Inside the head of a designer

Co-design isn’t really that new

Co-Design: Stanley King

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a good couple of months, a diamond find in my library at the Glasgow School of Art.  The book Co-design: A process of Design Participation discusses the early work of Stanley King and the Co-design group providing an in depth and concise description to the work of community architects and the workshops they facilitated from the 1970s.

The book is so concise in it’s description it provides task by task instructions to organising, facilitating and disseminating workshops, I think this is a must read for designers who undertake design workshops.  I was listening to a podcast from the Emergence 07 conference, where Oliver King of Engine was holding an open discussion about the changing role of the designer, largely focusing on the concept of designer as facilitator.  Something that stood out for me was a participant’s opinion on design education;

“…facilitation is not taught in universities and not every designer is a good facilitator”

For me, design education needs to change to accomodate the changing role of the designer.  Texts like this clearly demonstrate the complex nature of this type of work, covering organisation, skills, mindset, generative tools and more that is needed to successfully conduct a workshop.  In context of the architects here, drawing people’s ideas in real time, there is a clear skill and process to doing this, covered in chapters like, ‘Anatomy of a Co-design drawing’.

Activity timeline (after Le Corbusier)

There is also a fantastic diagram and images from the 70s showing the co-design group using an Activity Time Line (after Le Cobusier) where the artists indicates the helix of a rising and setting sun and marks off the hours of the day and the night.  The participating audience then shout out tasks they would do during the time period, which is marked onto the diagram.  They then group off and choose an activity to work on with an artist, and start building ideas based around it.  Reminds me alot of journey mapping, just in a 24 hour community sense sort of way.

How to organise and facilitate a co-design workshop

Why do I think this book is so important?  It shows there is so much more to the co-design workshop than meets the eye, and whilst, we do only learn through practice, I think methods like this, which are so common in our current design practice should be taught in  a more in depth and pragmatic way, with a focus on the mindset ideally put on for this process.

Below are two excerpts from an initial think piece I’ve been working on about design education, the changing role of the designer and the challenges this poses to design students;

Texts like Co-design[1] are comprehensive in their descriptions of how to facilitate correctly in the context of workshops, and are incredibly detailed about the way a facilitator draws people’s ideas, how to deal with overpowering participants and how to correctly note take, to name but a few considerations.  These details are important and without proper training in this domain, results of a workshop can be tainted.

“The public needs a language that can give its creativity a focus and help individuals turn their intuition and knowledge into a workable idea.  That language must also be able to bridge the gap between the vision of the common resident and the technical thinking and jargon of the architects”[2]

This role of facilitation is about relinquishing control, and the tools of designer, namely their ability to give ideas form through drawing or model making must be carefully considered.  Designers can be incredibly influential in what they choose to make tangible, by making something real, it can sway the whole group’s opinion one way without considering other possibilities.  Therefore the designer must act impartial, and drive the group through the creative process rather than own it.

[1] King S, Conley M, Latimer B and Ferrari D, Co-design: A process of design to participation
[2] McDowell LN cited from King S, Conley M, Latimer B and Ferrari D, Co-design: A process of design to participation, p45

the above was in response to this;


“The move towards co-design, where the designer takes on the role of facilitator as well as form-giver, gives even greater weight to the significance of how user research and engagement is taught on design courses. Practising co-designers do not simply see people as research subjects, but as active participants in the design process, whose time and contributions need to be recognised and honoured.  Conducting this kind of participative user research and inquiry on social issues presented students with a new set of challenges, both practical and ethical.” [1]

In the last twenty years the role of the designer has changed from solo author to co-creator.  In a move away from the modernist conception of designer as individual expert, design thinkers have adopted a participatory approach, involving users directly in the development of new products/services/systems throughout the design process.

This can largely be seen in the emergence of the Service Design discipline throughout the last decade,[2] which has been highlighted and catapulted into the hands of students, business and governments worldwide by the internet’s coverage and sharing of methodologies[3].

Service design leans heavily on the principles and methods of participatory design, a practice with roots in the Scandinavian workplace and trade unions.  The discipline is predominately co-creative, user-centric and adopts a holistic approach to design, including insights from, and direct engagement throughout the design process with a range of stakeholders and user groups in the development of new service offerings.

