Episode 38

Design Engagement Toolkit

What are the best activities available to engage varied stakeholders? The experts at Noll + Tam evaluate public design projects and share their detailed evaluation of decades of their own work. They compiled into a comprehensive engagement toolkit you'll want to consider during the design engagement process.

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“Engagement and connecting with the communities that we're serving has really been at the forefront of a lot of conversations and design and planning recently. And it's been a part of conversations that Noll + Tam for the last 30 years. We wanted to use the ONEder Grant to identify patterns and tactics that have been replicated successfully to give the design and client communities some better tools for talking and articulating during the engagement part of the design process.”


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is your host CCB. And today we're going to be having a conversation with one of our 2021 ONEder Grant winners. It's a very interesting project that has great applicability to, I'm sure, a number of the design firms that are listening, relative to the fact that there's a Design Engagement Toolkit that’s a result of this particular project. So I'm going to ask the team from Noll + Tam to introduce themselves, and I'm going to start with Leah.

Leah M: [00:00:34] Hello. I'm Leah Martinson. I'm an architect, and I've been the project manager, sort of shaping and leading this particular research endeavor.

Eli M: [00:00:43] My name is Eli Meyerson. I'm a designer at Noll + Tam, and I've been doing a lot of the data collection and analysis work for this program, for this project.

Trina G: [00:00:54] Thanks, Eli. I'm Trina Goodwin. I'm associate principal at Noll + Tam and an architect working in the field of public buildings for about the last 30 years. And that's just about how long Noll + Tam has been around. We're coming up on our 30th anniversary this year and we have spent all that time focusing on public buildings, both educational and community oriented. In fact, our tagline is Uncommon Spaces for the Common Good. And with that, I'd like to pass it back to Leah to tell you a little bit more how we developed this idea for this project.

CCB: [00:01:31] I was going to say, first off, great tagline. Uncommon Spaces for the Common Good. It is such a good one. I was doing a little bit of research into Noll + Tam land ike oh, that was excellent. So Leah, you're going to explain why, why did you decide to tackle this particular subject?

Leah M: [00:01:49] Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. So, engagement and connecting with the communities that we're serving has really been at the forefront of a lot of conversations and design and planning recently. And it's been a part of conversations that Noll + Tam, like Trina said for the last 30 years. But we were realizing that a lot of these conversations are very qualitative, they're very anecdotal. Clients base their decision based on what a staff person remembers from the last time they did an engagement process. And sort of the same thing's true for design teams. There's people with deep expertise, but not always some very clear resources, or even very clear language around them. So, we wanted to use the opportunity that the ONEder Grant has to sort of step back and evaluate what we've been doing for the past 30 years. And really identify some patterns and some tactics that have been replicated, some maybe more successfully than others, and give the design community and the client community some better tools for talking and articulating this part of the process that's really engagement outside of the design team, because it is so important.

CCB: [00:03:02] Yeah. So there's a big, there's a big resource and collection of information to get at the best output that you have defined in the design engagement toolkit. So, I wonder which person on the team wants to talk about kind of how you chose what the research methodology or the, the collection of evidence, what was involved in that particular effort?

Leah M: [00:03:33] I think I'll let Eli lead that description because he was very intimately engaged in collecting quite a large pool of data, a very massive spreadsheet. It was one result.

Eli M: [00:03:46] Well. So, we were able to get quickly get a list of all of the projects from the past 20 years I believe, that were qualified as either a library or public project of some sort. And then we were able to essentially go into those, and we looked through what we had on file for meetings and different public engagement activities and looked at each of the individual occurrences or events that happened that we could define as an engagement process. And then we had five different variables that we were looking at.

CCB: [00:04:39] Okay while you're looking for what it is that you want to actually share, I wanted to say that I mean, it was pretty amazing that the list was 70 projects, which is fairly substantial. And when you kind of shortlisted that to what made the most sense in your collection of information, it went down to 49. So, you're working with a very large pool and I was fascinated by the depth of or the I'm going to say shallowness, but I don't mean it that way. But how often you touched each from an engagement standpoint, in any particular project.

