Our Tools

“Design: a fundamental human capacity that enables us to share by externalizing the internal; making material the immaterial; generating reality by transforming resources for human purposes.
Design Strategy: the bias or direction; understanding where you need to go next, and what you need to do to get there; the ways and means of reaching your destination or your goal.”

– Luigi Ferrara, Director, Institute without Boundaries

IwB Tools & Methods

The IwB uses a variety of interdisciplinary methods to inform its academic program, special projects, and professional projects. In all of the IwB’s work, students, faculty, mentors, and advisors share a commitment to collaborate, conceptualize, create, test and share in all aspects of the project from brainstorming to project completion.

Central to the IwB methodology is a hands-on approach to projects, a belief in the value of co-creation, the understanding of design as a capacity-building tool for communities, and the importance of working collaboratively to create holistic solutions to the complex problems facing our society.

The Institute continually refines its working processes and develops tools and frameworks for thinking about design challenges. Below we’ve listed a sample of our primary approaches and and tools that inform our academic, special projects, and professional projects divisions.

IwB Principles:

10 Challenges for Design

The IwB has identified 10 Challenges for Design, which it uses as guiding principles in all of its work.

  1. Respond to the needs of our world’s aging population so that this group of people can continue to contribute to society and lead healthy, engaging and vital lives.
  2. Provide coordinated assistance and reconstruction in cases of emergency, natural disaster, severe weather and man-made disasters.
  3. Develop shelter for all people that balances the utilization of resources and the distribution of opportunity between the developed and developing world.
  4. Create a new means of sustainable transportation for goods and services, that is either physical or virtual and that does not damage the environment.
  5. Preserve and enhance diverse identities and cultures while maintaining social cohesion and allowing for global migration flows.
  6. Feed the planet equitably while maintaining and enhancing soil quality and respecting the dignity of all species.
  7. Bring access, knowledge and understanding to people everywhere so that there is powerful and positive communication between nations.
  8. Imagine and develop clothing that extends our life and health while providing beauty, identity and personal self-expression.
  9. Design a world economic system that respects and rewards volunteer, social and community work.
  10. Create systems that regenerate, conserve and optimize the use of soil, water and air, thus maintaining the resources required to sustain life.

Our Approaches & Methods:


A charrette is an intensive collaborative process that brings together students and professionals from different disciplines. Over a few short days of brainstorming, discussion, and expert consultation, interdisciplinary teams create a broad range of ideas around a central theme and eventually focus in on a single concept. The charrette originated as a design process used by architects, urban planners, and designers to connect community members, developers, and professionals to address complex projects like neighbourhood planning, urban development, and construction projects. Working side by side in a charrette, these groups are able to develop feasible solutions that meet everyone’s needs. IwB students are given leadership roles as team facilitators, making them responsible for team collaboration of up to ten students from different programs and schools.

The term charrette is drawn from the late 1800s, where proctors at the École Des Beaux-Arts in Paris would circulate a cart (charrette) to collect drawing submissions as students rushed frantically to finish their work. The IwB charrette process develops a similar momentum, which is key to the success of the event. Charrettes are used at various points throughout the school year. The size varies greatly, ranging from IwB students exploring strategies for the major project, to events of over one hundred students visiting from foreign and local schools who design elements of the major project in detail.

IwB charrettes are informed by: interdisciplinary methods, co-creation, stakeholder and user engagement and whole systems practices.

View a sample of an IwB academic charrette handbook below:

View a sample of an IwB special projects/consulting charrette handbook below:

Design Communication


Through a series of courses, students learn the basics of communication and production using print, digital, and physical media. At various points during the year, students design events, installations, and information pieces that communicate stages of the major project to stakeholders, peers, and the general public. This helps to solidify design ideas, gain feedback from new audiences, generate research, and spread the word about the students’ work.


Design Research


Understanding the problem is the first step in any design process. The IwB uses design research to explore the context and establish baseline considerations and objectives for a successful design solution.