“…there are professions more harmful than industrial design – but only a few” [4]

“The time has come to review Papanek… from a new perspective, which reduces the distance between market-based and socially oriented initiatives”. [5]

Victor Papanek in 1971, suggested that designers take stock of what they’re doing, suggesting that designers who engaged with the market should spend one tenth of their time or money towards socially responsible projects.  Nicola Morelli argued in 2007 that Papanek provides a ‘triple bottom line’ for considering new design proposals, merging towards a basic definition of sustainability and a new model for the design process that considers environmental, social and economic impact. (figure 1)

In recent developments, encouraged perhaps by some of these older texts asking us to take responsibility for what we design[6] and a recognition by the public sector and government in design thinking[7], several of the world’s leading design and service design consultancies have began to tackle complex social issues[8], moving away from the business and management foundations the discipline was built on. This area of work has been spearheaded by initiatives such as Dott 07[9] and Public services by design[10].  Publications like, Wouldn’t it be great if?[11], highlight design as being able to,

“…help us in the public services to be more innovative. We need to be conscious that today’s problems are just not going to be addressed by yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s solutions” [12]

It seems a natural progression for the design community and in particular the service design discipline to move into this territory due to its user-centred nature and holistic approach to problem solving.  In recent years, new branches of design thinking have stretched the field further, like transformation[13] and social design with supporting initiatives like red appearing[14].  This all comes at a particularly convenient time with a rising focus in the hyperlocal and community driven delivery of services by government and an emphasis on ‘citizen and community engagement.’[15]

“If thirty years in politics – as a local councillor, MP and cabinet minister – have taught me one thing, it is that government and public services depend on a partnership with citizens to make things work.”[16]

In light of this emerging domain and a steady influx of socially motivated projects being introduced into design courses at undergraduate level, [17] design educators must reflect on the changing role of the designer and the new landscapes they are operating in, developing new frameworks to accommodate the need for new mindsets and skills.

This initial think piece will reference throughout a recent project undertaken by the students of a new postgraduate Masters course, Design Innovation at the Glasgow School of Art. It will highlight issues that will need to be taken into consideration surrounding this type of participatory work, in particular the effect of designers engagement with people and a consideration of a new design philosophy that focuses on promoting a sustainable approach to community and participatory design work.

[1] The RSA Website, Six challenges for design education [04/01/10]
[2] The discipline has emerged in response to a global shift towards a service based economy
Vargo, S. L. and Lusch, R. F., Service-Dominant Logic: Continuing the Evolution: Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 1-10
[3] Service Design Tools, Homepage, [04/01/10]
[4] Papanek V, Design for the real world, p14 cited from Thackara J, In the bubble: Designing in a complex world, p7
[5] Sustain our Nation Site, Approaches and exemplars, [04/01/10] citing Nicola Morelli (2007)
[6] “The context of industrial mechanisation has changed, but 100 years later and in our times, the sociologist Richard Sennett presses for debate about the consequences of what we make” Parker S, Social Animals: tomorrow’s designers in today’s world, p 21 citing R Sennet, The Craftsman
[7] Partners can be noted in the publication by the Design Council, Public Services by design, A new route to public sector innovation, p15
[8] Burns C, Cottam H, Vanstone C, Winhall J, RED Paper 02: Transformation Design
[9] Dott 07 (Designs of the time 2007), a year of community projects, events and exhibitions based in North East England, explored what life in a sustainable region could be like – and how design could help us get there.
Cited from Design of the times website, What was Dott07, [04/01/10]
[10]Public Services by Design is a new programme to inspire and enable design innovation in public services. It helps public sector managers build awareness and understanding of how design can help in the process of developing and delivering better public services.
Cited from Design Council Website, Public Services by Design page, [04/01/10]
[11] Design Council and Thackara J, Wouldn’t it be great if
[12] Birchard M (Sir), Public Services by Design, p5
[13] Burns C, Cottam H, Vanstone C, Winhall J, RED Paper 02: Transformation Design
[14] RED was set up in 2004 by the Design Council to tackle social and economic issues through design led innovation, RED website, homepage, [04/01/10]
[15] Blunkett D (MP), A People’s Police Force
[16] Blunkett D (MP), Touching the State
[17] The RSA Design Directions programme is a competition aimed at undergraduate and recent graduates from design courses around the UK cited from Campbell E, You know more than you think you do: design as resourcefulness & self reliance