Space Design in Boulder Valley School District

Space Design

Teams look for analogous inspiration at local coffee shops and the hospital.

Teams look for analogous inspiration at local coffee shops and the hospital.

The majority of the schools that participated from Boulder Valley School District were preparing to embark on a building design/redesign due to a recent bond measure in Boulder County.  For our fourth (and final) workshop we deviated from the standard mindsets workshop and developed a session focused on space design/redesign.  The educators jumped into this final workshop with lots of energy! As facilitators, it was great to be able to release the participants onto their own project with all of the tools and enthusiasm they had built through the previous three workshops. It was fantastic to see all of the pieces come together in an authentic design challenge.  One educator came up to us during a break and said: “This is amazing! Best workshop yet!”

Adapt it:

In order to design around the space of our Boulder Valley School District educators, we adapted the structure of something that the d. school was doing (in their ARC 2 workshop series) and applied it in a different setting. In the d. school’s ARC 2 workshops, the d. school home team and additional designers from the professional design community worked with teachers and staff in action learning, design challenges (*link to d. home team blog*).  To meet the needs of our Colorado participants, we changed the format from working with one school at a time and instead adapted it to work with several schools from a single school district.

Time Travel

We began our day with the “1713 activity” in which our educators had to describe an ipad to a time traveler from the year 1713.  As educators we have to communicate to our students, and there are times new concepts will feel as foreign to our students as modern technology would to someone from the year 1713!  As the Boulder Valley educators work on space redesign, they are communicating with architects and other design professionals.  This exercise helped highlight the importance of providing adequate context.  Participants reflected on strategic ways to bridge the communication gaps that can occur between the “different languages” of professionals or between students and teachers.

Looking for Analogous Inspiration

As the teams dove into thinking about their own school design/redesign we sent them to a variety of local spaces to make quick observations around intended and unintended effects of different spaces.  Teams went to coffee shops, hospitals, churches and co-working spaces and returned with a variety of interesting insights.  For example, at a co-working space for digital professionals they had developed a lot of small collaborative spaces but found that individuals would reserve the space and use it for solo work because they didn’t have much use for small-scale collaboration.  This offered a great example of the importance of understanding the needs of your end user.


At long last we gave the educators the challenge they had been waiting for: to design or redesign a space in their school to meet a specific need.  First, they had to decide on a space.  We had the participants individually choose a space, map the desired behaviors for that space, and reflect and record both the intentional and unintentional behaviors that currently happen in that space.  They then had time to share the results of their mapping exercises with a group and worked together to narrow the options down to 1 or 2 spaces that they were excited to focus on for the day.  Most of our participants picked a common space due to the collaborative nature of the challenge such as: the cafeteria, the school entrance, or the drop off area.  They were then given a bunch of pictures of different spaces that could offer additional analogous inspiration for their space design. 

A Boulder elementary school reimagines their community and cafeteria space.

A Boulder elementary school reimagines their community and cafeteria space.

Levers for Change

The group then looked at specific levers related to space such as ambience, interactions, function, surfaces, etc. and analyzed how each lever related to their own space based on assumptions they had made, a pain point of that space, or an analogous space they wanted to create. Our educators used a lever form to tackle these challenges and mapped how they could achieve their desired outcomes using the different levers: “how might we make the cafeteria more peaceful using lever x”.


The biggest challenge we faced in our final workshop is that we were designing for students without any students!  Because we were working with an entire district instead of a single school, we weren’t designing on-site and some of the schools were far away from our workshop location. It would have been fantastic to bring the students into the process; without their involvement it felt a little like adults designing for adults and was missing the authentic feeling of working directly with the students.

Adapt it:

To work around this challenge in the future we could conduct pre-interviews with students at each of the schools, visit one or more sites, or actually hold this workshop on-site at one school.

Wrapping it all up

Our final workshop ended with an in depth debrief during which the participants shared out what the key moment(s) had been for them during the 4 sessions; at what point did they feel that their mindset had shifted?

“Based on this experience we are going to slow down the building design process to make sure that we really get it right.”

“Since starting the trainings, my thought processes are less predictable. I jump to less conclusions. I seek opinions of multiple people. I ask more and better questions. Of the most value to me, I notice myself embracing more the boundless creativity that I see among myself and others.”