Unpacking co-design

In Australia today ‘co-design’ has become almost interchangeable with ‘consultation’. However ,the concept of co-design and the range of design based traditions that sit under the co-design banner have something very important to bring to place-based social innovation. Unfortunately, very few people have got to experience the true benefit of design-based approaches because co-design is rarely practiced authentically.

Co-design / co+design

The ‘co’ in co design stands for community or conversation. It’s about bringing together people and professionals to jointly make decisions, informed by each others expertise. It’s not a community only activity or a professional only activity.

The ‘design’ in co-design is about making and testing, and this is the part of co-design that’s most often neglected. What most have happens is co (minus) design ie co-design. What we want to happen is co (plus) design ie co+design. Co-design without any making is just ‘co’. ‘Co’ can be useful, but it misses the rich learning and testing of assumptions that comes from making ideas (or representations of ideas) and testing them out in the real world, e.g. through prototyping.

Three traditions of design

There are lots of different ways to do ‘co-design’, although it’s often talked about as if co-design is a particular process. In fact there are at least three different design-based traditions that go under the banner of co-design, and unhelpfully they are often used interchangeably. Each tradition has its benefits and drawbacks.

Design thinking approaches are often workshop based. They tend to bring the community experience into the room for example through personas or user journeys. In design thinking approaches prototyping also tends to happen in the room and on paper. The brilliant thing about design thinking is that it fits easily with the ways organisations typically work. The drawback is that it can reinforce existing power structures and be less effective at challenging existing assumptions, meaning that it tends towards existing solutions. It’s a more incremental approach, and whilst the work is informed by lived experience decision making still rests with professionals.

In participatory design design approaches the design process is taken out of the room. A small group of community members and non-design professionals are trained to work together as a team to run a design process that may involve aspects of design research and prototyping. In participatory processes the design team (community and professionals) are given decision making power. Participatory approaches can lead to more breakthrough solutions, however they can require more time and specialist expertise to set up.

In human-centered (or user-centred) design approaches professional designers lead the process and make the decisions. Citizens and professionals are engaged throughout through design research and prototyping, but not necessarily the same team of citizens and professionals. The specialist capability required is greater than design thinking approaches and the processes can run faster that participatory approaches. However, special consideration will need to be given to taking communities along on the journey, as they are typically not the decision makers.

Whilst these are the traditions of design design-based methods can be easily adopted, adapted and combined. The best-fit design approach is the one that you can conduct with rigour within the time and money available. Participation done poorly can easily break trust with community rather than build it.