September 22, 2022

Local Design Workshops Explained

Mackenzie Webb
Example of a Design Workshop activity from Midway, AL.

Every local design workshop hosted by the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) starts the same way: with community members rallying around a vision for a brighter future. CIRD’s design workshops offer rural communities the chance to work with a national team of designers, architects, and planners to develop design concepts that can help turn that vision into a reality. With support from the CIRD resource team, local design workshops bring together local residents and leaders from local non-profits, community organizations, and government to develop actionable solutions to a specific design challenge.

In December 2021, CIRD hosted a local design workshop with the Merritt Community Complex Foundation in Midway, Alabama. Over the course of three days, community members and CIRD’s resource team developed design concepts to transform a shuttered school campus into a vibrant hub for education, health care, and commerce. Using this workshop as an example, here’s how CIRD’s local design workshops come to life.


The process of preparing for the workshop begins with identifying and clarifying the design challenge. This challenge is the specific problem the designs are trying to solve. For the Midway workshop, the challenge was to transform the closed Merritt School into a community center that can serve as a hub for basic but vital services that residents currently struggle to access.

With the challenge identified, the CIRD team and our local partner begin to engage the community. In the months leading up to the workshop, CIRD’s lead design partner, To Be Done Studio, held a series of virtual community engagement meetings in partnership with the Merritt team. In addition to the virtual community engagement activities, the Merritt team developed a paper survey to help determine the greatest needs and opportunities for programming within the new complex. The goal was to figure out “what the community was asking for,” explains Dorie Phillips, the leader of the Merritt team. With over 700 responses from residents of Midway and surrounding towns, the survey helped the design team understand the community’s goals and simultaneously energized the local community to support the project.

To prepare for each workshop, CIRD also organizes a specific resource team of additional landscape architects, planners, architects, and allied professionals from towns near the workshop community and from around the country. The resource team lends their experience and expertise in design, augmenting CIRD’s core staff to help the community solve its design challenge. CIRD’s design partner To Be Done Studio leads each resource team. For the Midway workshop, the team pulled from regional universities, which included:

  • Kevin Moore, Chair of Interior Architecture, Auburn University School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Five of Kevin’s students also participated, bringing invaluable perspective and energy to the workshop and to post-workshop activities, and offering the students a hands-on experience with community engaged design.
  • Matt Leavell, representing the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development
  • Dr. Wesley Henderson, representing Tuskegee University’s Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science.

Most design workshops also include a site visit in preparation, often several months before the event. This offers CIRD’s team the chance to make detailed measurements, take photographs, and start generating ideas based on seeing the site in person. For the Midway workshop and due to COVID constraints on travel, the site visit took place during the morning of the first day of the workshop.

With the design challenge identified, community meetings complete, resource team organized, and site visited, it’s time for the workshop!

The Design Workshop

Over the three or four days of the local design workshop, community members, local leaders, and CIRD’s team work together to design a solution to the identified community challenge. The workshop takes the form of a charette, an intensive period of work which constantly moves back and forth between community input and design development that responds to community input. This ensures that the community is involved throughout the design process and that their thoughts and ideas drive each refinement of the design concept being developed.

Building on the pre-workshop community feedback, the CIRD team prepared co-design activities and a visual preference exercise as primary engagement tools during the workshop. In the co-design activities, community members were given an outline of the school building and colored sticky notes. Participants wrote down things they’d like to see included in the community complex on the sticky notes and arranged them on the outline in the way they thought was best. Dorie notes that this was “a way of communicating what kind of design each of us prefers. And, when people have these interactives in front of them, interesting ideas emerge.

The charette also included a visual preference exercise. Based on the community meetings from before the workshop, the resource team assembled posters of design ideas. Each showed a variety of options for a single design element—for example, six different ideas for a food space, ranging from an indoor café/coffee shop to an outdoor picnic area. Participants tagged red dots to the posters to mark which designs they preferred.  

In between these sessions of community feedback, CIRD’s designers were hard at work developing concept plans based on the feedback they’d just received. As they got more community input on their work-in-progress designs, the team was able to refine their work to meet the community’s vision. At the end of the workshop, CIRD’s team presented a draft of the final designs in a large community meeting.

The Design Book

The design workshop doesn’t end with that community presentation. In the weeks following the workshop, CIRD’s team finalizes the designs and organizes everything they’ve learned into a design book. This book includes photos from the workshop, a summary of engagement activities, project and community history, and final design concept drawings along with recommendations from CIRD’s team for additional funding opportunities across the project’s phases. This book serves as both a guidepost for the project’s next steps and a useful tool to help secure funding to turn the designs into reality.

Explore the Midway Design Book here

Ongoing Engagement

CIRD also fosters relationships between our local partners and peer organizations from around the country. The Merritt team has continued to engage with other communities in the CIRD Design Learning Cohort throughout 2022. The cohort program offers additional access to CIRD’s technical assistance and peer learning with other rural community leaders. It also allows the ongoing work in Midway to inform national rural design conversations.

CIRD’s local design workshops are a powerful way for communities to engage key stakeholders, develop solutions to their design challenge, learn next steps, and gain a resource to help them raise the funds to move their project forward—all at the same time. If you’d like to work with CIRD to host a local design workshop, our website includes more information on how to apply. We will be opening a request for applications again in Spring 2023. You can sign up for our newsletter to get notified when the opportunity opens.