Speed-dating your design and research project: Understanding different types of narratives in design and planning practices

Speed-dating your research and design project: Understanding different types of narratives in design and planning practices


One of the pillars of the course Methodology for Urbanism (TU Delft) is the study of the complementarity between TEXT and IMAGE. We believe that designs and plans are made not only of drawings, maps and photographs; they are also made of STORIES or NARRATIVES. In fact, a design IS a narrative of how something should or ought to work in practice. This narrative is composed by IMAGES (drawings, photographs, maps, films) and TEXT (reports, written explanations, captions, map keys but also oral presentations and explanations).

Whenever you design or plan, you use images and words to explain your ideas. The idea that “images speak for themselves” is a fallacy: images and words are complementary and help us convey information in a much more meaningful way.

Words can deliver information that images have a hard time conveying. Likewise, images might contain information impossible to convey otherwise. But there should be no primacy of one over the other in design and planning studies: they are complementary to each other and help us convey complex messages about actions and spatial interventions.

The complementarity between TEXT and IMAGE is one of the EIGHT CRITERIA put forward by BIGGS and BUCHLER (2008) to qualify the relationship between design practice disciplines and academic research. Their hypothesis is that it is very difficult to understand and evaluate research in practice-based disciplines (like Urbanism) because they cannot be evaluated according to traditional academic criteria. Therefore, we need a special set of criteria to understand and evaluate research in the practice-based disciplines.

They divide these criteria in two groups: the NECESSARY criteria for ANY academic research (both practice-based and traditional research) and the four additional criteria for practice based disciplines. The four NECESSARY criteria for any valid academic research are: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS, KNOWLEDGE (a theoretical framework), METHODS and AUDIENCE (We explore each of these criteria in different exercises).

The FOUR ADDITIONAL CRITERIA for practice-based research are: ROLE OF TEXT AND IMAGE, RELATIONSHIP OF FORM AND CONTENT, FUNCTION OF RHETORIC, and FUNCTION OF EXPERIENCE. (Again, we explain and explore these criteria in different exercises, but you can read the whole paper by BIGGS and BUCHLER HERE).

In the SPEED DATING exercise, we humorously put forward four types of story telling, differentiated mainly by their length and level of complexity they must have to convey a meaningful and engaging message to each type of listener. The idea is to make students aware of the necessity to structure the narratives that accompany their research and design projects in many different ways. These are the four types:

  1.  The traditional TU DELFT presentation:  At TU Delft, individual presentations last typically 20-30 minutes. Students must tell an audience of specialists (teachers and colleagues) the whole content of their research and design, with the aid of PowerPoint presentations, models and posters. In this mode of story telling, students must display abundant knowledge on the theme they have chosen. They also need to present an engaging story that will entice their audience and make them interested in the project. The audience must understand WHY that project is worth doing and what is the student’s contribution to the current debate on that theme. They can SEE the designs and be enticed by them, but they also need to understand why those designs are relevant. Students must PROBLEMATIZE the issue they are tackling. To ‘problematize’ means to point out what are the issues or challenges that must be addressed. Without a problem, the audience is likely to think, “why am I hearing to this”?
  2. The Cocktail Chat: In the cocktail chat, you meet someone at a party, and they want to know what are you doing at the moment. You are very enthusiastic about your project, and you want the person to understand what it is all about. However, you don’t want to bore that person to death, so you must keep the level of language to a conversational level (avoid jargon and technical terms. Keep the explanation simple) and the length of the explanation should be under 10 or 5 minutes. However, you also need to explain the context, problematize (What is the issue? Why is this an issue worth tackling?) and your ideas about how to come to good results. All this with a drink in your hands and a smile on your face!
  3. The Elevator Version: In the elevator version, you must tell the content of your research and design project to a very important person whom you want to guide your project, in just less than TWO MINUTES. The listener is in a hurry, so you must highlight the core theme of your research and design project and WHY IT IS WORTH DOING. Why is it relevant? And why is your approach original? Obviously, the structure of the account must be very economic, so the context, the issue and the approach must be explained very shortly. Yet, the account must be compelling enough to attract that person’s interest. Obviously, the way you speak and your body language are also very important (just like they are in the other versions).
  4. The Grandmother’s version: Without willing to sound patronizing towards grandmothers (we are sure there are nuclear physicists who are grandmothers), most of our grandmothers have not had technical training and are not familiar with issues of urban planning and design. Yet, they are citizens and have the right to understand our ideas about urban development. We use the figure of grandmothers to represent all non-experts, common citizens who need to understand our ideas just as our teachers do. In this style of story telling, the level of the language must be controlled to convey ideas clearly and simply, but without patronizing the listener. The complexity of the issue must also be explained, but in a way that makes sense to the listener. If you are tackling an issue of urbanization that is perceived by others as a problem, you probably will be able to explain it in terms that are understandable by all. We emphasize, however, the need to respect each individual’s knowledge and to use that knowledge to add to the explanation. All the same elements described in the previous versions must be there, but here your personal empathy, body language and delivery (the way you deliver a speech) are primordial.


In PAIRS and STANDING UP IN FRONT OF EACH OTHER, students need to tell one another the core of their projects in just ONE MINUTE. This is the “elevator version” (a very summarized version of their research and design project). This must repeated at least 6 to 8 times, with different partners, and time must be kept.

By doing this, we expect students will realize it is possible to tell a good story in a very short time, but in order to do so they need to choose what elements are essential. The narrative, though compact, needs to be structured, engaging and ought to contain a location, a perceived “problem” or an issue and they ways they are using to tackle that problem.

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