Co-Design Series Part One: What is Co-Design?

Co-Design Series Part One: What is Co-Design?

By Stuart Gray, 29th March 2023

In this two-part blog post, CTC researcher, Stuart Gray, reflects on what he has learned about co-design through the Connecting Through Culture project. In this first post, he revisits what co-design is and what it is not, drawing on literature that has informed the co-design approach taken by the Connecting Through Culture project.  

So, what is co-design? Well, co-design can take many forms. Typically, it concerns projects where designers, who hold professional expertise, collaboratively design with people who are “experts of their own experiences”. Yet, there are wild differences in approaches as well as what “collaboration” means. These are not limited to differences in the methods used to facilitate collaboration, but also concern fundamental differences in the dynamics of power held by designers and the experience-expert individuals they are collaborating with.  

The words ‘participation’ and ‘co-design’ are often used interchangeably, and while participatory design has a long and rich history (with its own debates around power and equity), the latter term implies a more equitable power relationship between designers and experience-experts. Where this fails to happen, it risks collaborative approaches being overly performative and co-design in name only (“more ‘faux design’ than co-design,” as described by one of our project partners). At their worst, this is incredibly extractive of individuals – in other words, designers prioritise what they can gain from engaging with experience experts. This happens when collaborations are insular, where they fail to properly support the individuals involved to exhibit their existing talents, build new capacities, feel agency within the design process or equity in designed outputs.  

In contrast, co-design approaches should invest in the individuals and collectives involved. The early goals of participatory design, for example, sought to involve individuals in the design of technologies as a means to their political empowerment beyond design alone. More recently some have spoken about co-design as a form of care, where designers must consider the needs, values and well-being of people involved [1, 2]. Within this, designers must be reflexive to consider how power, social relations and roles can adapt and change throughout a design process, as the individuals involved evolve. There must be recognition that involving individuals in co-design processes has the potential to change their daily lives and longer-term life trajectories. Hence, collaborations should not be viewed as transactional.  

‘Care-full design’ advocates for the consideration of the speed and scale of design processes. It may not be feasible for all experience-experts to have the confidence towards design straight away, and thus, there may need to be a period for capacity building and gaining familiarity with design activities. The concept of fuzzy-frontends to co-design, a period of time before formal design activities begin, is deemed essential to build social connections and trust between designers and experience-expert individuals, to support their creative confidence, and establish the resources they need to take part.  

Thus, the dominant idea of the “maverick” professional designer as the arbiter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ design, while guiding participating individuals through the process is inappropriate for co-design. Instead, designers in such processes may serve their collaborators better as ‘facilitators’ rather than design decision makers. Here there is an emphasis on honouring the different forms of localised and embodied knowledge that experience-experts bring and making a commitment to long lasting community-led and controlled outcomes.  

This is not just a more ethical approach to collaboration, but also serves to benefit design outputs. For instance, fuzzy-front ending also recognises that sites for design, such as labs and hack spaces, are often far removed from the lives of some experience expert individuals (as well as the end users of technology). By spending time understanding the spaces, places, people and routines in their day to day lives, it enables us to garner a richer picture of how technology may affect and be affected by the real lives (e.g., daily routines, contexts, social relationships) of the people it is designed to serve. All of this is beneficial for creating technology ‘that fits’ within people’s lives.  

In the second of this two-part reflection on co-design, we will describe how these co-design ideals have manifested in practice through the CTC project.  

[1] Light, A. and Akama, Y., 2018. The nature of ‘obligation’in doing design with communities: Participation, politics and care. Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things, 131. Vancouver

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