An ‘equation’ for relationship-centred design

Over the past few months, we’ve been developing a bank of case studies which, we think, demonstrate relationship-centred design in action. We’ve collaborated with a range of organisations across different sectors, with different operating models, and working towards different ends. We’ve deliberately selected a diverse variety, attempting to show the breadth of relevance of a more relationship-centred way of working. With this initial bank, we’ve only just scratched the surface. Perhaps you could help by contributing one about your place?

Read the case studies here

Get in touch if you’ve got one to contribute

It’s been an illuminating process, and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

In making sense of what we’ve learned, we’ve developed something of an ‘equation’ for relationship-centred design.

Of course, relationships cannot be reduced to a recurring algorithm, but we do think there are common threads that apply across all types of ‘places’ when it comes to designing from a more relationship-centred perspective.

We strongly believe that we can make more progress faster if we pool our learning and work together to spread the word. Perhaps we’re wrong in some of the points we put forward. Certainly our thinking could be developed and enhanced. What do you think? Please don’t be shy in coming forward or doubt that what you have to say is relevant. You can do this by commenting below, contributing to this document, or emailing us


New relationships often need a catalyst. Catalysts are many and varied but share the function of giving people a sense of ‘permission’ to connect.


  • Skills sharing

    In our Amplify case study, ‘permission’ to forge new relationships is granted through the sharing of skills and working together towards a shared goal. Similarly, learning new skills is the most common reason men give for joining a Men’s Shed.

  • Combined goal setting

    In the case of Compassionate Frome, meaningful relationships between staff and the service users are ignited through the process of working together to identify goals

  • Community events

    In our Big Lunch and Big Get Together case study, third parties act as the catalyst, using a nationwide campaign and how-to resources to help local people organise community events which bring people together and give them an ‘excuse’ to interact. Similarly, putting on the events gives organisers the ‘excuse’ to develop (closer) relationships with one another.

  • Community connectors

    An important part of the Compassionate Frome project is ‘Community Connectors’ – local volunteers trained in signposting family, friends and neighbours to community services. Men’s Sheds also rely on community members to galvanise a team to start a Shed. In the Supermarkets case study, we saw how community connectors act as the ‘faces’ of the organisations they represent, fostering stronger relationships between the community and those supermarkets.

What or who could act as a catalyst for connecting people in your place?

What are some other catalysts of new relationships? Let us know here.


Relationships need solid foundations on which to flourish and grow. Whilst every relationship is unique and idiosyncratic, we believe there are some common characteristics of a ‘real’ relationship. We began reflecting on these in this blog, and researching the case studies has enabled us to build on this starting point.

  • Mutuality

    Across many of our case studies, the importance of all parties being genuinely and mutually valued was evident. For example, we believe that much of Good Gym’s success as a model for supporting socially isolated older people comes from the fact that   both parties – the runner and the ‘coach’ – play an active role, rather than one party doing ‘unto’ the the other. Mutuality becomes particularly important in relationships involving people who have experienced a loss of value, such as when employing ex-offenders at Timpson or COOK, or working with refugees at Migrateful or START.

  • Trust and ageny

    The majority of our case studies clearly show how trust and agency – which are closely related – underpin mutual relationships. We saw this, for example, in our Cornerstone case study, where giving frontline staff more autonomy around how they use their time enables them to develop important relationships with their customers.  In a more commercial context, our AO case study demonstrates how trusting customers and staff with more agency can be good business.

  • Empathy, fairness and respect

    We’ve seen time and again the importance of treating people with respect and dignity. Without this, real and meaningful relationships cannot be established. Timpson, who employ ex-offenders, demonstrate this well in their recruitment processes, in which they refuse to treat ex-offenders as anything other than people with personalities that may or may not be suited to working at the company. In doing so, Timpson lays the foundations for enduring and positive relationships with its staff.

  • Alignment

    Relationships often work best when they align with participants’ existing values. Good Gym does this by modelling its ‘befriending’ scheme around an activity that is widely valued by its target audience – fitness – whilst Cornerstone builds strong relationships between staff and service users by aligning services with service users’ personal goals.

  • Adaptability and personalisation

    Linked to the above, the case studies demonstrate that real relationships are idiosyncratic, personal, and dynamic. In the Cornerstone case study, for example, frontline nurses take the time to get to know their patients, developing a unique relationships with each with allows them to align services with their personal goals. Similarly, Compassionate Frome recognises that community members may require a whole range of different services depending on their unique needs, priorities and preferences.

What can you do to ensure these foundations are in place?

