Skip to content

Secret Favorite Place

Beach. Basketball court. My mama’s room. Navy Pier. Douglas Park. My bed.

What’s your secret favorite place in Chicago? And what does that say about designing a safe space for you?

We recently spent an afternoon with a fresh cohort of teenagers participating in the Chicago Ideas Youth Program as part of Chicago Ideas Week 2018. The American Institute of Architects sponsored a youth lab as part of its Blueprint for Better Campaign. The campaign brings to life the role of architects as thought and action leaders in improving our cities, towns and neighborhoods. For this event, Chicago high school students worked with six local architects to design models of their dream schools as part of the AIA’s K-12 initiatives to increase visibility of the architecture profession in schools.

To get the AIA youth lab started Territory led the group through “Secret Favorite Place,” a springboard activity we developed to help teens take ownership of a design project.

Before Secret Favorite Place, we used an icebreaker to share out names and “check in” with everyone in the room.

This group of  people was meeting for the first time at the AIA youth lab, so we chose Name Shout as our icebreaker. It’s fast, easy, and loud. It gets everyone working as a team, and thinking like a designer. It definitely breaks the ice. Name Shout is featured in an earlier blog post, check here for the details.

Secret Favorite Place is a powerful tool for empathy and for laying a strong foundation for a team project, so we are sharing it here.

Secret Favorite Place

By Territory NFP

Set up

Places for everyone to sit, big sheets of paper or a white board, markers.


Make two columns on the white board or put up two sheets of paper, write “Places” at the top of one column or sheet and “Adjectives” at the top of the other.


“Today we have been asked to design a safe school (or any building serving a community including teenagers). The first step in the design process is to get to know our users. Since our users are teenagers, we have a room full of experts!”


Territory’s design process starts with empathy.

“To learn a little bit more about you, we want you to tell us about a place that matters to you… Take a few seconds and think about your secret favorite place in Chicago (or your city).”

Dig deeper

Designers want to know more, so the next step is to dig deeper.

“As soon as you have a place in mind, think of 2 or 3 adjectives that describe your place.”

“By the way – what’s an adjective?”

“Try to pick adjectives that are as specific and original as possible. Be creative!”

Report back

Get two volunteers to help with the list-writing at the white board. Ask people to volunteer to share their secret favorite place and the two adjectives they picked to describe it.

As people respond, have one person at the white board writing the list of places, and the other person writing the adjectives. We often use the “no-repeats” rule on the adjectives. This means the longer you wait to participate, the deeper you have to dig to come up with a fresh word.

Go around the room. Make sure everyone gets a chance to add their place and their adjectives to the lists.


When everyone has reported back, take a look at the two lists with the group. Ask what they see.

The “places” list is like a market research study about places where teens feel most fully engaged. The existing places become our design project “precedents.”

Instead of designing in reaction to something, Territory likes to design toward something we want to see in our world. The list of “adjectives” that describe our secret favorite places becomes our “aspirations” for this design project.

Cool. Competitive. Chill. Fun. Different. Water sounds.

Chicago Ideas Youth are in high school. This means they are experts on what makes their school feel safe, and what they fear in their schools. Through this exercise the teens know that their voice matters, because their precedents and aspirations became the foundation for the “safe” schools design project.

In case you were wondering, our team responded to the challenge of school safety by creating spaces where people could communicate with each other better, little one-person rooms where you could go to be alone and chill, a computer lab set up for collaborative working and independent study, an arcade, and a three story waterfall. Their top concerns are bullying, drugs, and theft, so they focused on designing a positive inter-personal and social-emotional environment as the key to a safer school.

We hope you use Secret Favorite Place with your next client or user group, your next team meeting, and especially your next design project with teens. If you do, please shout us out at #territorychicago.