Is co-design more than just a buzzword?
Maybe we should just blame Harvard.
In the mid 1940s, students at the Ivy League business school hit upon a new way of thinking about their coursework. Catchy words or phrases that seemed to recur in their lectures and reading were noted down, to be later redeployed. The more they did this, the better their results trended.
In a piece of nomenclature that inevitably spread across the world they called them “buzzwords”.
Fast forward 60 years or so. It’s 2004 at, you guessed it, Harvard University when C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy publish their book, The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers, through Harvard Business Press. It draws on a Scandinavian tradition and throws forward to a new kind of participatory process for designing policy. Many see it as the birth of what is now known as co-design.
It’s an idea that has been gaining steam ever since, in government and elsewhere. But now a flare has gone up. Researchers at Melbourne University recently observed that there was so little common understanding or agreement about what co-design means that “it risks becoming a meaningless buzzword.”
And they are absolutely right.
But, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Empty words and fads help nobody. If any client is wanting co-design simply for the sake of it then they are unlikely to get a good result. And results, after all, are what really matters.
However you arrive at it, the critical thing is the outcome. At ThinkPlace we talk about it in terms of the impact. We are in the business of delivering impact.
Real impact is the key
But if there is uncertainty around what co-design means in the broader world of service design there is none within the walls of our studios.
If we think of design as comprising three distinct stages: Explore (why is this needed? What problem does it address?), innovate (what new thinking do we need to deploy to come up with solutions) and evaluate (how do we test those prototype solutions and get input from the right people?) then design can happen at different points on a spectrum.
The main question as a designer is how often, and at what points, you engage others.
Some approaches ask people what they want and then go away to try and deliver it. Some circle back to the client or the potential user for testing at the end. Some run consultation processes for the general public or affected stakeholders when – for the most part – a design has already been arrived at.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with these approaches but they are not what we’d call co-design. And they aren’t what we strive for.
With co-design (or maybe we should call it collaborative design) you explore, innovate and evaluate together. Then you do it again. And again. Until you have a prototype that works.
And as a designer you are engaged with your design partners throughout the entire process.