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1.8: Discipline-Specific Professional Design Processes and Equity

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    Landscape Architecture students exploring Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis

    In this chapter we will explore the design processes used by discipline-specific design practitioners like landscape architects, graphic designers, and interior designers. We will talk through the series of steps they use to develop, test, and implement their ideas, paying attention to the moments when their decisions may impact people’s fair and just access to opportunities and resources.

    First, let’s go over the differences between design thinking and the processes used by discipline-specific designers. One way of distinguishing between design thinking and discipline-specific design processes is through their products or outcomes. The product of a professional design thinking approach could be anything so long as it fits the goals and constraints set out in the brief. It could be an idea for a new app or wayfinding system or tent. In contrast, landscape architects design outdoor spaces, architects design buildings, graphic designers design visual communications, and experience designers design experiences.[1] And while a design thinking process does not necessarily end in a “ready-to-implement” solution, discipline-specific designers are expected to produce drawings and specifications that can be used by a manufacturer, printer, construction team, or programmer to create the final “product.” A design thinking team may hand over their ideas to a discipline-specific design team to move their idea along the path to reality.

    The biggest differences between design thinking and professional design processes are related to time, cost, and scope. While a design thinking process might happen over the course of a day or a few weeks with a small budget to cover drawing and prototyping supplies and food, and result in ideas or products that are either fairly simple to implement or require handing off to a professional designer to refine and make real, professional design processes can happen over months or years and involve many different collaborators. Larger-scale professional design processes, like creating a new riverfront housing development and park, may involve a team of designers from different fields as well as other professional consultants like engineers, planners, archeologists, public artists, ecologists, and community engagement experts. Each team member has their own contract (or sub-contract) and all must conform to local, state, and national regulations (usually related to health, safety, accessibility, and environmental concerns).

    Professionally licensed designers are legally bound to protect the “health, safety and welfare of the public”…Some discipline-specific designers like landscape architects, interior designers, and architects are professionally licensed. To become licensed they have had to study at an “accredited” school, pass a series of exams, and fulfill an internship requirement. Professionally licensed designers are legally bound to protect the “health, safety and welfare of the public” and they are regulated by more laws than designers in non-licensed fields like graphic design or service design.[2] By the time a designer is licensed in her field, she has invested a lot of time and money in her education and training. This is important to our conversation for two reasons. First, because not everyone has the financial and social capital to achieve licensure, these fields lack diversity. Second, since many designers have amassed significant debt to pursue their education, and jobs can be scarce during economic downturns, they may not feel empowered to rigorously advocate for equity outcomes. We will look more at both of these issues as we talk through the design process.

    While every design field – from product design to urban design – has its own approach – most design processes follow a shared sequence. Design thinking has its roots in an amalgamation of discipline-specific design practices, so it’s not a surprise that their processes overlap. While every design field—from product design to urban design—has its own approach, most design processes follow a shared sequence.[3] The designers are given or help develop a brief, and they then gather information to better understand the issues at hand, develop and test ideas by creating drawings, models, and prototypes, hand over a set of specifications to a contractor or manufacturer, and in some cases help oversee the implementation of their final design.

    The narrow focus of discipline-specific design briefs mean that individual projects do not address deep structural injustices. Like the “inspiration” phase of design thinking, professional design processes start with a project brief—though a discipline-specific brief is rarely as open-ended and is typically handed to the designers by the client. A design thinking brief might intentionally ask a broad question in order to generate the most ideas, like “How can we encourage kids to be more physically active?” A professional design brief, in contrast, is intentionally narrow, since someone (the city, a private client, a neighborhood organization, etc.) has already decided what needs to happen. A professional design brief might say something like “we need to redesign this specific park so that it supports a variety of physical activities for kids of all abilities,” while the discipline-specific brief sets out the what—a building, a brochure, a patient intake system, a park, etc.—and includes specific goals or requirements like a timeframe and a budget. Creating the brief is called the pre-design phase. A client may work with a designer experienced in pre-design to help them create a well-defined brief. The narrow focus of discipline-specific design briefs mean that individual projects do not address deep structural injustices.

    As you can imagine, the pre-design phase is rich with equity opportunities and challenges. Who decides what needs to happen and where? Who stands to gain? Who may suffer the impacts? All of the challenges we learned about in earlier chapters have a big impact on whether or not equity-driven design projects even make it to the designers desk. Let’s say you’re in charge of communications for a county social services agency and want to hire a web designer to help get the word out about a nutrition program. If you have a computer and a smart-phone at home, you might not consider that your web-based communications strategy won’t work for most low-income families. You might assume that your strategy wasn’t successful because people just don’t care enough about nutrition to email back or that they don’t need the services since they haven’t signed up for them online.

