The root of all great design: conversation


It’s clear when fresh interpretive design is needed: an exhibition has not been updated in many years, a trail physically exists but feels disconnected from its history, an entire site or cultural district lacks an appropriate cohesion and feeling of place.

When a client considers design solutions to these problems they might immediately jump to thoughts of beautiful renderings, 3D models, immersive technologies, dazzling graphical displays or wayfinding that makes their site and institution sparkle. An easy misunderstanding about design is that it’s all aesthetics – and that great taste and execution can package any story and present it as “updated” to contemporary audiences.

“We know as professional designers and planners that’s simply not the case,” notes Gary Walker-Kerr, a Director at Haley Sharpe Design (hsd). “The vast majority of the design process must happen outside of the studio, on the ground, face-to-face with the client and their community. Otherwise, you may have something that looks nice on the surface but feels empty while you’re actually in it, trying to learn and connect with the content.”

At the onset of any project, hsd begins with a series of design charrettes to open a direct dialogue with the client about the obvious and the hidden challenges the process will face. The aim is to combine hsd and the client into a single core team that is unified in delivering the project.

“We need to understand the genuine desires of the client, the on-the-ground details about the project, site and institution that don’t fit cleanly on an RFP or RFQ,” notes Walker-Kerr.

At the core of these meetings is always an interpretive exercise – designed to fit the specific project. This could range from the isolation of key themes that mark a place – right through to the establishment of a core mission and vision that can guide the client through decision-making in all aspects of their future planning and programming.

It’s here that hsd relies on decades of experience as mediators and cultural collaborators. Sessions start with a clear goal and outcome, it’s then up to the project team – guided by hsd – to help fill in the crucial pieces of missing information and reach consensus decisions that will greenlight the development stages of a project.

“You can’t solve problems if you don’t know what they are –listening is the key to kicking off a world-class design process.” adds Walker-Kerr.

Ultimately, design is collaborative, which is why charrettes are essential to approach multidisciplinary projects with creativity and openness. Done well, they open up the possibilities hidden in every project by establishing the combined designer-client core team fundamental to every successful project.