Leah M: [00:05:21] I'll just jump in and say, I think a big part of the process was a necessary simplification. This is this really big, messy, complicated topic. And in order to even get close to getting our arms around something that could be quantified, which was one of the goals of this research, we were pretty ruthless about what we culled out. So we're like, no university work, no community college work because they have trustees instead of public engagement. And I think one of the things that we've been talking about internally that still surprised us, is even with that culling, we did some sort of engagement work on almost every single one of these projects. I think there was maybe one project that didn't have anything of this entire list of applicable projects in our portfolio. And, while I think Noll + Tam has had a particular focus on engagement. I do think that that's representative of these public projects that have a real interest in engaging with their users, outside of the sort of core design team. And I think that's reflected in the data, where really there was something in every project.

CCB: [00:06:37] So if you say something in every project, would it make sense to say, no, I'm just using this as the entre to say, does it make sense to kind of define what are those types of engagements? What actually were you looking at? What types of conversations or in person or communications did you have that made up this pool of Public Engagement activities?

Eli M: [00:07:04] I can speak to that. So, I think while we were pretty ruthless in limiting what projects we were looking at, we did have a fairly broad range of what was considered an engagement opportunity. And essentially that was kind of any meeting that involved people beyond just the team working on the project, both on the client side and the design side of the project. So that was any time that we were speaking to an official body, just to the general public, there was different stakeholder groups. So there were a lot of different sizes and different venues for those engagement opportunities. But there were certainly a lot to look at.

CCB: [00:07:55] Say that, Tina, I'm going to come to you in just a second, I am going to say that on the ONEder Grant website page for the Noll + Tam team, you will be able to access all of this information and the full report so you can start to see in great detail. But I’m turning it back to you, Trina.

Trina G: [00:08:14] I just wanted to observe that, especially in this last year, there's become more and more emphasis on making sure that architects don't just define themselves as the experts, but really step back and listen. And I think what we found in looking at this research and collaboration of the work we've done, is that we have been listening, you know, this last ten years when we look at this. That the types of input that we have is really quite balanced, both from between the public the users say for example, say the staff in the library, the leadership who are funding and making decisions about the project and, you know, individual users who we might have interviews with, that we had a really quite balanced approach across all those different types of engagement, which was kind of both surprising and affirming.

CCB: [00:09:11] Yeah. So Leah, I see you look engaged here in this conversation and I just, I'm wondering, when you get to, you define the process and you start collecting the data and when it gets to the data review, there's some interesting information that starts coming out before you even, before you define what the tool kit might need to be.

Leah M: [00:09:39] Yeah, I mean, and that was actually one of the pieces that I was the most curious about, because I think, you know, and to be honest, we ended up with this very massive spreadsheet and I don't even remember it was like 4000 lines of spreadsheet or something, Eli can correct me. And we started to sort of create, like throwing the data into different groupings to see what patterns were coming out. And we really did, some of them were really a little bit as anticipated, like, yes, most of this engagement activity happens really early in a project. And then some of it when we sat with it and thought about it a little more, really suggested some real, real differences in the way we approach different audiences or how the, you mentioned earlier, the audience and content. Two of the variables we looked at are: who are we talking to and what are we talking about? And it was really clear, that there's a difference in what we talked to city council about versus what we talked to the general public about versus what we talk to staff about. And it makes sense when we think about this as designers that we're going to be asking different questions of those groups. But it was really like Trina said, there is something that is very affirming to see that that is borne out. That we're not just using a cookie cutter, one size fits all approach to these conversations that we're having with different groups.

CCB: [00:10:58] So you've gotten all the data and you've evaluated it, reviewed it, and then you start figuring out what the toolkit wants to be to better support Noll + Tam activities moving forward. I mean, I can just see onboarding and explaining to new hires or to new younger design folks what you're actually after. And you developed a framework. So, I'd love you to talk about that framework.

