How many times have you been part of a ‘design session’, ‘collaborative workshop’ or something called ‘co-design’, only to find there wasn’t really much ‘co’ going on at all? Whose voices were included? Who was steering the process, and with what agenda? Who made the decisions, in the end?

Designer and design educator Kelly Ann (KA) McKercher (they/them) explored these challenges and their impact on how we think about ‘co-design’ in our recent Learning Design Meetup. They shared some thought-provoking perspectives on co-design, and put forward ideas about how we can be doing it better. Some highlights from their engaging session are shared below.

Co-design elevates the voices of lived experience

Co-design is an approach to designing with, not for. As KA notes, this already shifts the dynamic from standard workshops and sticky-note sessions to something that is more thoughtful, meaningful and genuinely inclusive:

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.

McKercher, K. A. (2020). Beyond Sticky Notes. Doing Co-design for real: mindsets, methods and movements. 

Through this lens, co-design practices include supporting mutual learning (professionals and community), engaging in community-led and peer-to-peer action, and above all, caring deeply for everyone involved in co-design.

Am I doing co-design?

If you’re used to starting with questions, not rushing to solutions, trying things out and using prototypes to learn, you may already be applying some aspects of co-design in your work.

There are some key differences, however, from approaches such as Human-Centred Design (HCD), including a focus on partners (not participants), on supporting (not leading), on co-deciding (not deciding ourselves) and providing opportunities for communities to share their own stories, in their own voices.

KA also highlighted that co-design is not an isolated event, workshop or hackathon, or a process of voting on and prioritising existing initiatives. Co-design does not mean that professionals act as stand-ins for community members, or that adults gather information from young people, only to make decisions about young people, without them. 

The co-design quick test

If you’d like to explore your own experiences, KA has put together a learning tool called the ‘co-design quick test‘, designed to help you think about co-design. You are asked to think of a past, present or future initiative that you might be leading, participating in, or observing from the side-lines.

The co-design quick test asks the following questions:

  • Is there mutual learning? This is the ‘co’ part! Co-design can mean working separately, but usually involves people coming together to make things. Everyone involved in the process has something to learn and contribute, whatever their role.
  • Is there something being made? The ‘design’ bit of co-design means something is being made, or re-made. This might be a product or service, a policy, systems, or even a movement. 
  • Is there a degree of co-deciding? Co-designers don’t just make recommendations, they make decisions together. It may be unrealistic to expect that everything can be co-decided, but co-design broadly supports some decision-making by co-designers – including people with lived experience. 
  • Are people with lived experience recognised for their time? Co-designers are not expected to contribute their time and energy for free. Recognition might be in the form of payment, benefits from what is being designed or something else a person values (education, or a donation to charity).  

KA concluded with the reminder that whilst there are different versions of co-design and many ways to design together, language and how we use it matters. If ‘co-design’ is used to describe consultation or other activities intended to placate or skim across deeper issues, it re-produces the status quo and can damage trust and enthusiasm for genuine co-design. And with all those ‘wicked problems’ looking for meaningful, sustainable solutions, we need more and better co-design than ever before.

KA’s top picks for further reading 

As a follow-up to their session, KA kindly shared some recommended reading and listening for anyone interested in exploring perspectives on co-design:

You can also download a free chapter from ‘Beyond Sticky Notes’, and follow KA on Twitter @kellyanagram.

Feature image by Tim Mossholder

  • It’s wonderful to see this. I’m familiar with their work and our team are using co-design/co-production in the SoNM, Faculty of Health in research and educational design. Who organised the session. It would be great to connect :-). Jo River

    • Hi Jo, thanks for the comment! The session was organised by the Learning Design Meetup group, led by the wonderful Mais Fatayer: We’d love to hear more about your work in co-design, too!

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