Brainstorming Refined and Redesigned: This unique collaborative process is key to DSGW’s innovative work

By Rebecca J. Lewis, FAIA, FACHA, CID
Principal, Director of Healthcare Design

In architecture school we are taught a fancy French word for a process of team collaboration and interactive, real-time brainstorming. It’s called a charette and you’ve probably never heard of it — unless you’re an architect or have worked with one. The truth is, what the process is called matters a lot less than how the process is integrated into the work a firm does.

There’s much more to it than simply telling a client you’ll be designing through this kind of process. You actually have to do it. And, even more so, you have to create a team and a culture that goes beyond accepting this process to requiring it.

How It Works

A charette is essentially an intense brainstorming period, involving the full team of designers working in close collaboration. For it to be successful the design team has to be comfortable drawing by hand, as speed of ideation is paramount and working on computers — while transformative for our industry — is still more time-consuming than sketching by hand.

The design team also needs to be open to instant, constructive criticism. Ideas are sketched, revised, rejected and expanded in a constant generative flow which can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with the project or more comfortable being creative on their own.

It’s also an excellent way to condense and concentrate the design period over a shorter period, which can turn into real time savings over the length of the project. Many of my clients are remote, for instance, and travelling nine hours for a single meeting isn’t in the best interest of anyone. Instead, I’ll bring a team with me and we’ll stay for a week, executing this process over and over again, creating a wealth of ideas and moving the project forward in leaps and bounds, far faster than I could remotely.

To execute it successfully, however, you have to build it into the process from day one. It’s crucial you and the client articulate your goals for the project, that you populate it with the right team, and that you include the client in the process.

How long a session lasts depends on the client and goals. For us, we’ve had some sessions last hours, while others have lasted days.

But, when done right, it can lead to fresh, innovative and exceptional work.

Why It Works

Beyond the benefits for remote clients, and the potential time savings over the life of a project, this process builds an immense amount of trust from day one. Clients are getting frequent access to the design process, making suggestions, and seeing those ideas sketched in real-time. There’s a strong sense of collaboration and buy-in, which helps spread enthusiasm for the project at the same time you’re gathering ideas from a diverse set of voices.

What To Call It

Such a crucial tool deserves a better word than charette. Our clients are an important part of the process, and they often don’t understand what we’re inviting them to take part in.

This kind of close collaboration, real-time brainstorming and instant feedback isn’t a charette. For us? It’s the synthesis process.