design

To start with, familiarise yourself with good projects that represent the best your local area or organisation has to offer. Go to design-related training, attend design review panel sessions, and visit award-winning schemes. Make every opportunity to see how experienced designers and reviewers talk about design. What are they interested in? How do they work out where to focus their attention? How do they explain the rationale for what they are doing and how does this link to making good buildings and places for the people that will use them?

2) Grow your confidence in talking design in planning but don’t feel the need to make pronouncements or have a fixed view on the answer

Ask questions and be part of the discussion. Start with the site context, understand how places work, and get to know the issues in detail. How will this street work for residents? Why is the roof that shape? How will that street really look? Think about the questions that you have around design, listen to the expertise around you, and enter the conversation with an open mind. 

3) Get to grips with good practice guidance on design

What does it say? Why does it say it? How does it deal with current issues such as designing at higher densities, or the need for good open spaces for all? The library of good practice guidance is many and varied and much of the published design guidance from the last 20 or so years remains valid, including historic national guidance documents such as the Urban Design Compendium and By Design, as well as more recent documents such as The Design Companion for Planning and Placemaking. 

4) Look at what your organisation is doing to support good design and placemaking

Who in your organisation already has design skills that you might work with? Do you have any access to observe design review or design advice sessions? Have there been any trips to good local or national projects? Are you members of the Urban Design Group or other design-focused organisations? There is a lot that you can do to make sure that your workplace takes being part of making good places seriously. 

Overall, do get involved in the discussion. Do work out how best to have a view and do keep in mind that design is for a purpose: how can you play a greater part in actually making better places for everyone, rather than expecting others to make the case for good design. Recognise that there is a place for expert and objective design advice and know the best ways to access and engage with it. Don’t expect to become an expert overnight but even an interest and an understanding of the language of design will help you in the next steps of your career.

Hilary Satchwell is director at consultants Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design

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