Design Thinking has garnered a huge amount of press over the last 10 years, beyond the realm of architecture and product design, to become seen as a panacea to wicked problems, intractable social issues and just about any difficulty encountered by the business world.
While the process certainly benefits many organisations and people, it often relies on a hierarchical structure with the design expert at the head of the innovation process, leading the project through user research, prototypes and testing to a final designed solution. User experience may only be considered in a cursory way, and at times there may be no evaluation after implementation.
Co-Design, also known as participatory design, seeks a deeper insight to the customer’s cultural, emotional and practical requirements, and involves mutual learning by all parties throughout the process rather than just at the research stage. It’s more like a conversation than a lecture, and builds stronger understanding and ownership of the project by all stakeholders.
The process stimulates creativity for all project partners and participants – not just designers. Research methods involve collaborative making as a way of triggering latent knowledge. Activities like daily timelines, collages, image sorting and real-life prototyping help people access their own deep expertise through playful tasks, which are then shared either with the group or the broader community.
This creative approach offers a less paternalistic and more democratic process, and encourages deeper engagement, by acknowledging and valuing stakeholder expertise as the ultimate users of a space, community or service.
“At their best design methods and design thinking catalyse people to see issues and possibilities in a fresh way. They spark creativity and help us to spot the possible connections between things, which so often become obscured by the silos of daily life which dominate governments and businesses alike. But we’re at a fascinating moment when design needs to learn as well as teach if its full potential is to be realised. If it does, it could become one of the defining fields of the next few decades.“ (Mulga, Design in Public and Social Innovation, 2009)