Both primary and secondary research methods are employed: field research activities include photo documentation, interviewing stakeholders, sketching, mapping, collecting numerical data, observation, and note taking. Desk research activities include traditional methods like literature reviews, market scans, and collecting design precedents, but also extend to the creation of “day in the life” user scenarios, testing design concepts, and conducting community engagement sessions to analyze current patterns to co-create solutions and get feedback about them in the field.

The design research process often uncovers key insights that lead directly to the most effective solutions—often these come from community members or stakeholders, but sometimes arise out of simple observation by “outsider eyes.”


Design Strategy


The IwB focuses on integrating design strategy in all projects. The Institute sees design strategy as a coordinated approach using all design formats to reach a client’s goals, and letting the nature of each design strategy evolve to fit particular challenges. The goal is not only to design a solution for an immediate problem but also to propose flexible frameworks and systems that communities can adapt to solve problems in the future.


Ecology of Innovation Approach


IwB uses an ecology of innovation approach to understanding and solving problems. Studying the complexity and interconnectedness of political, social, design, technical, and business innovation reveals that innovation is multi-directional and multi-faceted. A constellation of factors must align to make true and lasting innovation possible.

While social innovation may help us determine how we might want to live differently, technological innovation can build platforms that allow for these new possibilities to operate. Design innovation can contextualize those possibilities into formats we can understand and use, and business innovation can render the formats replicable and propagate them in society. Finally, political innovation can assist in institutionalizing innovation, creating a pervasive environment of innovation that becomes a background that guides and regulates how we live.

As a conceptual method, an ecology of innovation is based on the proposition that all these forces interacting in synergy are required to make social change. The method promotes a culture and attitude of experimentation and considers innovation as inclusive of tools, strategies, and the development of key relationships, recognizing that it is the synergy of these factors that enables social change.


Evolutionary Design Paradigms


IwB designs projects that evolve in response to the needs of different stakeholders and specific contexts. Rather than create solutions that are appropriate only to one challenge, location, time period or target audience, IwB generates tools, strategies and methodologies that are adaptable by others. Not only are IwB proposals intended to be relevant in other locations and for different audiences, but they are also designed to be flexible, easy to adapt, and responsive to local needs. At the same time, by considering problems as broadly as possible, IwB looks for connections to others who face similar challenges around the globe, and works with others to generate ways of working that can be useful to many. By considering problems from the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders, IwB creates systems that encourage as many people as possible to participate and contribute to the design of both the system and the solution.


Integrated Design Process


IwB students receive training in a variety of practical tools and tactics to implement the major project, from generating ideas and pitching a concept, to developing a project according to stakeholder interests, and, finally, managing the project’s implementation. Students learn about triple-bottom-line sustainable practices, project management, financial analysis, the evaluation of social and economic returns, etc. These tools and tactics push students to develop their design proposals in detail, taking ideas from design concept toward practical and thorough solutions.

“Outcome-based education can provide significant training. However, it is via skills-based training rooted in real-world problems that students are equipped with tangible skills to become design leaders. The integrated design process at IwB, fortified by the multidisciplinarity of the students, is based on human-centred design thinking and community/ user participation. It is enhanced by project management theory, practice, and framed within a professional foundation in research methods, ethical discussions, and financial analysis. The students repeat the agile design process and apply it to many problems across small, medium, and large scales within an atelier classroom structure. At the same time, students engage in continuous design evaluation using a systems-thinking matrix analysis and triple bottom line methodology to balance social, environmental, and economic benefits in order to push their design beyond just strategy into tactical implementable solutions. It is via a codification of an integrated design process that design proposals can evolve to detailed prototypes and truly engage the student in integrated design thinking.”