Leah M: [00:11:31] I'll jump in. I am a little bit, but I hope that Trina and Eli will also collaborate. I mean, I think that the framework really came out of the deeper survey questions that we asked, different project teams. Because as we're doing this data, you know, we kept getting these, “oh, was that really an engagement?” or “oh, I heard something about that project that was really complicated” or that “this was really cool that they did this thing.” And we wanted to go back and ask those project teams for their stories in a little bit more detail. And from those responses, which we're really focused on going back to the qualitative - what seemed to work well, what was effective, what was challenging - we're look at, again we're looking for patterns, and the pattern that we really seem to see is that there were a lot of different ways that engagement is executed. But there are pretty distinct reasons and goals for going into it that are very distinct by project. So how many people are at a meeting might have more to do with budget or logistics or sort of these other external factors, but what it seemed to really be shaping the projects that had very successful engagement processes was an understanding of why they were doing it and what they were hoping to get out of it. So, Eli, do you want to go over the sort of kind of three big groups that we set up in terms of the framework for the toolkit?

Eli M: [00:13:02] Yeah. So, kind of looking at engagement and trying to come up with some considerations that are easily recallable for someone who's trying to plan an engagement process. We wanted to kind of break them out into three kind of memorable categories, the different kinds of engagement activities that you might be working on throughout a project that each have their own purposes and applications. And so those three are Responsive, Informative and Collaborative. And so Responsive engagement opportunities are much more about collecting information. And so one of the kind of first examples that comes to mind would be a survey of the public. So that would be a really quick way early on in a project to be able to gather data from a lot of people. So that's kind of what a Responsive engagement would be. Informative is about is kind of the opposite direction of information. And so that's information coming from the architect informing the public, whether that's about the progress of the design or just about the process of project delivery. A lot of the time there's a lot of confusion in projects because the public is unclear as to exactly what are all the processes happening behind the scenes before I can get my new public library branch. And so that's something that's really important in a lot of those kind of projects to explain to people. The last one of those categories is Collaborative. And that's kind of in a sense, the last piece - information flowing to the architect from the architect - and now this is information flowing back and forth and its cooperation between the public and the design team, and working on things in a more long term process. And there's more back and forth involved there.

CCB: [00:15:13] More partnering in that communication.

Eli M: [00:15:15] Exactly.

CCB: [00:15:16] I was laughing to myself because I simplify things even to the simplest. And I said it was pulling and pushing and working together, were the three kind of frameworks, because the responsive tends to be the pulling information from them and the informative is more pushing the information out and then the teaming and together, in the collaborative. I'm going to say a couple of things. One is congratulations Trina and Noll + Tam for 30 years. That's pretty amazing. And as you're telling the story, it's clear that there are people that have been around long enough that they can, you can go back and test and collect information. So that's an impressive set of culture and work together, that that creates the longevity of folks working within the organization. But then I want to ask the question about what was your ultimate intention? So, this result of the toolkit, what did you want it to do for you and for your clients, stakeholders, whomever?

Trina G.: [00:16:32] I'll jump in here. This is Trina. I think that we were looking well, one, as architects, we really don't have time to pull back from our day-to-day work and really assess all that we have accomplished over time. So, some of it was feeding ourselves in recognizing and understanding all the work that we've done. I think, secondly, it's really going to help us communicate to future clients, you know the complexity and the time it takes to do this work. I think a lot of times, and this is for, you know, essentially part of what the toolkit is, is helping other design professionals be able to communicate with their clients how much time and effort this takes. Because we find we end up doing a lot of work without really assessing the compensation necessary to do that. So, it's explaining all the different types of gathering information, what's valuable about different types. And I think we're starting to be able to project even different things that might be more valuable in the future. Not everything we've done in the past is perfect. We're forever learning, and to be able to learn from that and project better ways to move forward.

CCB: [00:17:46] Mm hmm. So, Leah, as the project manager for this, are you happy with the results?

Leah M: [00:17:53] Well, yes. I'm incredibly happy with the results. And I'm really proud of all the work that Eli among others put into gathering this data. And I do think it's, like Trina said, really valuable. And if I had to say that my overarching goal for this is really that as we keep doing this work as a profession and as a firm, that we have more nuanced language to describe it because it is so valuable. So that when we say, let's talk about an engagement process, it's not just engagement - one bullet point, one meeting - done. It's really that there's a whole host of ways that we can do this and a whole bunch of activities that might or might not be effective. And I'd like for our language and our understanding of it to sort of reflect that complexity.

