What makes good design?


In order to create sustainable cities and shape the communities of future generations, civil engineers must have an understanding of good design and its importance in a successful outcome. To learn more about the civil engineers’ awareness and understanding of good design, the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) carried out a survey of its members with questions based on the UK National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s Design Principles for National Infrastructure. The survey attracted 900 responses from UK-based civil engineers of all experience levels and across all civil engineering and infrastructure disciplines, and the findings best summarise the profession’s awareness and understanding of good design in a range of contexts.

The findings were explored in the context of the four design principles:

  • Climate as considered in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation
  • People was considered in terms of improvements to people’s quality of life, views of affected communities and future changes to demographics and population
  • Places was considered in terms of improvements to both the natural and built environment
  • Value was considered in terms of the entire project lifecycle and outcome-based solutions

Main Findings

The findings were explored across the entire project lifecycle and highlights the need for a paradigm shift. The findings are outlined in the following:

  • Respondents said they considered people and places more than climate, but there is a need to understand their frame of reference of good practice for the more subjective themes of people and place
  • Three principle barriers were identified as blocking greater consideration of the design principles: a lack of inclusion or incentivisation in the brief, a lack of joined-up thinking on projects and a perception that design adds time and money
  • Clients came in for particular criticism, with several respondents highlighting a tendency towards lowest cost over wider design value outcomes
  • Collaborative working and a shift to business models that value outcomes were identified as the principal enablers of outcome-based solutions

  • 90% of respondents think good design is the responsibility of everyone involved in infrastructure
  • Only 6% of respondents think more money is the best way to encourage outcome-focused design
  • 47% of decommissioning engineers think their area of work is most limited by a severe or large deficit in ability to consider climate, people, places and value – more than any other sector


The survey results indicate that civil engineers broadly support the view that regardless of where they are in the project lifecycle, they have a responsibility to influence design. Despite this understanding, the respondents felt that the skills required to achieve this are lacking at every level and the factors stopping them are mainly outside of their control. The survey results also show that some engineers are not aware that they could and should be delivering better quality design, whilst others acknowledged that they knew they lacked the skills and knowledge to deliver.

There is a need for civil engineers to change the way they think so that projects are viewed in the context of its purpose in a wider system, as a holistic climate-based design should be at the core of the design process. Although the respondents believed they were designing with people in mind, they may not fully understand how to best consider the needs of the people considering most civil engineers join projects when decisions have already been made. This places the civil engineer in the role of winning the public’s support rather than working with the public to create a solution that will yield the best outcomes. Furthermore, the impetus on natural environment over built environment needs to be addressed as sustainability thinking often does not take into account what makes a street friendly or a town centre thrive.


The survey has highlighted a number of specific opportunities to build both design skills and organisational culture to promote design excellence in infrastructure projects. These are summarised below:

Summarised by Author: Annabella Dao, MCE Australia

Link to the original ICE Survey and Results:


Date: Oct 20, 2021
AUTHOR: Nicky Fell
Design, MCE News