Throughout much of my career, I’ve repeatedly witnessed how a weak approach to design has resulted in a project’s failure to secure planning consent, or conflict and compromise at the construction stage. At the planning stage, failure to incorporate good quality streets and open spaces is a common stumbling block, while at construction stage there are frequent points of failure that usually result from a lack of communication and co-ordination between designers. I apply the following approaches in my current work to try to overcome some of these hurdles.
Time & relationships: Get involved early
This is not always easy, as an invitation to participate may come late in the process, when the opportunity to contribute has largely gone (see the time/influence/cost graph below). Building good working relationships with clients and other consultants helps to encourage earlier involvement. Once you’ve been appointed, chase your project team for information and keep up-to-speed with developments.
Attitude: Collaborate and be proactive
I try to collaborate through workshops/charrettes rather than meetings and emails - this way it's easier to focus on opportunities and solutions instead of problems. Contribute your ideas and opinions early, including those that might seem a bit ‘off the wall’. Try to start with a ‘blank sheet’, even when a client has already ‘crunched the numbers’ or the architect/engineer has set out a draft proposal.
Confidence: Speak up for yourself
Know what you want and don’t want (and why) and don’t be afraid to say if you think something is going in the wrong direction (and why again). Get your ideas on the table first/early for the best chance to shape a project. You need to be aware of the time/influence/cost graph (see below):
Empathy: Understand and develop other people’s needs and objectives
Ask lots of questions, develop an understanding of other consultants’ objectives, and find common ground to deliver win-win solutions. Sell your own ideas off the back of what other people are trying to achieve where they are mutually supportive. Negotiate trade-offs where there are opposing objectives.
Communication: Learn to draw ideas simply and quickly
I sketch out ideas quickly (crudely!) to clarify and convey my intent, based on simple proportions and the relationships between elements. I don’t worry about scale or detail and prefer to use big fat pens. Be bold and colourful if you can. I find that using pictures quickly teases out areas of agreement and disagreement between parties.
Grow: Develop your design ideas and skills continually
Continuing professional development (CPD) is important, whether it be internal/external and formal/informal. Be selective about what courses/conferences you attend to get the most out of the time you commit to CPD. A small selection of carefully chosen design newsletters/forums should drop into your email on a regular basis – e.g. professional mags/websites, Archdaily.com, Instagram. Make time to skim through them over a cup of coffee. Also, when you’re out and about, don’t forget to look around you and use your smartphone/camera, or even a small sketch pad, to capture ideas and examples which you should then review and debate with your colleagues and file away for future reference.
Chris Kennett is landscape architect and urban designer at Wycombe District Council, and has also worked for some years in private practice.