– Monica Contreras, IwB faculty, OAA, principal of Conifer Consultants, and director of Digital Futures Implementation at OCAD University


Partnered Applied Learning


Because the IwB program centres on real projects, the curriculum encourages interaction with and feedback from partners, stakeholders, and community members. Students learn how to listen, gather information, identify user needs and respond appropriately.

In the fall semester at the IwB, students conduct background research by engaging with the community they will be designing for, and they work with representatives from industry and government to learn about the challenges of and opportunities associated with their specific project. In the spring, students propose and execute a design project, resulting in reports, schematic designs, budgets, and implementation plans. This gives students a more thorough understanding of the complexities, constraints and opportunities inherent in real projects with real budgets and deadlines.


Studio Practice


Studio courses mimic professional design studio environments. Industry professionals guide students in three week-long studio projects. During the process students learn technical skills, such as sketching, mind mapping, model-making, material selection, manufacturing processes, and presentation techniques. The combined skill development in different design disciplines and the focused individual and group deliverables contribute to the major project.

The IwB has 4 studio courses. In the Product Design Studio, students go through the phases of design research, concept creation, and design development in the context of a case study problem. The course allows for a human-scale understanding of the daily lives of residents. The Environment Studio looks at how communities are organized at the level of architecture and urban planning. The Communication and Service Design Studios make up the other two studio practice courses. At the end of studios, as in all IwB projects, faculty and guests critique the final concepts.


Systems Thinking


The IwB fosters systems thinking that aims to reveal patterns through observing, modelling and visualizing complex variables and interdependencies. Systems thinking makes tangible the multi-dimensional nature of today’s urban challenges. Students are encouraged to think holistically and to consider the many factors influencing a given challenge. To avoid tackling a problem from a single perspective, a systems “matrix” provides a checklist that helps students to ask new questions and contemplate the intersections of a variety of systems.

The Institute has developed two such matrices that are consulted and adapted each year. The World House Matrix organizes the basic elements of housing into twelve systems, covering terrain, climate, economy, and culture. The City Systems Matrix identifies seven characteristics that combine to create a healthy city: wellness, safety, accessibility, diversity, cohesion, identity, and sustainability.

“Unexpectedly, the fruit flies that I studied in undergrad served as my first foray into design and systems thinking. As a biologist, my understanding of the world was shaped largely by a deep fascination for the complex, and usually invisible, connections between things—a system of patterns that connects everything around us. I saw these patterns in cells, organisms, and ecosystems, and most vividly, in the simple yet sophisticated embryo of a fruit fly.

In working on the Housing Timeline at IwB, the importance of systems thinking in design began to reveal itself when we went beyond the physical and into the relational. The timeline was, by and large, an exercise in pattern recognition and systems thinking, in that we wanted to demonstrate how unique parts and their relationships can elegantly expose an integrated system and unexpected insights. Through this process, design became a way to understand, interpret, and propose patterns and generate solutions. Similar to biology, design is a tool and methodology that we use to explore and embrace the complexity of our world, while simultaneously making sense of it through the act of creation: design and systems thinking is a method to the madness.”

– Kar Yan Cheung, IwB alumnus (World House Year 1), designer, Bruce Mau Studio


IwB Tools:

Extended tools list:

balanced scorecarding
canvas (business & public)
charettes/ charretting
city systems
comparative analysis
concept exploration
creative briefs
creative direction
design communication
design levers
design research
design strategy
design wireframing
diverse intelligence
ecology of innovation
Evolutionary Design Paradigms
human-centred design
information architecture (IA)
integrated design process
interaction design
the fourfold
Partnership Applied Learning
possibility frameworks
solution landscaping
Studio Practice
Steeps/ Steep Analysis
Systems Thinking
Systems tools
super solutioning
temporal frameworks
triple bottom line
user scenarios
whole systems thinking
World House Matrix

To apply to the IwB, please click here.

We use our tools to tackle the challenges addressed through our academic division, special projects, and professional projects division. To view some of our completed projects, please click here.

To find out more about the IwB please visit our FAQ or contact us.