Co-Creation and Participatory Design

By Elizabeth Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers

Sanders, E. and Stappers, P. (2008) Co-creation and the New Landscapes of Design, CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, Taylor and Francis, vol. 4, no. 1, pp.5-18.

Liz Sanders, one of the co-authors of this article, is a ‘legend’ in the human-centred design field, having practised, researched and written in and around this area for over two decades.  The founder of the consultancy and co-creation agency ‘Make Tools’ ( Liz Sanders has practised and researched the development of human-centred design for many years.  All her writings are well worth reading, but here I have chosen one that explores the area of co-creation and co-design because these principles are central to the application of design to social innovation.  The article offers a satisfying blend of analysis and practice, and leaves the reader with quite a bit to think about in terms of the growing influence so called ‘users’ have in the design process and where this may lead in terms of what we now think of as ‘design’ and the role of ‘designers’.

The article begins with some definitional clarifications.  The authors argue that a distinction should be made between the concepts of ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-design’, which are frequently used interchangeably.  According to Sanders and Stappers, co-creation is a very broad term, referring to “any act of collective creativity” (p.16).  On the other hand they suggest that the term ‘co-design’ is a much narrower term (and is actually a sub-set of co-creation), referring specifically to “collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process” (p.16).

Sanders and Stappers then take the reader on a brief historical tour exploring the origins of co-creation and co-design, which lie as much in business and marketing as they do in design disciplines (not to mention the long history of collective engagement and creativity in many social sector disciplines).  It seems there is a longer history to these concepts than much of the recent literature admits.

An obvious question then is why has it taken so long for the power of collective creative to be recognised as a key part of the design process, particularly when such processes are focussed on social innovation or organisational change?  This article identifies some interesting reasons:

[1]  The Expert Mindset:  embracing co-creativity requires a belief that all people are creative and co-design requires that ‘professional’ and ‘trained’ designers relinquish some control and power to ‘users’, which can be difficult for those captured by personal or organisational addictions to an expert status;
[2]  Consumerism:  participatory approaches challenge consumerism because they move away from thinking of design as related to product development for consumption, to thinking of design as opening up explorations of a whole array of non-tangible arrangements that may not be consumable, indeed that could be ‘sharable’!
[3]  User-research has been seen as too radical or not practical enough: until the relatively recent ‘user revolution’ it was seen as irrelevant to engage users in the design process who were seen as having a role only at the end of the process – they were ‘end-users’ after all!

The authors argue that there has been a fundamental shift in the nature and purpose of design so that people and their needs have moved to the centre of design.  For designers this changes “what we design, how we design, and who designs” (p.16).  The figure below outlines this shift.

This in turn changes the roles of players in the design process.  The ‘user’ needs to be recognised as a key player in the creation process, and sometime across the whole design process.  The hierarchies and roles in traditional design processes are broken down, and new tools and methods for engaging a broader range of people are needed.

It is interesting to think about this in the context of social innovation.  Co-created social innovation means inviting the ‘clients’, ‘consumers’, ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘constituents’ of public services and community organisations into the process, in addition to front-line staff and people from across organisations.  This is not new for many in the social sector (in fact many community organisations were started through self-help or mutual aid processes), but it has sometimes become tokenistic and superficial in the push for greater levels of so-called professionalism.   And, if we’re honest, the way many of our services have been designed (for they have all been designed, even if this did not consciously involve a design process), means that users (or clients) are ‘serviced’ rather than being active co-creators, let alone co-designers, in the process.  The application of co-creation and co-design in many public services, social welfare organisations and community organisations would certainly create all the challenges that Sanders and Stappers identify as having held back a wholesale adoption of co-creation in the business world, and possibly more!

The article finishes with some big questions for what the rise of co-creation and co-design mean for the future – whether this way of working will become the norm in design education, whether social science education will also embrace co-creation and co-design practices and whether indeed design practice will eventually become the norm for everyone as we all continue to try to design better and more sustainable ways of “living, learning and working” (p.17).

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