CCB: [00:18:43] I think there's the report itself. The full report has so much information and so much definition in it. And I'm curious to think how, gosh, how valuable it will be to kick off engagements with and just as you're addressing, new clients and new players within your organization and any of the project teams. Because just the nature of identifying what the stages and what the potential engagement activities are, makes it so much clearer than to your point, saying we're going to have some engagement activities. So, further definition, which you have very clearly pulled out, is certainly going to be helpful. I was curious about, there are case studies that you used as examples. And did you pull those out from the 49 projects that you were working doing the assessment on? Did projects emerge as obvious case study examples?

Leah M: [00:19:49] Yes, I think so. Essentially, when you look at, if you looked at a graph of all of the 49 projects, it's like low hills, low hills, Mt. Everest. There's like there were like twelve Mt. Everests that had much more substantive work. And, you know, even in the office, those projects are known, right? Like we know that those are the projects that we did a lot of extra work on. So, there were some pretty natural candidates for further investigation. And from some of those, those were the projects that we selected to ask follow up questions of the design team. And so, from there, the kind of case studies to illustrate the different frameworks came from those.

CCB: [00:20:33] So there's a heck of a lot of information in the design engagement toolkit. Any of our listeners will understand in this conversation that there's so much information and so much work that has gone into it and the data collection and the assessment. And so, as we're winding this down, this conversation, down to a close, I'd ask that question, is there anything else that we didn't talk about that you feel is very important that the listeners should hear relative to the project, the engagement within your own firm, the results? Everybody has an opportunity to say something.

Leah M: [00:21:13] Well, I'll say that I think one thing that we hope people take away is that any of these frameworks can be used by any client in any project. And there isn't, there's not a hierarchy, like this is not a “step one, step two, step three, boom, you're done” sort of situation. That these are intended to be starting points and jumping off points for future projects and future teams’ exploration of the next steps. So, I think there's ways of doing these engagement activities really small on a budget and there's ways of doing them really expansively. And so, I think it's a process of figuring out what's right for the project at hand. And I would encourage people to think about really broadly, about what kind of engagement might be useful.

Eli M: [00:22:03] Yeah. Just to add on to that, I think as was mentioned earlier, when we had to go back for the phase two and ask follow-up questions of the project managers for those 12 larger projects, the initial data collection and analysis, really, there were only so many things to look at that could be quantified in those variables, in that kind of way. And so those questions brought a lot of nuance to the conversation. And similarly, once you start a process from one of these, you know, tool kit starting points, every process is going to be informed by what you learned in your engagement activities. Every process is going to be unique, and there's that nuance is going to come out individually for each engagement process.

Trina G: [00:22:59] And then I'll just say that, you know, the data that we've collected by its nature is reflective. It's what we're doing from ten years ago going forward. And, you know, our approaches have evolved in that time and are continuing to evolve. I think just as our society is, we're seeing more people go ahead using digital tools to meet and collect data going forward. We see more use of particular stakeholder groups, and more active efforts to go out and engage communities where we used to have more of a meeting that we made at an accessible time for a lot of people. But now we're saying that's not enough and we're going more to where people are, creating more accessible opportunities to make sure that we do a deeper dive in making sure all voices are able to come to the table and that we capture a broader range. So, I think this is a really rich topic that we could do again in five years, and not that we would have completely different results, but it certainly would be evolving results.

CCB: [00:24:09] And that's I mean, it is it's impressive. And I'm going to say as a member of the public that uses public spaces, the idea that that a great amount of information has been gathered by the users, by the stakeholders, by all the folks that are responsible. It is that's always a, what's the right word? It gives me greater confidence. It's very.

Leah M: [00:24:34] Reassuring.

CCB: [00:24:35] Reassuring, thank you. It was a re word that I couldn't remember. But anyway, I'm going to say thank you very much. Leah, Eli and Trina from Noll + Tam for sharing the project process for your ONEder Grant, the Design Engagement Tool Kit. We're absolutely delighted that you were a part of the 2021 ONEder Grants. I will repeat that all their information and the podcast itself will be on their website, all sorts of information will be on their web page on the ONEder Grant Web page. And we are grateful to all of our listeners for spending time with us. Thanks.