The Design Language of Belonging

Spaces and places that make us feel safe, loved, and celebrated.

Illustrations by Dave Dawkins

Where have you truly felt at home? I've been lucky to experience a sense of home in many places. From the bustling city parks of Toronto to a bamboo village in Bali, a historic Victorian house in San Francisco to hot springs nestled in the rolling hills of Northern California, there are a few that stand out. And while they span geographies and possess distinct features, these places all make me feel safe, cared for, and connected. They evoke a sense of belonging.

At, we design services, spaces, campaigns, and strategies to create a more just and inclusive world. Inclusion is woven into the outset of the design process to ensure it is embedded in the outputs we produce and the outcomes we aim to achieve. By establishing structures that empower communities to co-design and collaborate with us, we aim to foster a sense of belonging from beginning to end. In doing so, the spaces we design (be they physical or digital) can genuinely serve the communities we design for and become places where they belong.

A Place to Belong

Belonging can be expressed through a range of emotional states: coziness, joy, safety. To design spaces that elicit these feelings, we can take inspiration from the concept of placemaking. Often used in urban planning and architecture, placemaking is an idea and approach in space design that centers people and imbues an environment with meaning.

All around us, we see placemaking expressed in a variety of patterns: spatial, behavioral, natural, and repetitional. These patterns serve as different dialects of belonging. For example, spatial patterns involve intentionally arranging physical elements, such as circular seating which promotes inclusivity. Behavioral patterns focus on designing environments for specific community needs. Universal accessibility means the default use of the space is accessible for the broadest range of people – the ramp isn't the side door, it's the main entrance. An excellent resource for placemaking is Christopher Alexander's book, "A Pattern Language." Alexander offers patterns at different scales, from home design to city planning. His foundational patterns remain highly relevant today, appearing in many facets of our society.

Spatial patterns involve intentionally arranging physical elements, such as circular seating; a catalyst for inclusivity.

That said, globalization has rendered our communities more diverse; industrialization and modernization have altered the ways in which we relate to our spaces. It's time to generate new patterns that foster belonging and inclusivity in our rapidly changing world. I’m interested in a new pattern language that embraces more diverse perspectives and prioritizes equity and social justice. A pattern language that addresses climate change and technology. I want a pattern language created by the people, for the people.

I want a pattern language created by the people, for the people.

Patterns in Practice

Let’s look at some real-world examples of patterns that contribute to a sense of belonging.

In the neighborhood of Bywater, New Orleans, streets are intimate and narrow. Porches line the streets, with front doors just a few steps away from sidewalks. These semi-public semi-private spaces encourage casual socializing and a greater sense of community. As I walked through the neighborhood, I could easily envision the gatherings and block parties this community is known for.

In San Francisco, I live in what’s colloquially known as a co-op: an intentional community of thirteen people living communally in a Victorian house. Our kitchen may not fit all thirteen of us at once, but it’s a valued space in our shared home. There are three main elements of our kitchen: the island counter where we prep meals and eat, the adjacent stove and sink area where we cook and clean, and our beloved couch which sits across the way. There is only enough standing room for one or two people in this space and the main thoroughfare runs in between.

Whoever put the couch there is a genius. It’s true that the couch’s placement does not exactly facilitate the smoothest flow of traffic (people have to do the kitchen dance all the time), but it does an excellent job of fostering connection and community. Situated in the nexus of activity, it encourages us to build relationships while preparing meals, washing dishes, and snacking. It brings us together.

The proximity between porches and streets in Bywater, New Orleans foster a greater sense of community.

Whoever put the couch there is a genius.

On the opposite end of the design spectrum, we have what is known as hostile architecture – intentional design choices of spaces and structures that promote unease and deter social activities. It shows up in the form of menacing spike-lined surfaces to prevent people from resting to studded platforms that deny skateboarders play. These intentional choices design people out of places.

What if spaces were designed for the well-being and connection of humans as opposed to optimizing for consumption and productivity? In so many cities we’re caught in between the hard and inflexible edges of concrete buildings. How would it feel to embrace softer edges and blended spaces that truly welcomed in and celebrated people of different shapes and abilities?

A Toolkit for Belonging

As designers, we have a suite of inclusive practices and tools that encourage us to create spaces that foster belonging. For one, co-design – the approach of designing with, not for, people – ensures that the needs, preferences, and identities of the relevant communities are centered.

In a recent project with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department's Immigrant Cooperative, we redesigned their multi-purpose space to better service neighboring refugee, immigrant, and migrant (RIM) communities. Working with community co-designers at the outset was critical to transforming this vital hub, responsible for sensitive services including healthcare and legal support, into a space that promotes inclusivity and safety.

Alongside our co-designers, we created multilingual directions, incorporated relevant iconography, and used cultural photography to infuse a sense of belonging. Our co-designers brought expertise in designing a space that reflected the needs of the RIM communities in Champaign–Urbana. Implementing these changes to the physical environment imbues a layer of comfort and confidence, guiding people towards a relationship where trust can be built. This is especially important for someone seeking services in the U.S., perhaps for the first time.

By observing, analyzing, and refining design patterns, we can create spaces that resonate with individuals on a deep level. And, when we nurture individuals, we create opportunities for communities to form and grow together.

Whether it's incorporating natural elements, embracing cultural aesthetics, or fostering rituals that promote connection, designing for belonging enhances the human experience, nurtures communities, and paves the way for a future where every space can be a place of belonging.