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One of the biggest mistakes that I made early on as a school designer was to engage in the change process around learning spaces without a team. Don’t get me wrong. I asked for input, listened to the needs of others and designed with empathy. All of these elements are essential, but they are unfortunately not enough to make lasting, sustainable changes within a school or district. It wasn’t until I realized that there is a difference between designing with feedback and designing with a team that I had the design breakthroughs that truly impacted the teaching and learning community in meaningful ways.

Designing with a team means positioning all members in a horizontal structure of hierarchy so that all feel empowered to bring their ideas, speak their mind, and play a role in final decisions. This may be a natural orientation in your organization, and thus, you would just need to replicate it for your learning space design journey. But for other organizations, this is a new way of operating, and it will require practice and intentional conversation to get into this frame of design.

For those looking to make changes that last beyond the leader, impact in meaningful ways, and are understood within the school and the larger community, consider these steps to activating your design team.

Choosing Your Team

One of the biggest mistakes that design leaders can make is choosing a team that is too large to have meaningful conversations about design. I’m imagining that you were waiting for the normal guidance about a diverse group that represents a number of voices in the school community, and yes, this is important, but balance this need with the knowledge that effective design teams usually feature no more than 7-9 people. Each of these members should then have their own “friends of the design team” to allow more representation.

Establishing Your Purpose

Design teams can wander in the forest of change for a long time without purpose. As the design leader, it is essential that there are three levels of purpose for your standing design team. The first is an immediate need that is smaller and has the ability to move from start to finish in less than 90 days. This could be to gather input from stakeholders, observe the building through a space audit or begin the process of addition by subtraction. The second is a longer goal that is connected to a budget. This project or set of projects should be completed in one, but no longer than two semesters. These are beachhead projects that begin the inertia of change. This can include shifts in some classrooms, library redesign, an outdoor classroom, or another space like the lobby or main office.  The third purpose should be the ongoing need for change as it relates to space. How will this design team keep intentional space design as a high priority among staff and within the greater community of parents and patrons?

Creating Roles

We do this with great regularity in cooperative groups with students, but we often fail to  establish roles for adult groups. Roles are empowering. Roles create a needed level of accountability. Roles keep us from blind spots in the design process. Sure you can be creative with your role names and allow roles like purveyor of student voice, but the key is for individuals to know that their role is essential for the team to produce optimal results. In the past, my design teams have used the following five roles, but there are many other options based on your situation.

  • Question Seeker
  • Liaison to Invisible Staff Voices
  • Maintainer of Student Needs
  • Community/Social Media Manager
  • The What’s The Worst That Could Happen Person

Go Now Quickly

The first three steps aren’t a three month process. Think in weeks not months as it is essential for team members to enter their roles with fresh eyes. The school design team has a few months where they can look at everything in a fresh way. They can notice the building in a new way with their new team and their new role, but this freshness fades. The activation of a design team means making the most of this period. Take time to walk the building slowly, identify areas of concern that don’t meet the expectations of the building visually, seek input from others, ask questions, take pictures, and bring ideas from other spaces. Design teams do some of their best work in the first ninety days of their activation.


Your design team needs early wins, so get into a pattern of think, design, and act. Many school cultures have a tradition of think, talk, think, talk, and act maybe once we have talked some more. Effective design teams break this pattern. They identify an issue, design solutions, and take the first steps. Yes, budgets, approval processes and a hundred other things can slow things down, but make sure to choose some items in which the team has full control and empower them to act. The hard stuff may take some perseverance, but the easy stuff can build momentum.

Craft a Common Message

The final piece of activating a school design team is messaging. As a team, it is essential to success that everyone can articulate the purpose, process, and plan to all audiences. Change can foster mistrust and misunderstanding, so all members of the team also have the role of marketing manager. Effective design solutions must be marketed to those beyond the design team. Before leaving every design meeting, it is worth having the team articulate the 3-4 bullet points that they want others to hear about the conversations and decisions that the team is making. Common language reduces confusion. It builds a sense of transparency, and it allows the team to remain on the same page for a longer period of time as more and more small decisions become a collection of missional design changes that positively impact teaching and learning.

About Dr. Robert Dillon

Dr. Robert Dillon has served as a thought leader in education over the last twenty-five years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak and lead learning throughout the world as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is the author of six books on intentional design in learning. The latest book, The Space: A Guide for Leaders will be released in February and available wherever you get your books.