Blog: A People-Centred Decade – Val Clugston, Nomad RDC

Add to Scrapbook

The Education Buildings Scotland Conference seeks to bring together different sectors across the learning estate to celebrate what works in re-thinking spaces for learning. It allows them to share insights on what’s possible to support improvement. A&DS has invited a number of design professionals to share their ideas. The focus of the blogs is on the voice of young people. In this blog Val Clugston, Research and Creative Director, Nomad RDC writes about taking a people centred approach to designing spaces. 

Nomad is a multi-disciplinary team that creates interior (and occasionally exterior) environments, and we have worked almost exclusively within the Education and Healthcare sectors for over a decade.  At our core, we are interior designers, and we define our role as the members of a design team who work with the spaces and products that people interact with at human scale every day.  We are also the members of the team who will often work most closely with the client and their end users, and this is especially true of our team as we practice a people-centred or participatory approach to design.

Back in 2006, we had a hunch that working with people, understanding their vision and unlocking their tacit knowledge could lead to better environments, places where people would feel a sense of ownership and belonging. Our intention was not altogether altruistic – we also suspected that this type of approach might reveal innovative ideas that would help us to be better designers. Initially, we turned to anthropology and psychology to find suitable participatory design methods, and we experimented with interviews, questionnaires, observational techniques, model making and cultural probes.

Ten years, twenty-eight institutions and thousands of participant students, teachers, staff and members of the public later and our methods have evolved almost beyond recognition, but above this, there are two facts that we have learned are fundamental to a people-centred approach.

Every Project is Difference

No1.  Every project is different. Every place or institution has its own culture, identity and rules and as a result, each new project demands its own bespoke participatory design model. Some methods are universal such as social media for example which we use to create a tangible presence for a project and a gateway for participants to engage with the process. However, others are more discrete. We start each project by asking some fundamental questions, and these questions naturally point towards the methods necessary to find the answers. Sometimes these are tried and tested, and at other times we are challenged to create new techniques or adapt old ones.  For example, when working with the Archie Foundation, a charity which aims to generate friendlier hospital environments for young children, we adapted the basic concept of a cultural probe as the basis of a workshop. The kids were given stethoscopes, gloves, specimen jars and other medical paraphernalia and asked to ‘diagnose’ what made the hospital scary and ‘prescribe’ a ‘cure’.

Gather the Right Type of Information

No 2. Gathering the right type of information.  The purpose of any people-centred or participatory design process is to generate data that will result in the kind of detail that can be transformed into a product, service or environment.  This seems obvious, but, without careful planning, it can be easy to get lost in workshops or interviews that lead to interesting yet relatively useless data.   When working with Kings College London, we devised a series of workshops that incrementally led the participants through an exploratory design process resulting in a vision brief rich with descriptions, diagrams, visual information and priorities providing the architects with a detailed starting point.

Our interest and knowledge have expanded exponentially through our people-centred decade and it is impossible to capture everything in a single blog piece. Yet the essence of our practice remains the same. The belief that projects which are constructed from the ideas of everyday people have the potential to be infinitely more inventive and enduring while also fostering a sense of well-being and belonging in the most critical stakeholders, the end user.


Val Clugston

Image (Detail) Nomad Process in Action

Scroll to top