The Big Day: Facilitating a Successful Design Charrette

Over the past two posts we have taken a new angle on design charrettes (fast-paced design workshops). First, we looked at the split paradigm between public and private realms, and how this sets a course for gathering project stakeholders. Then, we looked at gathering a team and took a deep-dive into the home, neighborhood, and downtown realms - even looking at the funky "in-between zones" where ideas can become really interesting. Now, let's wrap this rodeo and outline how to facilitate your own design charrette. 

The process is the same for any size group in your community, but the size of the group affected increases as we move from our home, to our neighborhood, and downtown. This doesn't mean our level of input or influence diminishes. Your participation at the center of positive change is what living in a Green Heart Town is all about. 

Your participation at the center of positive change is what living in a Green Heart Town is all about.  
— LL

Pre-Planning & Research

You don’t need any formal training to learn how to lead a design charrette. Before I began working with Oklahoma Main Street I had never helped facilitate any kind of public workshop. Now, after dozens of them I can tell you its simple. You only have to understand the design problem, gather a team, lead them through the process, and stay on schedule. 

Design Problem:  The issue(s) you want to address. The goal of a  group design charrette is to work together to find an actionable, sustainable solution.

Preliminary Action Steps:

  • Have an understanding of the design problem. It is okay if you want to consider a broad issue - like downtown streetscape - or something more narrow like new playground equipment.  
  • Recruit project stakeholders (aka. steering committee). These are the core group committed to helping throughout the charrette process, and on to final project completion. Treat them well!
  • Public outreach to gather support. Talk with others who will be affected; use social media and surveys to gauge interest and support. Stay future minded, you may need volunteers for a work day. 
  • Set a date for the design charrette.  

Basic Materials

You will also want to have some large pads of paper flipcharts and bold markers for each table group. You might also want to provide name tags and additional paper and pens for participants. Many times I have seen multi-colored post-it notes used as a color code to share ideas. Also,  little round, colored dots are helpful for "voting" on favorite solutions. 

Find a Place

Setting up the design charrette workspace is essential. You will need seating for everyone and restrooms. Ideally, each person will be able to sit in a table group to facilitate group work during the charrette. If there are more than five participants, you will get better results breaking up into separate table groups. You can have as many groups as you need, but limit the number per group to 6-8. This gives everyone a chance to share. 

You will need a large wall surface to project images onto and to display each group’s feedback for later viewing. Ask someone to be in charge of technology and projector or TV setup. The visual display helps everyone stay on the same page. In small to medium sized groups, if one of the team members' homes will not work, you might reach out to a neighborhood church or other community facility. 

Ask someone to cater refreshments for the group. This is a good opportunity to ask a nearby business to sponsor the event. 

Invite Participants

By this point in the process the steering committee has probably met on more than one occasion. Word might be getting around about the upcoming charrette, and that is a good thing. Design charrettes are a lot of fun!

For the best attendance during the week, plan for time centered around the lunch hour. A lot of working people can get away from 11:00-1:00. If you need more time, then discuss options with some of the other team members to see what time would be the best for everyone.

A half day on Saturday might be a possibility for some, and others might want to break up the work into a few evening sessions. Once you determine the best time, send out an invitation for participants.  For neighborhood and community groups, give everyone at least 2-3 weeks advanced notice. 

Collect Background Information

After the invitation goes out on social media, you can begin to gather a collection of visual examples for your design problem. Create a Facebook event or group where others can join and share in the research. You could also create a shared Pinterest board, Google Docs, or Dropbox folder. In this manner you can begin building engagement early in the process. 

Assign someone to the task of collecting any pertinent background information, such as printed plans, maps, photos, demographics, business data, etc. What data you need depends on the design problem you are considering. Making friends at the City Planning Department and a local economic development entity are also good ideas.  

For the day of the charrette, consider preparing a packet of helpful information about the project to give each participant. 

Recruit someone to be the group photographer. 

Moderate the Charrette

Start the meeting with introductions and share background information on the project. Share the goals for the project, as well as any limitations or constraints that may affect the design. 

This is a good time to conduct a quick SWOT analysis of issues surrounding the project. SWOT simply stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Lead your table groups to work together for a few minutes on each of these talking points for 4-5 minutes. Keep things moving. After the last topic (i.e. Threats) use a large flip-chart to list the most important issues each group has discovered. If you use the peel-and-stick flip chart (like the affiliate link above) hang them on the wall in turn before moving . 

After the issues are understood, then you are ready to begin generating ideas. Let each table choose a group facilitator to record the ideas on a flip-chart where everyone can see them. Have everyone collect as many ideas as possible, then narrow down the list to ideas that are most feasible and sustainable. The group should feel free to use any kind of visual communication to represent their ideas.

Pull Together a Vision

The charrette leader should have each group report their best ideas to the whole group. Then there should be a frank discussion on the pros and cons of each idea. 

Usually some of the top ideas are relevant to one another and a common direction for a solution may begin to be present. Look for the common themes and community synergies. As the ideas become more unified, develop them into a kind of vision for implementation.

Everyone should leave feeling like they have accomplished the foundation for a plan ahead. Be certain to thank all the participants for their time and effort. This is important, because the real work is yet to come.

Results & Refinement

Within a few days bring your steering committee back together to create a formal report for the event. It should illustrate the charrette findings in a compelling way as to be shared with any larger audiences. It should also include any remaining questions or specific challenges that lie ahead. Finally, include action steps and draft a workplan for the project ahead. Ask for volunteers for each action item to outline the steps necessary and assign dates for completion. 

Next, share this report with the group of design charrette participants and see if they have any further changes to incorporate before the ideas are circulated further.

Marketing & Promotion

Armed with the results and finding of the design charrette, take advantage of the gained momentum. Especially in work that touches the neighborhood and downtown realms, your team should aggressively begin marketing and promoting the  plan. Add marketing work, set immediate goals and make a timeline for implementation. Appoint a person over each key task. Identify those that have synergy. Seek sponsorship and begin fundraising. 

Work! The charrette itself was only a brief, intense brainstorm. Keep moving ahead to realize the vision, and pivot along the way if necessary. Other are going to see the positivity surrounding your work and want to contribute, too.  


A design charrette process is flexible and effective means of design problem solving that can be used within a single household or community-wide event. It’s fun to get together and work intensely with others for a short term - especially when promoting new levels of prosperity in our own lives and for our community. Armed with the results and findings from the design charrette, others will being to take notice and you will see progress before you know it. 

If nothing else, coming together for a design charrette is a great way to build community inclusivity and vibrancy. To create a green heart town we just need to realize that we are the common thread that can make a change.

Postscript:  In the wake of violence and racism seen in Charlottesville last weekend, the importance of getting to know our neighbors while creating positive change is something that offers a ray of sunlight. I hope you will engage others in your home, neighborhood, and downtown to find common ground for change that everyone can support. 

What ideas can you address with a design charrette? Questions? This online group is ready to hear your ideas and offer help. We would love to hear from you in the comments below.