Intro: a design thesis for city planners

CMU Graduate Design Thesis 2018–2019

This post is part of an ongoing documentation series for my thesis research on Maintaining Policy Intent for City Planners. Please find the full collection here.

Hello! I’m Angela, a 2nd year master’s student and an interaction designer at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. Previously, I was a planning consultant based in the Bay area.


For my design thesis, I want to understand:
(1) what challenges city planners face in maintaining policy intent in planning processes, and
(2) how design methods may resolve these challenges.

Why city planners?

Previously as a city planner, I have experienced first hand may challenges in carrying out comprehensive planning processes (General Plan, Specific Plans, etc.). The biggest challenge or burden was making sure that every community member’s voice was heard and reflected in the resulting land use and urban design policies. My colleagues and I used SO MANY tools and methods to clarify, engage, inform, and implement policy intent, but many failed us in one way or another. Community members were still angry, and things never rolled out the way we intended, if they rolled out at all.

In seeking fresh perspective to this challenge, I decided to study in interaction design with a focus on design for civic innovation and policy. One of the first things I found was that the framework under which planning consultants work was quite comparable to a human-centered design process. The biggest difference, however, lies in that designers are trained to use design (research) methods to maintain design intent, while most planners aren’t.

A typical policymaking process involves iterative design processes, frequent engagement with stakeholders, and a focus on creation.

It was with this realization that I decided to write this thesis and find out how city planners may learn from design to better maintain policy intent. This topic is very important to me as a planner and a designer.

But what exactly is “maintaining policy intent”?

Policy intent, policy goal, policy purpose … there are many ways to describe the “desired outcome” of policies. For my thesis, I defined “maintaining policy intent” to encompass four key elements of policymaking in the context of city planning:

  1. Clarify Intent: Identifying the goals for a particular policymaking process.
  2. Follow Through: Ensuring that every step of the policymaking process contributes to achieving the identified goals.
  3. Inform All: Keeping all stakeholders, including the policy beneficiaries, informed and involved in the process.
  4. Make It Real: Capturing the intent in the policy so that it can be realized in the implementation phase.

This set of definitions are constantly changing as I work on my thesis. For now, I think they serve as sufficient starting points.

Intro booklet

I made a 12-page booklet back in October that includes a brief literature review of design for policy, its indication in city planning, and what my research focuses on.

How you can get involved!

As I continue my research I will want to learn from city planners, community members, local champions, city officials who have practiced design (thinking) in their work, and designers who have found success in facilitating policymaking. If you are interested, please fill out the research interest form and I’ll follow up with you for any upcoming research activities.


If you have any question, please do not hesitate to email yinjenw@andrew.cmu.edu — I’m happy talk city and design for days :)