    Or let’s say the decision to renovate an existing park is made by a city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. How did they decide which parks get the resources? Let’s say the decision is made by an individual property developer to create a new apartment building. What, if any, rules does the city have requiring that some of the units be affordable? Who has access to those units and how? Let’s say the decision is made by a non-profit home for the elderly that wants to renovate their lobby. Why are they fixing the lobby and not a part of the building more directly tied to patient care?

    The challenge for designers, is that if a client comes to them with an approved brief, there is often little the designer can do to shift a client’s thinking… The challenge for designers is that if a client comes to them with an approved brief, there is often little the designer can do to shift a client’s thinking—even when the designer sees that, for example, the housing developer could afford to construct many more units of affordable housing but has chosen not to do so. The designer can apply for the job or choose not to apply. In fact, it is not typically the designer deciding what jobs to take on, but the design firm leader. So an individual designer working at a firm has the choice to work on the project or find another job.

    But let’s say a developer worked with a city to come up with a redevelopment plan for a large river-front site. They want to include some affordable and market-rate housing and a new public park. They have a design brief and are looking for designers to hire. On a project of that size they will most likely create a selection committee. As you read about the selection committee, the request for qualifications, the requests for proposals, and interview processes, do you see any points where equity issues might arise? Who gets to be on the selection committee and what values (rooted in their worldviews) do they bring? What spoken and unspoken judgments are they basing their selection on? Do they value the benefits of having a diverse group of creative problem solvers? Let’s say the selection committee is committed to having a diverse group of designers with experience in equity-driven design work on the team. How diverse is the city’s pool of experienced designers? Who has the resources to go to school to be an architect? Whose parents have the resources to help them out?

    Once a design team is hired, members move through the steps of programming, schematic design, design development, construction documentation, and construction administration. To start, the designers gather additional information about the project and its constraints (typically called site inventory and analysis). In the case of a public park design, they may gather information on the park’s main users, how people might get to the park, the types of soil at the site and whether there is any contamination from a previous use, who lives in the neighborhood, the amenities at other nearby parks, etc. What is considered important information on which to base design decisions? Again, who is involved in the planning process? How is information gathered? Which people are considered the main users of the space? What conditions—environmental, social, economic, etc.—are considered important for study? What methods are employed in the information gathering and analysis phase?

    How public engagement happens matters to equity outcomes. In the case of publicly funded work there is usually also a requirement that the designers conduct some kind of “public engagement” to solicit input on their design ideas and prototypes. How public engagement happens matters to equity outcomes. Not everyone feels comfortable in public meetings. Not everyone has the time to be there. Not everyone has transportation to get there, or someone to watch their kids. Not everyone trusts government representatives. Not everyone believes they will be listened to.

    Thinking back on the ways that planning and environmental design have unfairly impacted communities of color and low income, it’s not surprising that many people don’t believe their voices will be heard. For example, most first-generation Asian immigrants in the Twin Cities have experience as refugees. [5] They faced institutional and personal racism and the barriers of language and culture when they settled in the U.S. [6]

    A friend whose parents came from a refugee camp in Thailand and who works with immigrant business owners explained the challenge of building trust this way:

    A lot of people come from places where any kind of authority is as much of a problem as it is a benefit to you…anything either associated with the city or imagined to be associated with the city is to be treated with suspicion. I worked for a neighborhood organization and there were businesses owners who would usually ask the police but also us sometimes, “So when do we pay you? When do we pay you so that our place doesn’t get burglarized?”[7]

    As you read in the chapter on health equity, trust is key to building social capital, and social capital is key to building all forms of social, economic, and political interactions.[8] Trust is also central to design engagement processes. So how do you build trust? Professional design teams and public agencies are increasingly partnering with community artists to help plan and facilitate public engagement meetings, or shifting from the format of a public meeting to having informal conversations with people on-site. Community-rooted artists and organizations are better able to broker relationships within groups and between groups and outside structures like public agencies.

    Let’s assume that the design team has worked with local artists and non-profits to come up with an engagement strategy that reaches all of the people who would be impacted by the project. At the meetings, everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and criticisms. The designers gather all of the feedback and take all of that information (plus all of the other information they have gathered) and start making drawings and prototypes. In the case of buildings or community designs, they will build models or generate computer models as a way to test out their ideas. Often the designers will share those drawings and prototypes to get additional feedback. Some ideas are carried forward, others can’t be accommodated within the budget and construction timeline. The designers may or may not incorporate all of what they heard in the public meetings, because it may not fit the original brief, may be too costly, or may not be legally or physically possible. How do the designers decide what is important? What if the client (the developer and the city) has ideas that are at odds with what the designers heard in the public meetings? What if the city’s goal is to increase tax revenue while providing a minimum of access to the river, but the goal of community members is to have lots of river access and less space for commercial use? The designers may be able to accommodate both goals on the site, and this might mean that they spend extra time (unpaid time) working out the logistics and redrawing their plans to make it happen. Or it might not be possible to do both. Typically, the decision goes to the city and the developer.

