Blog: Making Meaning with Intentional Design

What does it mean to approach the work we do through a framework of intentional design?

Intention, by definition, means:  ​a thing intended; an aim or plan. Design, by definition, means: purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object. If we are looking at definition alone, the 2 words provide a bit of an oxymoron. To design means to act with intention, and to be intentional means to execute a design. Is it ironic then, that we execute so many designs without intention?

Intentional design is the process of implementing systems and plans in a way that is intentional, creates meaningful outcomes and is based in the values of a community.

Intentional design is a commitment to a process, not a one time thing.

Intentional Design in Action

As a teacher, I intentionally design the learning environment for my students to be a space where students are held accountable for their actions, are given opportunities to make meaning of the learning through project-based learning, and are aware of the reason that systems are in place. By intentionally committing to these outcomes, everything I plan for my students can be based in these values. Rather than just jumping in at the beginning of the school year and assuming that my students know how to do “school”, and more importantly, why they do “school”, I take the time to place a transparency sheet over my classroom, and bit by bit, break it down so that students can see it all. If my classroom is a machine that I’ve intentionally designed, then students can not only operate the machine, but name the parts, improve the machine, take it apart and put it back together, and at the end of the day, tell me why the machine exists.

A school leader might intentionally design the adult community, the faculty, by co-constructing concrete values that hold the faculty accountable to one another, and in the fast and hard times of the school year, gives the adults something meaningful to fall back on. An intentionally designed community means that everything that we do as a school holds a purpose, feels meaningful and helps the adults collectively get to the outcomes they want. They might sacrifice one curriculum for the sake of another, or implement one system over another, but the decisions are grounded in collective values. A strong, intentionally designed backbone contributes to schools that pride themselves in strong workplace culture, which research shows permeates beyond the adults and into the culture that the kids live and breathe daily too.

Communities are like ecosystems- they all have needs, no matter how big or small. By identifying the needs of a community, we add meaning to the goals and outcomes that we “produce” or create. Intentional design isn’t just about feeling good in your workplace, in your community (although this is a generous side effect!). The truth of the matter is, if we don’t intentionally design our communities, our choices, lack of dialogue, and willingness to settle for “the way things are” will impact future generations, and the sustainability of the future.

The truth of the matter is, if we don't intentionally design our communities, our choices, lack of dialogue, and willingness to settle for "the way things are" will impact future generations, and the sustainability of the future.

Sustainability and Intentional Design

Communities that are grounded in common values lead to better dialogue, problem-solving, team collaboration, and good and honest feedback. With kids, this is constantly tested through deeper-learning models, such as project-based learning, the project-based practice, inquiry… students caring about their learning in a way that they feel invested in the outcomes of their work. With adults, it leads to less passive aggression in the workplace, more dialogue, and more movement towards common goals.

So what does this have to with sustainability? The definition of sustainability includes the “maintenance of ecological balance” – so whether we’re talking about sustainability in the context of the urgency of climate change, the preservation of language, or the future of a small community that is plagued by outward mobility, these are all communities that are under the stress of maintaining an ecological balance that allows for a sustainable future.

If we don’t take the time to design our systems and processes more intentionally, that stress will continue. As educators, we think about the future everyday… the future of our students. The process of intentional design ensures that their future is one that they can hold a transparency sheet up to, and not only drive towards it, but build it as well.