Stakeholder interpretations of design: semiotic insights into the briefing processConstruction Management and Economics


William H. Collinge, Chris F. Harty
Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering / Building and Construction / Management Information Systems


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On: 30 September 2014, At: 02:29

Publisher: Routledge

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Construction Management and Economics

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Stakeholder interpretations of design: semiotic insights into the briefing process

William H. Collingea & Chris F. Hartya a School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, PO Box 219,

Reading, RG6 6AW, UK

Published online: 25 Apr 2014.

To cite this article: William H. Collinge & Chris F. Harty (2014) Stakeholder interpretations of design: semiotic insights into the briefing process, Construction Management and Economics, 32:7-8, 760-772, DOI: 10.1080/01446193.2014.894247

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Stakeholder interpretations of design: semiotic insights into the briefing process


School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, PO Box 219, Reading, RG6 6AW, UK

Received 25 September 2013; accepted 8 February 2014

Briefing phase interactions between clients and designers are recognized as social engagements, characterized by communicative sign use, where conceptual ideas are gradually transformed into potential design solutions. A semiotic analysis of briefing communications between client stakeholders and designers provides evidence of the significance and importance of stakeholder interpretation and understanding of design, empirical data being drawn from a qualitative study of NHS hospital construction projects in the UK. It is contended that stakeholders engage with a project through communicative signs and artefacts of design, referencing personal cognitive knowledge in acts of interpretation that may be different from those of designers and externally appointed client advisers. Such interpretations occur in addition to NHS client and design team efforts to ‘engage’ with and ‘understand’ stakeholders using a variety of methods. Social semiotic theorizations indicate how narrative strategies motivate the formulation of signs and artefacts in briefing work, the role of sign authors and sign readers being elucidated as a result. Findings are contextualized against current understandings of briefing communications and stakeholder management practices, a more socially attuned understanding of breifing countering some of the process-led improvement models that have characterized much of the post-Egan report literature. A stakeholder interpretation model is presented as one potential method to safeguard against unforeseen interpretations occurring, the model aligning with the proposal for a more measured recognition of how designs can trigger interpretations among client stakeholders.

Keywords: Briefing, cognition, communication, semiotics, stakeholders.


Active client stakeholder involvement in the briefing process has been identified by scholars as desirable and beneficial for construction project work (Barrett and Stanley, 1999; Blyth and Worthington, 2001) with both stakeholder engagement (Leung and Olomolaiye, 2010) and participatory design (Goodacre et al., 1982) being advocated as important. Briefing has also been described as a social process (Green, 1996), where communications between client and designers are viewed as critical for effective shared interpretations and understandings to take place (Dainty et al., 2006;

Emmitt and Gorse, 2007). These strands of scholarship are drawn together to refocus attention on how client stakeholders interpret and understand design proposals put before them in briefing and design phase interactions.

Research findings from a qualitative study into

NHS hospital construction project briefing interactions are presented and discussed with reference to social semiotic theorizations of communication. It is observed that while client requirements and stakeholder management are both integral to briefing work, the significance and importance of stakeholder interpretations of design are often missed. This occurs in spite of stakeholders being actively ‘engaged’ and ‘managed’ on projects through various activities. It is contended that in briefing work, stakeholders relate to designs with their own personal cognitive interpretations and understandings that may be significantly different from those of designers, fellow client stakeholders and externally appointed advisers.

This may result in design solutions being interpreted in unforeseen ways that ultimately fail to align with stakeholder requirements and needs. *Author for correspondence. E-mail: © 2014 Taylor & Francis