Come To The Table

"If I were to set a place for you, would you join me at the table?"

Are you getting input from all the right people?

This question was posed to a small group of parks and recreation directors, superintendents, and field foremen. It was the premise of an hour-long talk I gave last week at a Training Institute Conference.

To my fortune, everyone was more than willing to come to the table.

Blindly trusting that the audience would enjoy sharing a table (stage) with me, I crafted an interactive presentation for my talk. As many as six people were needed to volunteer to lead us through the main course of the presentation.

I asked the attendees to rise up, be bold, and participate convincingly in a role-playing exercise. And that they did--willingly and with enthusiasm.

The participants’ role was simple: I displayed a fictitious city project that needed to be designed, then asked for volunteer presenters to fill the roles of mayor, staff, consultant, John Q. Public, and the media. They were to convincingly explain what they felt was most important to the project to the rest of us. To emphasize the point(s), everything stated was captured on easel tablets.

When finished, commonalities and stark differences were compared in each priority list.

Ahhh, nothing like a good, old-fashioned, hour-long, lets-use-some-markers, write-it-all-down, laugh-and-have-a-good-time, brainstorming charette!

This simple exercise demonstrated to all in attendance the value of understanding opinions, ideas, and perspectives at the design table. The productive participation of the group was an indication that they truly wanted to be at the table and could contribute to the design discussion if given the opportunity!

For the entire hour, we had a really good time. In fact, we had a blast.

For the latter half of my career, I have accepted an attitude that the professional service provided is for the sole benefit of the person paying the invoice. No longer do I try to design a project worthy of a magazine cover first, and satisfy the client's criteria second. I have long since flip-flopped those priorities when providing services to my clients.

The designer has a responsibility to be receptive to input, influence and interpret the goals established (from being at the table), and mold a design solution that functions well, has visual appeal, can be built, is responsive to needs, is respectful of budgets, and, perhaps most importantly, is maintainable.

It is the last point--"is maintainable"--that can sometimes do us in as designers.

Have you ever wondered why, when visiting a project years after its installation, you find that somehow someone, for some reason, has changed the design?

More times than not, a field-changed design happened because an easing of maintenance time, effort, and expense was needed. Not having the right conversation with the right folks at the right time may have happened as well. And perhaps a more objective solution was deserving had we first acknowledged "the design will only be as good as the maintenance it gets".

Admittedly, we all have our usual table invitation list. But who are we missing? Should the guy who pushes the mower, edges the walk, scrubs the park restroom, rakes the infield, schedules the irrigation, manages personnel, buys equipment, or establishes a maintenance budget each year be at our table?

Heck yeah...if they can! Maybe those guys are the people we really need to pull up a chair and join the table conversation from the get-go. If we let them be a part of the presentation, we just might gain a whole new perspective to the design approach.

We all have different tastes in food and beverage, but that should not preclude anyone from being at the table--talking, trying, and tempting our likes and dislikes with as many pertinent opinions as the table can hold.

This weekend, as you sit in a restaurant, coffee shop, your dining room, or cross-legged on the living room floor, look around. See if everyone needed at the table is there with you. Extend invitations to others if necessary, and by all means have some productive fun with your table discussions.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Forth Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at or by twitter at @TMay82