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Using design capabilities to build values and the right kind of engagement

Article by Federico Rita

If you are a design practitioner, you have probably asked yourself at some point, during a creative session:

“How do I make these people trust design?”

While reflecting on that question, Federico realised that as creative enablers, we do more than merely applying design principles. Indeed, we inherently embed values and meaning in our application of design. As such, we can catalyse and tailor these values to each and any specific audience.

Sharing this reflection with our collaborators as we bring them into our process is essential to build trust. We can make others trust us and trust design by helping them trust their use of design. This process should focus on finding the right balance of ingredients that help create an engaging, participatory climate.

Federico explored how to foster such a collaborative environment during a research project for his master’s thesis. The project was the result of the collaboration of the PCM Lab and ANCI Toscana, both members of DESIGNSCAPES. ANCI Toscana is a nonprofit organisation, operating as the regional association of municipalities in Tuscany, Italy.

Gaining an intimate understanding of participants' co-learning processes

The project investigates strategies to strengthen public management by exploring the potential of Design capacity-building as a policy competency. The design challenge was to co-create a learning environment for design capabilities development. The Participatory Design approach allowed for creating a safe space for sharing and nurturing design knowledge, skills and attitudes. The project consisted of four phases, to facilitate a progressive iterating on the learning environment. Each cycle allowed for a thorough and proactive discussion around the good practices learned during the process. The most important takeaways will be highlighted in the following paragraphs.

A crucial aspect was to consider both the context and the way public managers interact with it at a local level. The context is what truly defines and gives depth to a social development project. The project took inspiration by how contextual factors tie together and describe the interactions between people and their context.

“The context is what truly defines and gives depth to a social development project.”

Sharing and discussing values when designing for the public good

The keystone of the process was kickstarting an active and personal discussion. At that moment, Federico realised the importance of sharing and discussing values when designing for the public good. The activities were carried out in the participants’ native language, to set necessary conditions for them to relate to the process and all the contents. A familiar language, as well as any kind of shared communication code, enables a free and unfiltered expression, allowing for unique and sincere insights.

As a consequence, this deep dive into intimate experiences opens up to spotting personal values. The holistic view offered by value-mapping allows for uncovering what is relevant in a given situation, the here-and-now that might be missed by only focusing on quantity. Here is where Participatory Design can play a significant role, especially in collaborative settings aimed at cooperating in their turns with broader audiences.

How to implement a learning environment for design capabilities development in practice

To make the project adaptable, at the end of the research, Federico mapped six guidelines on how to implement a learning environment for design capabilities development in practice:

  • Share the process, share the outcome: democratise tools, methodologies and results of every process by making them available and reusable
  • Embrace complexity by means of simplicity: do not be discouraged by open, complex, dynamic and networked challenges. Decompose complex issues one step at the time in order to create a framework of achievable goals
  • Mediate personal motivations and values to enhance participation: real engagement comes from motivation, and proactive participation is the result of a balance between individual incentives and team’s ambitions
  • Learn from participants and let them share their knowledge: inspiring experiences have intrinsic and motivational power. Let public managers express their knowledge, to benefit the whole team
  • Make the debate visible and tangible: materialise abstract discussions employing artefacts, to take the debate to a relatable level and to generate contextual awareness
  • Make tools adapt to participants and not vice versa: shared ownership can be achieved by allowing public managers to add a personal touch on tools and methods so that they can feel responsible for the whole learning process


There is no perfect formula to build trust, simply because it is not measurable. However, how participants engage and gather around shared values can be a fair indicator of trust. The proposed guidelines represent a compass to find the right balance between engagement and trust towards design capabilities. Hopefully, the work can contribute to stimulating designers to put their expertise in design capability development for the public domain.