Language, Audience, Values

A Provocation for Designers to Refocus

Austin Ward (MAUD '19)

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Image Source: Washington, D.C., February 2017. [Ted Eytan]

In the concluding remarks of Michael Murphy & Alan Ricks paper Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity the authors make a definitive plea that the profession of architecture needs to re-focus its values and practices in order to address the current and future needs of the societies it serves. They argue that if not, we will lose our agency as designers. If we take seriously this plea, how and where do we begin to make strides in re-focusing these efforts? Here are three places to start.


Far too often, our language as designers is inaccessible, irresponsibly insular, and more concerned about constructing a language of own aesthetic. Here I mean this visually, then we use verbal and written language in support of our aesthetic agendas. We debate work using language and syntax that is largely academic in nature and use platforms for communication of work and ideas that are primarily sourced by designers for other designers, becoming trapped in disciplinary jargon as so many other professions do. We must ask ourselves, is this a responsible or even productive practice? If language is principally about communication, and we only ever communicate to ourselves as an audience, how are we ever to be effective in understanding or addressing the current and future needs of the communities in which we work?

We would do well as designers, and as students of our respective disciplines to develop new practices of language, to communicate with a broader audience as a way to understand and respond to their most critical needs. Language becomes the bridge by which we as designers can exchange and relate ideas to a diverse and broad collective. We must use language as a means to communicate our ideas outward, not just inwardly to ourselves.


Who is our audience? To put it in a different way than for whom do we design, the question is an easy one to ask, but perhaps one of the more difficult to answer. Urban design for me, even more so than architecture, situates itself as a design of the public realm. As champions of projects of-and-for the people, the greatest challenge is that we are never designing for a single individual or group. There is always a friction a tension of a greater diverse collective in our work, and I don’t see this as a negative. I see this diversity as being the source of great exchange and possibility. However, what I believe therefore results in our practice is that this complexity leads to complacency and broad generality in our practice, and in our language.

We generalize ideas and language as a broad brush, over-simplification of complex problems rather than pressing into the tensions and challenges to give language and resolution to more nuanced readings and solutions for our cities and their citizens. We as urban designers cannot become complacent in accepting broad generalities and in proliferating them as universal ideals globally. There is too much at stake. We must be able to use our agency as designers in reading the city, the communities, the places in which we work, leveraging the skills we possess, in order to construct and articulate new narratives through design in support of the people and locales in which we practice.


I believe this all leads to values, and this is perhaps where we have the most work to do. I was recently in a studio review in which a critic asked this very question. “What are you bringing to this, what set of values are driving you?” At the time, the question seemed so natural and central to defining the work, but I later realized how abnormal that question was in the context of the academy. We often are more concerned with big ideas than big values. What if this were reversed? What if we as urban designers focused more on listening to our communities and forming values in the stewardship of those communities as a way to generate new ideas, rather than the reverse?

Developing values as designers allows us to see clearly the audience of our work, and to articulate through language, the problems and potential solutions to the multitude of challenges we face. This work is no small task, but the earlier we start this practice, the better equipped we are to serve our cities and their citizens.


  1. Murphy, Michael, and Ricks, Alan,. “Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity,” In The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 18.1, 2013, pp. 111 – 114.

  2. De Carlo, Giancarlo,. “An Architecture of Participation,” In Perspecta, Vol. 17 1980, pp. 74-79.