Elephant tracks, fox paths, pedestrian’s revenge, desire lines… There are a multitude of names for the human-made paths that gradually form when people reject designed/designated routes and make their own way from A to B.

These paths perhaps symbolise all-too-common failures in human-centred design. Firstly, designers and planners fail to appreciate how people navigate their surroundings, as Frank Chimero’s quote in the title implies. And more than this, a general lack of communication or care, and traditional design practices that routinely overlook basic human needs.

Top-down design thinking

Historically, formal training for design professionals tended to neglect community engagement, so the traditional top-down ‘we know best’ attitude is unsurprising. Designers designed places that they and the client thought appropriate, with little idea of what the people who would use and live with the space might actually want or need. Fortunately, practices now increasingly look to create authentic engagement and bring local groups into the design process more meaningfully. There is still a long way to go, however.

In my recent book Desire lines: a guide to community participation in designing places (RIBA Publishing, 2018), I call on designers to address this deficit and start designing places with local communities, not for them.

What needs to change?

I suggest three main areas to focus on.

Firstly, human-centred design involves research. And designers can benefit from thinking like social researchers. The most influential thinkers on public space design – Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl – all began with observational street-level research. I urge designers to build on their insights and methods. Work like anthropologists in gathering information and analysing it effectively, to create an understanding of the locale and a strong evidence base to inform the design process.

Secondly, make the most of local knowledge. The community is the expert, so start by picking local brains. The more pre-process discussions with community groups the better. Involve local people from the outset, and ask for their ideas and views before any design work takes place. Communities too often feel that their involvement is a tick-box exercise, and that plans and designs are foregone conclusions that they had no opportunity to shape. So, talk first, and discuss local concerns and aspirations. Then – and only then – start designing.

Finally, listen and learn. I interviewed many community groups while researching Desire lines, and I’m sorry to say, the word ‘arrogant’ cropped up repeatedly in relation to design professionals. Communication skills are key, and listening important above all (those perceptions of arrogance may well result from designers simply appearing not to listen). Public consultation processes, especially face-to-face events like meetings and workshops, are golden opportunities for professionals to learn from the people they should be endeavouring to serve.

Human-centred design and public space

There is no doubt that the quality of public space influences community well-being, as well as individual mood and psycho-social state. Welcoming, attractive spaces boost the feel-good factor in an area. They’re good for business, civic pride and a sense of connection; unappealing spaces can create the opposite effect. We already know what makes a space popular and valued – and it’s hardly rocket science.

So, if it’s possible to design a space that people will enjoy, that reflects their preferences and meets their needs, then why not do so?

I suggest that designers in the built environment keen to develop more human-centred design approaches look to other design fields where user satisfaction is paramount. In digital and consumer product design for instance, something as ephemeral as an app or website or manufactured product undergoes rigorous user testing. Researchers and designers refine and re-test the prototype until it achieves optimum functionality and user appeal, and only then is a product released.

Contrast this with a public space. A highly costly product with a lifespan of decades, which can significantly affect the fortunes of a local area and its communities, that can be built with no input from its intended end-users, no prototyping or usability testing, and with no insight as to whether it will succeed. William H. Whyte’s words make perfect sense in this context: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

A version of this article appeared on BD Online in January 2019

Categories: consultation