Charrette, cha-what?

September 4th, 2011 Todd Todd

In my previous work in mixed-use land development, one of the most valuable things I learned was how some of the best urban designers use a process they call a “charrette” to design places. The urban design charrette typically brings together all of the stakeholders in the design of a new place—say a new community—for an intensive design effort over a period of 2 to 5 days to establish the essential design of the new place. The urban design charrette has the following key characteristics:

An urban design charrette

An urban design charrette, process and product

  • It is lead by a professional designer.
  • It includes all of the major stakeholders in the project and people with critical expertise for the project: the owner of the project, government officials, nearby residents and business owners, civil engineers, architects, etc.
  • It is collaborative and interactive, with everyone present being able to participate.
  • Pieces of the design go through multiple iterations quickly, typically using see-through sketch paper to redo designs based on previous iterations.
  • The atmosphere is collaborative, collegial, and fun!
  • Once the design is worked out at the sketch level, the designers take an initial crack at bringing the design to life with conceptual architectural elevations, and even a 3-D perspective rendering of part of the plan.
  • The result is that in a very short period of time, the basic design of the project is produced, multiple design problems have been solved through the participation of all necessary parties, and  all the key players have a thorough buy-in to the design that was produced with all of their participation.

The charrette process itself is delightful for everyone involved. It creates such a sense of mutual accomplishment and collegiality by the end that it sets an incredibly positive tone for the design and development work that lies ahead. It produces visual products that are used not only to direct the further design work, but that can begin to be used to market the project to banks, investors, and even the end users (retail and office tenants, homebuyers, etc.).

As we launched Tapity, I wondered if such a process could be useful in digital design. We have begun to incorporate this kind of process into our practice, and we have had fantastic results with it. We want to refine our techniques to make the process as efficient, productive, and delightful as possible, but we really believe we are onto something. If you translate the list above into characteristics of a digital design charrette, they look something like this:

  • It is lead by a professional designer (this is the role that Tapity plays).
  • It includes all of the major stakeholders in the project and people with critical expertise for the project: the client, the IT people responsible for back-end architecture, potential users, interaction designers, visual designers, etc.
  • It is collaborative and interactive, with everyone present being able to participate.
  • The design goes through on-the-spot review by the stakeholders, using sketches and post-it notes to represent design decisions and changes.
  • The atmosphere is collaborative, collegial, and fun!
  • Once the design is worked out at the sketch level, the designers take an initial crack at bringing the design to life with wireframes of key screens and even preparing some initial Photoshop mock-ups of the visual design theme.
  • The result is that in a very short period of time, the basic design of the project is produced, multiple design problems have been solved through the participation of all necessary parties, and  all the key players have a thorough buy-in to the design that was produced with all of their participation.

I was delighted to discover, just a few days ago, an article in UX Magazine by Will Evans where he describes what he calls “design studio methodology” as a process that “originated in architecture and industrial design schools.” He states that he believes that Todd Zaki Warfel “was the first to apply it to collaborative design of complex software systems.” Then, the first comment to Will’s article by Matt Nish-Lapidus points out that “[t]he method outlined in this article is traditionally called a charrette and has been used in industrial design and architecture for decades.” Who knows, maybe the charrette methodology will find an enduring place in the world of digital design.

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One Response to “Charrette, cha-what?”

  1. Robert Baysden says:

    Congratulations on the new business! Looks like a great start. The Charrette is such a great process. It is truly a “you get out of it, what you put into it” endeavor.