Bridget Malcolm and Lindsay Asquith (School of Design, DAB) are presenting at the upcoming FFYE Forum Beyond the SFS: Learning with and from students. Here they share some key points from their own teaching in the Graduate Certificate in Social and Service Design, looking at how we can situate co-design among the many types of design in practice.

Changing roles of stakeholders in design

Many people apply forms of consultation in their work: identifying who their project stakeholders are, doing research to understand their needs and preferences, and making adjustments based on their input. Co-design (or collaborative design) involves this up-front research phase, but it also requires bringing people into the design phases of the work. This includes inviting stakeholders (like people with lived experience) into the team to interpret design research data, come up with ideas, test ideas, reflect on the findings and make decisions about what will be implemented and how. 

This approach of bringing people into the design team moves the work from ‘designing for’ where the designing remains with the professionals, into ‘designing with’. If using a ‘designing by’ approach, the professionals take a further step back to enable stakeholders to make most of the decisions in the project.

There is certainly some ambiguity between terms like design thinking, participatory design, human-centred design and co-design. As you consider adopting different design approaches into your practice, it is useful to think critically about these terms. You can do this by considering where your design approach sits along the scale of designing ‘for’, ‘with’, and ‘by’ based on the roles and agency of the professionals and broader stakeholders.  Explore more details in the examples below.

Designing for people

The initial step toward co-design is really just consultation. A design team seeks to gain an understanding of the user and their lived experience through observations or interviews. These insights are usually brought into a design process through representative personas, user journeys or other scenario-based activities. The professionals work through the design implications of this research and develop and test ideas.  

Designing for people can be aligned with design thinking approaches which are commonly used in industry. While this is a very practical way to get projects done with stakeholder input, this way of working can also reinforce existing power structures and be less effective at challenging existing perspectives. Ultimately this can mean that solutions are not as innovative, as they are less likely to explore beyond the boundaries of existing assumptions. While the work is informed by people with lived experience, in design thinking, decision-making still rests with professionals.

Designing with people

When you move into using a co-design process, people with lived experience and other content experts are invited to be present and have a voice throughout the design process. This can align with user-centred design, human-centred design or participatory design processes, depending on how they are run. You may undertake research about your stakeholders, but you would also invite them to contribute throughout different stages of the process. This may include stakeholders validating research findings, coming up with ideas, and testing ideas in their own environment. 

While stakeholders have a greater involvement, professionals still lead the process and make the decisions. This requires more time and a broader range of capabilities from the professional team to facilitate a collaborative process. However, it can generate more innovative and tailored solutions and greater buy-in from the stakeholder community.  

Designing by people

In the advanced stage of co-design, more power and responsibility is handed over to the communities or stakeholders you are designing with. This can also be called co-production or community-led design. It usually involves a group of community members and non-design professionals who are trained to work alongside professionals in a design team. In some ways, this is similar to the idea of a council or working group, but rather than just advise, the group is active in undertaking design research and generating and testing ideas. 

In this form of design, stakeholders make the decisions about what will be implemented and how, and are supported by the professionals and designers. It requires more time, funding and capability building with the non-design professionals. However it can be the strongest way to empower communities in a design process and ensure that the outcomes are relevant and sustainable.  

This way of looking at co-design participant involvement and power dynamics has been informed from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation website and designer and design educator Kelly Ann (KA) McKercher’s work. You can read more about what co-design means from KA McKercher, who explored these challenges and their impact on how we think about ‘co-design’ in a UTS Learning Design Meetup late last year.

Register for the upcoming FFYE Forum to hear more from speakers at UTS on using co-design to enhance student experience, and prepare students for the professional world:

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