The embodied designer: A model for community-based transition planning

Kimberley Crofts
5 min readJul 7, 2021

One of the aims of my PhD is to investigate roles for a designer within the process of transition planning within a community. So far, this has led me to investigate aspects of mindset and posture, particularly around the acknowledgement of positionality and sharing of power.

I have come across a model of the embodied researcher from Lummina Horlings, Marta Nieto-Romero, Siri Pisters & Katriina Soini (2020) that they developed from a model from Julia Wittmayer and Niko Schäpke (2014). This has made me think about how to extend this model to articulating the roles, skills, and mindsets a designer needs to join in with communities as they plan for transition.

Roles for researchers in placed-based research are described by Horlings et al. (2020) as embodying practices informed by the head, heart, hands, and feet. See their diagram:

The embodied researcher model for place-based research (Horlings et al. 2020)

Extending their model from research to design, I initially developed a model for the embodied designer (below), that described four key skills areas for a designer in community-based transition planning. These are:

  • Sensemaking (the head): Translating theory for practical use
  • Relationality (the heart): Making space for collective inquiry
  • Engaging in context (the hands): Amplifying concerns, assets, and networks
  • Taking action (the feet): Creating vehicles for collective action.
Draft model for the embodied designer

This model, though, seemed incomplete and a little rough around the edges, much like the drawing of the person I borrowed to make the model.

Then, last night on twitter, Gabriele Bammer shared some work from Flurina Schneider, Theresa Tribaldos, and Stefanie Burkhart. In their model, which they call the Network Compass, these researchers have created a strategic tool to identify and explore potentials for co-production across sustainability-oriented research networks. The model sets out four interrelated fields of action that networks can take toward co-production of knowledge. Within each of the four fields of action are a smaller subset of practical activities that contribute to achieving the aims of its field, or several other fields.

The Network Compass is shown below:

Network Compass (Schneider et al. 2021).

This seemed like a promising model to draw upon, particularly because it aligns with the participatory action approach I am taking in my work. Rather than thinking that knowledge is a one-way path from expert to non-expert, this new model embraces co-production of knowledge. Much better.

Developing my earlier model, the embodied designer could play a role in place-based, sustainable transitions through:

  • Sensemaking: Supporting the co-production of knowledge (the head);
  • Connecting: Creating connections and making space for collective dialogue (the heart);
  • Amplifying: Fostering and amplifying community assets (the hands); and
  • Acting: Creating vehicles for collective action (the feet).

I’ve quickly sketched out this model using the style of the Schneider Network Compass. I am not totally happy with this, but will continue to investigate through the PhD. Any suggestions most welcome.

A model for design in place-based transition planning (Crofts, 2021)

Looking at it now, an hour after I created it, my first thoughts are that (1) I need to get Adobe products back in my life to create diagrams, and (2) that perhaps I should overlay some more of the mindsets I am looking at for a redirected practice of design (following Boehnert, 2018; Escobar, 2018; Fry, 2017). In essence a redirected practice of design would entail:

  • Designing with care;
  • Rethinking the designer’s posture;
  • Acknowledgement of positionality;
  • Being prepared to be changed;
  • Taking an activist stance;
  • Extending the temporal constraints of design projects; and
  • Making space and distributing power.

Or perhaps this would make it too complex. I look at the model of Equity-Centred Community Design (ECCD) from the Creative Reaction Lab in St Louis, for example, and admire not just the approach, but the visual simplicity of the diagram. ECCD is an asset-based approach to community development that is explicitly concerned with helping a community learn and develop tools to dismantle systemic oppression (Creative Reaction Lab, 2018). Through interrogating how dominant narratives have come to be and then working to uncover other histories which have been concealed, ECCD seeks to create more diverse futures based on pluriversal interpretations of the past (ibid.).

Model for Equity-Centred Community Design (Creative Reaction Lab, 2018).


Boehnert, J. (2018). Design, Ecology, Politics. Bloomsbury Academic.

Creative Reaction Lab. (2018). Equity-Centered Community Design: Field Guide.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Duke University Press.

Fry, T. (2017). Design for/by “The Global South.” Design Philosophy Papers, 15(1), 3–37.

Horlings, L. G., Nieto-Romero, M., Pisters, S., & Soini, K. (2020). Operationalising transformative sustainability science through place-based research: the role of researchers. Sustainability Science, 15(2), 467–484.

Schneider, F., Tribaldos, T., Adler, C., Biggs, R. (Oonsie), de Bremond, A., Buser, T., Krug, C., Loutre, M. F., Moore, S., Norström, A. v., Paulavets, K., Urbach, D., Spehn, E., Wülser, G., & Zondervan, R. (2021). Co-production of knowledge and sustainability transformations: a strategic compass for global research networks. In Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Vol. 49, 127–142. Elsevier B.V.

Wittmayer J.M. & Schäpke, N. (2014). Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. Sustain Sci 9(4):483–496



Kimberley Crofts

Strategic designer and researcher on a quest for sustainable futures through a PhD in participatory methods.