New Frontiers of Placemaking Design

By Steve Teruggi, Managing Director, Method Europe

For several years, the design industry has strived to develop effective approaches that meaningfully shape places to meet community needs. In a word: placemaking.

At Method, we are defining tools and processes we believe can extend the practice of placemaking beyond the dependency on individual expert advisors’ personal views, or agencies that create aggressive promotions featuring the usual suspects: a CNN advertising campaign and an “expressive” new identity launch whose new logo is intended to assert the disparate qualities of a country, ones in which they hope the audience will believe.

The methodologies covered by contemporary design approaches like design thinking, service design, and experience design can be curated and adapted to address the complexity of places — from a singular physical space such as a store or hotel lobby, to complete neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations.

Today, we are able to target multiple audiences and journeys, map all points of interaction, provide a unified view of how physical and digital dimensions connect to build a clear view from the perspective of the citizen or visitor. We audit the technology required to enable experiences and chart dependencies. The tools allow us to frame specific problems and ways of shaping opportunities to deliver on brand vision, unmet needs, pain points of the target user, technical feasibility, and ultimately prioritization against commercial objectives.

A Recent History of Placemaking

Some of the most prominent early placemaking thinkers such as Simon Anholt, Charles Landry, Wally Olins, and Robert Govers, among others, have articulated clear directives. In the early 2000s, their publications explained why nations shouldn’t waste money on expensive global advertising and marketing campaigns. They championed the notion that only meaningful policy change and tangible experiences can move the needle on perceptions of a country or city.

Fast forward to now, conventional branding and advertising consultancies still willingly offer up new coats of marketing paint for any given location, usually involving an overly ambitious tagline, despite evidence that the campaign approach often lacks substance. At a smaller scale, property developments across our cities demonstrate a sadly formulaic use of logo, an obligatory decorative pattern, expensive renderings, replete with a prominent architect’s name, all in the service of seducing investment in retail units, office spaces and apartments.

In synchronization with place branding’s early innovators, however, today’s service designers and design thinkers equally object to marketing-driven assertion as a legitimate means of building a genuine relationship between brand and audience. So naturally, this extends to issues of place. We now have stronger methodologies to provide a central point of collaboration. Through our design processes we can generate significant value at every interaction between audience and place.

A Growing Challenge

Our cities are growing at an alarming pace. So much so that city planners and municipalities struggle to anticipate changes and their ramifications. As inhabitants, we have diverse and ever-changing demands that influence how places constantly respond and evolve. But real decision making for places is rarely nimble enough to keep pace with emerging needs. The stubbornness of the built realm, legacy issues, and sheer financial considerations challenge to align stakeholders.

We are highly critical of the places we inhabit. Just think about your daily commute, or public services. Larger issues likely include education, the ability to attract international talent, population growth, and other drivers of the economy. It’s instructive to take a step back from the daily gripes of urban living to consider essential global themes of water, energy, climate change, and security. It’s a daunting list of interdependent issues that demand immediate attention.

Yet somehow, this range of crucial issues are often addressed in isolation rather than interrelated concerns. Placemakers have been searching for ways to understand dependencies and find ways to design more connected experiences for inhabitants. Consider how many cities aspire to be “smart” or “connected.” How can we expect connected experiences to come from disconnected organizations? Through contemporary design methods, we can spur ongoing citizen participation, strike close collaboration with stakeholders and subject matter experts alike, promote transparency, and utilize prototyping techniques. Taken together, all actors involved in a place know exactly how a citizen or visitor can benefit from new, efficient systems of products and services.

How can we expect connected experiences to come from disconnected organizations?

The vital need to address this complex array of issues demands a radical change in our approaches to the design of both cities and regions.

Strategic Design for Places

Design-led engineering is in the process of driving value in practically every sector and leading company around the world. The adoption of this thinking, which we refer to as Strategic Design, provides the ability to solve complex problems, positively impact our quality of life and strengthen the resilience of our cities.

Since opening our doors in 1999, Method has set out to systematically consider people, business, brand, and context to design digital products, services, and physical environments that collectively create unified experiences. And over time, experiences that advance in response to data.

We have explored the design of places at various scales in recent years, including retail systems for global rollout, digital service concepts to layer throughout a European workplace campus, passenger insights for a range of transport operators, and a collaboration with a prominent policy advisory to address Western perceptions of a Gulf state.

Our experience has demonstrated how we address complex challenges to the successful design of places.


1. Mapping Relationships

Methodologies and tools surface the needs of individuals, the commercial objectives of businesses, and focus on where reality can deliver on a place-brand promise. These relationships can be mapped and tracked using data analytics to home in on behavioral patterns.

2. Time Comprehension

We’re able to look at immediate needs or project farther out to anticipate future scenarios. Places evolve purposefully over time. Models and roadmaps can clarify that path and support transitioning government authorities to better understand the trajectory of a city or nation experience over time.

3. Adapting to Scale

The Strategic Design approach helps placemakers think through expansive ecosystems of participants, influencers, and owners that shape a place experience online, offline or both. Once a vision is defined, we can specify experience principles, patterns of behavior, component libraries, and visual design systems, acting as tools to scale design concepts across all products and services.

4. Bringing Clarity to Ambiguity

Our methodologies deconstruct complexity and uncertainty. We can chart distant interdependencies and surface new opportunities using journey mapping and data visualization to gather insights into a wide range of target audiences. Prototypes can be used for early tangible artifacts in testing so users and stakeholders understand what to expect from any initiative before investing in full implementation.

5. Creating Inclusive Processes

Our approach for placemaking relies on the involvement of multiple disciplines, public and private sector organizations, subject matter experts, and users of products and services in any place context. The process is essential to gain consensus among stakeholders.

— — — — —

Strategic Design provides the most effective methodologies to realize the vision set out by the early advocates of placemaking and the branders of cities, regions, and nations. The application for placemaking practitioners is logical, as evidenced by sectors that have embraced Strategic Design, such as financial services, healthcare, energy, insurance, consumer electronics and some corners of retail and hospitality. Such sectors use design to organize complexity, set out a vision, align user-centric thinking with organizational culture, and then iterate for improved experiences. The same methodologies can help design-led organizations deal with the larger scale and more fragmented groups to shape places.

Therefore, placemaking through this approach not only accelerates ideas from concept to execution, but offers more robust frameworks to assess feasibility, desirability, and viability. The ultimate outcome being the betterment of places — richer, more meaningful experiences that form lasting memories of a destination, loyalty to a neighborhood, interest in regional investment — turning the tide from questionable perception to positive reality.

Take some time to think through the way inhabitants and visitors experience the places you influence through your network and partners. Consider the economies that underpin your territory, as Method’s Brett Macfarlane explores in his essay The business of a city is everyone’s business.

Are you are a government thinking about how to be more competitive? A commercial property developer looking for differentiation? A public transport operator trying to create seamless journeys with modest budgets? A regional visionary with the mandate to transform a diverse area for the better? Come and talk with Method. We’re here to help.