    But let’s say the clients decide to go with what the community wants, or that the designers find a way to accommodate both in their plan. Once the designers have come to what they and their clients believe is the best fit, they generate a set of technical drawings and digital models that can be used to build, print, code, etc. the final design product. These drawings and models are extremely detailed. They specify what materials will be used, the exact dimensions of the final products, and how they will be built, and are used to hire contractors to build the final products. Contractors are asked to submit bids for constructing the project based on these drawings. The drawings become part of a legal contract between the client, the designers, and the contractors. If it is a public project, the client may be required to go with the lowest bid. In other situations, the client may use other criteria to choose the contractor, like how much experience they have or where they are located. The same equity issues arise here as they did with the selection committee that hired the designers. Who decides? Who gets the contract? Is there a requirement that a certain amount of the contracts go to businesses owned by people of color? To businesses with a diverse staff?

    During the construction or implementation phase, designers may act as on-site supervisors to make sure the project is being built according to specifications and to deal with any problems that come up. Even after the design work is completed and the drawings are handed over to the contractor, designers are legally responsible for making sure that contractors follow the design’s specifications. If anything goes wrong, designers can be sued. Construction sites can be dangerous places. Depending on what materials the designers specify, construction workers may be exposed to toxic chemicals from adhesives or paints. To ensure safer working and living environments, organizations like Healthy Building Network provide information to designers and builders on alternatives to hazardous materials.

    Once construction is completed, designers sign off on the project to say that everything has been built to their specifications (or their adjusted specifications, if changes are needed along the way). The new park, community center, advertising campaign, or hospital registration system is opened and designers move on to their next projects.[9] Of course, the reality of the design process is much messier than this. Like design thinking—which can move back and forth from inspiration to ideation to prototype many times before a solution is chosen—the design process is also iterative.

    From pre-design to construction/implementation, discipline-specific design processes are tied to multiple equity issues, even more than the few pointed out here. As a landscape architecture student back in the 1990s, I didn’t learn about this side of the work. While some programs had a more community-driven focus, most designers practicing today haven’t had the opportunity to think through the ways in which their work can help create fair and just access to opportunities and resources for everyone. In the past ten years, social justice has received renewed attention at a batch of public interest design programs across the country where students, faculty, and practitioners are teaming up to address the gap between our professional pledge to serve “the public good” and the reality that the public we have been serving best is mainly white and often affluent. These programs are partnering with non-profits and municipalities to build community gardens, share information about proposed changes to transportation systems, rethink bus stops, and advocate for better and more affordable housing. Not all of these programs are new; many can trace their roots back to the 1970s, when designers began thinking about their role in social justice movements.

    Professional networks for equity-minded designers are also springing up, some tied to a specific city and others national or even international in their membership. The Design Justice Network (, the Environmental Justice Professional Practice Network of the American Society of Landscape Architects (https://landscapearchitecturemagazin...ocial-justice/), and Colloqate ( are just a few.


    1. Of course, landscape architects and architects also design neighborhoods and there are areas of specialization in all of the design fields listed. ↵
    2. This is not to say that graphic designers aren’t held to regulations, especially related to signage in public places and wayfinding design. This article links to web content accessibility guidelines and presents ideas for how designers might apply them in innovative ways:
    3. The American Society of Landscape Architects website shows a simplified version of a design process here:
    4. But a lot of equity issues—like benefits and risks—are in place even before a design project brief is written. In the case of a large-scale land development project, what can and can’t happen on the site is already determined by something called zoning. Or there may be other constraints on what can happen there based on who owns the property or on existing planning documents. ↵
    5. This website of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans is a great starting point for researching the experiences of Asian Pacific communities in Minnesota.
    6. For example, when the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia in 1975, they evacuated about 300 of the highest-ranking Hmong officers who fought with the U.S. and left the rest of the Hmong soldiers and their families behind to face the threat of genocide. Tens of thousands fled to Thailand. Many drowned crossing the Mekong River. Others made it to Thai refugee camps. Between 1975 and 1982, 53,700 Hmong and Laotian refugees were resettled in the United States. See:
    7. Taken from interviews done by the author in 2016 as part of LISC's Twin Cities Creative Placemaking for Equity study. ↵
    8. See LISC Conceptual Framework for Creative Placemaking, April 2014. ↵
    9. Further equity issues arise after a project is constructed. Once a project is designed and built, how is it managed? Who has access to the site? Who is responsible for its maintenance and operation? How are future changes to the site handled? How, if the private sector is involved, are things like public access monitored? Who is kept out of the site? Under what circumstances? What codes of conduct will be developed for the site? How will they be enforced? Will there be security cameras? Private security guards? ↵

    This page titled 1.8: Discipline-Specific Professional Design Processes and Equity is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kristine Miller via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.