Leicester Urban Observatory

What is Design Literacy?

Urban Perspectives on Design Literacy Summer School, Loughborough University and Leicester City Council, 20–21 June 2019

As noted earlier on this site, the question ‘What is design literacy?’ recently attracted the attention of practitioners and academics at a second Leicester Urban Observatory summer school held at Loughborough University and in the City of Leicester. Staged over two days, the first part took place at Loughborough, hosted by the Urbanism strand of the institution’s internationally recognised Built Environment research beacon. The second day was in Leicester, first at Maber Architects and then City Hall (a base for further field exploration of some real planning problems faced by city planners).

Design Research Society president, Professor Lady Rachel Cooper OBE (Distinguished Professor of Design Management and Policy, Lancaster University) led proceedings by providing insight into the sensory aesthetics of a city. Her response to a perceived government need for design literacy focused on the necessity for design in city decision-making, and the way design should be considered in all policy decisions about places, services and overall experience.

Despite its inclusion in The Farrell Review* design literacy is not understood by those working either in academia or at the heart of city governance: nobody yet seems to know what it stands for. Judging by the range of summer school participants – spanning architecture, arts practice, arts management, conservation, curation, design, design management, engineering, graphic design, human geography, landscape architecture, librarianship, planning, research, urban design and urban studies – a useful interpretation is yet to emerge.

How will places be greatly improved if planners, landscape designers and highways engineers are more fluent in design literacy? The summer school did not provide quick answers: it’s clearly something that needs grappling with. However, at the event end, all agreed that good design is essential for good cities, but it remains to be seen if this is a consequence of so-called design literacy, whatever it may be.

A full review of the event can be located at:


An information pack for the ‘Urban Perspectives on Design Literacy’ summer school, including the full programme, information about session leaders and list of attendees, can be located at:


Dr Robert Harland | School of Design and Creative Arts | Loughborough University

Acknowledgements: the Urban Perspectives on Design Literacy Summer School was co-organised by Loughborough University and Leicester City Council, in conjunction with Leicester Urban Observatory and with the endorsement of the Design Research Society.

* See http://www.farrellreview.co.uk/