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Planning with empathy: Tools to guide complex design processes

Spatial design and territorial planning is increasingly confronted by complex challenges that could be mitigated through a service oriented approach to design.

Service design is a growing discipline that helps transform how products, services and digital experiences are delivered. Spatial design disciplines, such as urbanism and architecture, have much to gain from these methods and approaches – offering constructive ways to deal with complexity and deliver projects well suited to end-users. Should spatial and service design be combined or treated as two distinct and complementary segments of design that can help cities improve health and well-being?

The design of spaces, goods and services

Service design is a growing discipline which has helped transform how products, services and digital experiences are delivered. Spatial planning and design have much to gain from these methods and approaches, to address complexity and render projects more connected to end-users. Service design has relatively recently emerged as a discipline and remains a convergence of industrial design, graphic design, sociology, psychology, business administration and other domains. With roots in the growth of service-based economies from the 1950’s, experiences were increasingly treated as a product that could be designed. By the 1970’s, services were increasingly built into physical products, resulting in product-based services and service-based products. Understanding how an ‘end-user’ engaged with a product or service helped drive a radically different approach to design whereby products or services are constantly tested or prototyped to validate the outcome before it is launched onto the market (Stickdorn & Schneider 2011).


Spatial planning functions on a very different scale and timeframe than the design of many products and services. For example, a website can take weeks or months from design to implementation, while a spatial plan can take years or decades. Service design has been slow to be adopted in spatial design projects due in part to the new skills required and possibly because it is treated as unnecessary or a distraction. Examples of alignment of spatial and service design focused largely on institutional projects such as hospitals or infrastructure such as airports.


2022 ISOCARP conference in Brussels


Case study: Rue Haute

Year: 2022


Adrian Vickery Hill, Laurens Van der Cruyssen, Peter-Willem Vermeersch (Archipelago / KU Leuven), Jo Van Hees (Archipelago)

Location: Brussels

Team: Adrian Hill, Laurens Van der Cruyssen

Sector: Public space & community

Services: Vision, sharing knowledge, engagement

The case study project

The Site Haute social housing site consists of a little over 200 apartments and once housed some 400-450 people. The eight buildings were built largely between the 1950’s and 1970’s and consists of 5-13 storey modernist style blocks surrounding two public squares. The site contains a number of outdated or under-used spaces. It contains a space dedicated to a crèche on the 13th storey of the tallest building, an activity which has since been considered inappropriate. There are various shops and communal spaces, which have become degraded or are difficult to use. It also contains public spaces which are regularly inhabited by youth from the neighbourhood, resulting in anti-social behaviour.


The complex is owned and managed by the City of Brussels’ social housing agency, Logement Bruxellois / Woning Brussel, and is one of various housing complexes in the neighbourhood under management by the housing service which is currently undergoing renovation. The site is located in Les Marolles (FR) / De Marollen (NL), one of Brussels’ densest, poorest, yet most diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods.


In 2022, a team involving Brussels based practitioners from four practices (archipelago, Office U, Osmos Network and Tractabel) were commissioned to conduct a feasibility study for the site. 

Four quadrants of design

Spatial design and services design are complementary but share different traits which make it hard to expect a design to practice simultaneously from the mindset of a spatial design and a services or any other form of design. 


One way to look at distinctions in design disciplines is through Richard Buchanan’s 1992 seminal paper titled “Four Classes of Design”, where he highlighted the need to consider complexity in design. Building on this concept, it is possible to plot various design disciplines across two axes.


Design with empathy

Empathy is a term used regularly within service design to stress that there is a focus on understanding the needs of the end-user. Empathy can be distinguished by cognitive empathy (imagining and seeing through one’s eyes) and affective empathy (being able to feel similar feelings to those experienced by someone else). Both cognitive and affective empathy have a reflexive impact on the designer as  it changes the way one perceives a situation (Cox et al 2012). The designer thus becomes a medium for the needs of the end-user. In service design, the design brief is often contested during the research phase and reframed. The outcomes may not be clear from the outset, problems may be addressed in a wide range of ways – through a service, through the development of a tool or a space.


Spatial design approaches problems from a different cognitive perspective, whereby space is a medium to address the design brief.  The scope, brief or budget of spatial design is often well defined.

Case study experience

Analysis phase: Designing for a population of 400-500 people can be extremely challenging, especially for a site containing a diverse population.  One of the key outcomes from the service design process is a collection of personas and user-journeys which are tools to help designers empathise with the end-users.


In this project a total of nine personas were created. The personas revealed issues and opportunities that may not have emerged through the interviews or analysis phase. For example, the persona of a concierge was made. In practice the project has been without a concierge for many years. The concierge’s persona revealed questions around the need for this role and larger governance on the site.  Another outcome came from the need of communal space within the site to build community. This had been identified by the housing agency and other stakeholders. The personas offered a nuanced insight into what kinds of spaces would be needed. Personas and user-journeys have their limitations and suffer critique (Lino & Basoli 2020), but they remain a valuable tool if interpreted by an experienced practitioner.


Scenario delevopment phase:This phase focused on developing and testing scenarios.


Before the scenarios were developed, the personas were presented to the spatial designers. This gave the spatial designers a chance to ask specific questions that could be elaborated or role-played by the service designer.  Through representing the personas, it was possible to consider nuanced design solutions.


Concept development phase: This phase, unrealised at the time of writing, involves combining aspects of each of the scenarios into a masterplan project.


This selected scenario will be tested through a focus group. Considering that focus groups will involve a wide variety of participants, some with very poor literacy skills of classic design tools (such as plans and models) it is important to identify issues that are of value. Empathy with the outcomes of the analysis and personas can help identify those issues that will generate useful dialogue. 


Consolidation phase: At this phase, the two forms of design consolidated the outcomes of the project in very different ways. The spatial designers wrapped up their work in the form of conceptual plans, tables and even visualisations of the results. The service design focused on how to communicate the outcome with the stakeholders that were engaged throughout the project.


Reflection – aligning spaces and service

The case study shows the virtue of having a team member or partner that takes responsibility for the service design and helps to interpret the results for the spatial designers. This shows that spatial and service design are best if conducted as parallel or symbiotic elements of a design team in much the same way as an architect would outsource engineering. 


As a closing reflection, this case study involved a multi-disciplinary design team, with very complementary skills and an eagerness to collaborate. In practice, the value of service design could be lost or considered overwhelming if the spatial design team or the client is unprepared to embrace the design approach.


Further reading



Cox, C.L. et al (2012) The balance between feeling and knowing: affective and cognitive empathy are reflected in the brain’s intrinsic functional dynamics, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 7, Issue 6, August 2012, Pages 727–737


Lino, C. & Bazoli, G. (2020) The trouble with Personas, https://www.designit.com/stories/point-of-view/mindset-over-matter-part-one blog post accessed 28/8/2022.


Stickdorn, M. & Schneider, J. (ed) 2011 This is Service Design Thinking, BIS Publishers, Amsterdam.

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