Foundations for Co-design
Definition and principles of co-design
Co-design is an approach to designing with, not for, people. While co-design is helpful in many areas, it typically works best where people with lived experience, communities and professionals work together to improve something that they all care about.
Overall, the primary role of co-design is elevating the voices and contributions of people with lived experience. Beyond writing on sticky notes, co-design is about how we are being (our mindsets), what we are doing (our methods) and how our systems embrace the participation of people with lived experience (social movements).
Here are four key principles for co-design:
When differences in power are unacknowledged and unaddressed, the people with the most power have the most influence over decisions, regardless of the quality of their knowledge or ideas. To change that, we must share power in research, decision-making, design, delivery and evaluation. Without this, there is no co-design.
Co-design isn’t possible without relationships, social connection and trust among co-designers, funders and organisers of co-design. Trust paves the way for conversations where we confront the metaphorical elephant in the room (or a stampede of them, in some cases). You can’t buy trust; it can only be earned – the better the social connection, the better the process and outputs of co-design.
Use participatory means
Co-design provides many ways for people to take part and express themselves, for example, through visual, kinaesthetic and oral approaches, instead of relying solely on writing, slideshows and long reports. Participatory approaches aren’t about relaying information or giving presentations; they’re about facilitating self-discovery and moving people from participants to active partners.
Many people require support and encouragement to adopt new ways of being and doing, learn from others, and have their voices heard. To support that, designers can move from ‘expert’ to coach. In co-design, everyone has something to teach and something to learn.
You can use the principles to build a shared understanding of co-design in your team or organisation, as well as to assess how different tools and methods could be adapted to work within a co-design process. If you get stuck, ask yourself questions such as: Will this share power? Does it build capability? Are we prioritising relationships?
Process for co-design
Co-design is a design-led process that uses creative participatory methods. There is no one-size-fits-all approach nor a set of checklists to follow. Instead, there are a series of patterns and principles that can be applied in different ways with different people. Co-designers make decisions, not just suggestions (Burkett, 2012).
Figure 1.1 describes the phases of co-design, beginning with the need to Build the conditions for the genuine and safe involvement of people with lived experience.
Figure 1.1. Co-design process
The co-design process isn’t linear and could change course based on your context. Part Three of this book provides detail about each phase within Figure 1.1, with a focus on how to prepare diverse groups of people to share power, create safety and work together.
#Tip: There is no co-designing without co-deciding.
While Part Three of this book makes suggestions about how you can use the co-design process for real, it is a pattern, not a prescription.
Designers and design processes have long focused on making ‘things’ such as products, services, brands and buildings. While those things matter, they often fail to shift relationships between people with lived experience, communities and professionals.
Figure 1.2 describes the difference between transactional and transformational co-design. While we shouldn’t do away with transactional co-design entirely, I think we need to shift our focus to how we design together (the process), not just what we make (the output). This book focuses on transformational co-design.
Figure 1.2. Transactional versus transformational co-design
As Burkett (2012) notes: ‘Co-design happens over time and across structures – it requires a different kind of relationship between people which incorporates trust, open and active communication and mutual learning. Co-design is a process not an event.’ (p. 8) When people with lived experience, professionals and provocateurs work in equal partnership across the design process, it’s common to see new relationships and possibilities for different systems emerge. Often, co-design enables people to see themselves and each other differently. Transformational co-design can involve professionals discovering that people with lived experience do not need ‘empowering’ or to change in any way, but rather they must be listened to.
#Tip: It’s not co-design if there’s only ever a homogenous group of people (e.g. teachers without students) – that’s a workshop or an interagency meeting.
Co-design is successful if the process and outputs (for example, a policy or a service) create value for the people they are intended to benefit. We can assess that through involving people with lived experience in monitoring and evaluation as partners.
Social movements for co-design
To make co-design a reality, we need systems, organisations and communities to embrace the leadership and contributions of people with lived experience. Doing that requires different ways of thinking and being, which are missing from many teams, organisations and systems. Table 1.1 describes several social movements that are necessary to make co-design a reality and a norm. They are based on my work over the past decade across many organisations and systems.
Making decisions for people with lived experience
Making decisions with people with lived experience
Valuing professional expertise above all
Valuing professional and lived experience equally