What are other foundations for positive, ‘real’ relationships? Let us know here.


External conditions can support and encourage – or hinder and prevent – the development and maintenance of relationships. These conditions can often be actively created or designed with a little care.

  • Autonomy and trust

    Particularly in organisational contexts, agency, autonomy and trust are required for relationships to form and endure. We saw this in our Cornerstone case study, where giving frontline staff more autonomy around how they use their time enabled them to develop important relationships with their customers.  

  • A welcoming atmosphere

    An open, welcoming, non-judgemental atmosphere is important when fostering new relationships. Our case study on COOK demonstrates how this atmosphere is communicated through a combination of words and actions, and is most effective when it is consistent and authentic. The impact of Big Lunches and Great Get Togethers also depends on the relaxed, friendly way they are communicated and organised. Similarly, Men’s Sheds are effective largely because they provide a welcoming place in which men feel a sense of belonging. The friendly, relaxed atmosphere that characterises Slow Shopping initiatives and the Tesco store in Maryhill – both recorded in our Supermarkets case study – also offer examples.

  • Cultural support

    Sometimes developing strong relationships means changing cultural perceptions, either within or outside of organisations. Timpson, for instance, faced hostile press headlines when it started employing ex-offenders, until it demonstrated the positive impact of its decision. GoodGym has similarly changed cultural perceptions, albeit less dramatically, but constructing running as a social, community-oriented activity even outside of running clubs.

  • Communal spaces

    Shared communal spaces are important in developing and sustaining relationships. Supermarket cafe schemes, Men’s Sheds Scotland and Big Lunches and Great Get Togethers show how opening up physical spaces creates room for new relationships to flourish, and Grow Well Cardiff shows how certain types of spaces – in this case gardens – influence relationships in different ways.

  • Partnerships and third parties

    Often relationships between two people or parties actually require support from other people or organisations. COOK’s strong relationship with its staff, for example, partly relies in effective partnerships with its recruitment partners, HMP Standford Hill and Caring Hands. Compassionate Frome, an ambitious project involving many partners and moving parts, also shows the power of partnering across the community – in this case to achieve better health outcomes than the formal health sector can alone.

What can you do to encourage better relationships in your place?

What other conditions can support relationships? Let us know here.

Supporting mechanisms

Finally, supporting mechanisms can be put in place which help people to make and maintain relationships. These are distinct from conditions in that they can be accessed and used by one or more party to directly support the development and / or continuation of relationships.

  • Training

    Training can support people to understand the value of relationships, and equip them with the skills to develop them. Migrateful demonstrate this through the training stage of their programme which equips refugees with skills – such as culinary skills – needed to develop relationships with other members in the community in the latter stages of the programme.

  • Co-creation

    Co-creation can be a great way of not only making your business or service more user-centred but also of developing and strengthening relationships. Big Lunches and Great Get Togethers, for example, show how co-creation helps to build strong relationships between community organisers as well as delivering warm and enjoyable events that are loved by the community.

  • Impact measurement

    Measuring impact can be fundamental in securing buy-in for a more relationship-centred way of working and shifting cultural perceptions that may be obstructing certain relationships. Independent evaluation has been an important step in validating GoodGym’s model, for example, and Timpson has used its positive impact to change perceptions around employing ex-offenders.

  • Drawing on research or best practice

    This can help validate efforts to foster meaningful relationships. Compassionate Frome, for example, is bolstered by evidence around the social determinants of health. Big Lunches and Great Get Togethers are similarly supported by research into the importance of neighbourliness and social capital.

  • Using an asset-based approach

    Without ignoring problems to be solved, focusing on what people have to offer – their assets – can be a basis on which to build strong, mutually beneficial relationships. START and Migrateful both explicitly adopt this approach, drawing on refugees’ skills. Timpson and COOK, meanwhile, focus on the potential rather than the mistakes of ex-offenders as the basis for developing loyal relationships with their workforce.

  • Consistent messaging

    Consistent messaging can usefully demonstrate real commitment to a relational way of working. COOK is a good example of how branding and communication can add weight to a sustained and authentic effort to invest in real relationships, encouraging staff and customers to invest in relationships by giving them ‘license’ to do so.

What systems or mechanisms can you put in place to support the development of real relationships?

What other supporting mechanisms can help encourage and enable good relationships? Let us know here.

What’s next?

Our next blog will reflect on some of the benefits – both social and economic – of taking a more relationship-centred approach, again drawing on what we’ve learned through our growing bank of case studies.

Watch this space.

In the meantime, please do share your experiences by contributing here, or get in touch by email or Twitter.