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The value in co-design and co-creating

Over the last two years we’ve worked with a number of clients and end user groups across several different briefs to co-design and co-create solutions. As designers we’ve found the process to be exciting and enlightening, and it’s delivered excellent results for our clients. In this article, Leap’s Creative Director Nathan Lance shares his experiences of co-creating and outlines why directly involving the end-users in the design process is such a valuable exercise from both a creative point of view as well as for meeting and surpassing briefs and client expectations.

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I think that co-creation is probably the most direct way that you can get input from a client that feels organic. Our job role as designers is to facilitate that (often as an extension of a general workshop) and then curate that input and pull out the best bits. It’s great to have the starting point and at least the initial building blocks for a solution coming from the client.

Whether or not we suggest co-creation or co-design is job dependent. Some clients don’t want it, and I think that some projects restrict co-creation to some degree, but I also think there is potential for co-creation within every project. Some projects will have big workshops that we lead, in the studio and are very design related, but for example when working with Culture Card we set up the idea and then the client themselves organised the co-creation exercise. That meant that we could allow them to do it in their way with their audience, but still get the creative benefit from the process.

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Culture Card

Culture Card is an initiative that allows care experienced young people to access museums and exhibitions in Cornwall for free. We came up with the idea of having little wooden cards that could be distributed to eligible young people (for them to keep in their wallet with their bank cards etc), but we wanted to make the card unique for each individual person. The wooden cards would be laser etched and cut from large sheets of wood, and our concept was to get members of the end user group to work with a local artist to make shapes and abstract artwork on the wooden panels so that when the cards were etched and cut out each one was incredibly different depending on where that mark or that splash of paint was. We put that concept forward and then the client organised the art session with Penlee House, one of the main points of contact. They already worked with local artists who came in to do workshops for them, so they were well placed to organise and run it themselves but it was our input that made them realise that co-creation was a possibility.

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Inclusion Labs

Inclusion Labs are a movement for change who work in partnership with schools to empower them to be active and accountable in creating an inclusive community for every pupil. Working with them we built a co-creation framework into the project, and because again the client had the contact with the young people from the target beneficiary audience who were going to do the co-creation it felt best for them to directly contact and work with them. The Inclusion Labs logo is the word “Inclusion Labs”, but each of the letters in it were picked out by a different individual in the co-design exercise. We didn’t predetermine the logo because it’s meant to be reflective of being inclusive – we took that concept behind the brand and really thought about how we could roll that out through the entire project so not only was the result reflective of inclusivity but also about how could we make that physically manifest in the design itself? To achieve that we made a document that had different typefaces and a summary of what those typefaces are commonly used for or associated with; so you might have one really curly, decorative font that looks quite regal, and put the personality traits alongside it so then the young people could look at this personality match to each font and say “actually, I feel like I’m quite bold and brave so I’m going to pick Helvetica because it really stands out, it’s bold and punchy”. We didn’t know what the final logo was going to be like – we had to wait for the results of that co-creation to come back and then see what it was because that was a reflection of the project.

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The benefits of being curious

I think that that element of curiosity really shines through on co-creation projects. It forces you to not have any predetermined concepts, which I think always helps the outcome. I think that as designers we’re really good, as soon as somebody states a problem, at picturing a brief. Introducing that element of positive chaos is super beneficial because it makes you adapt and be flexible, and challenge your preconceptions – not even just for the project itself but for the people that might be involved in the co-creation. Through co-creation I’ve come into contact and worked with people that I don’t often have contact with from day to day, like a person going through their trans journey who might not necessarily be somebody who I would have contact with or whose experience I would know about. Through co-creation I learn their story, and I learn why my preconception of what that logo needs to be like is completely wrong because I’ve talked to the person first hand and found out what they need it to do for them.

Co-design and co-creation is an exercise in creativity, not design. We create the idea, but the design comes back from the client or the end user.

Democratising design

Co-creation democratises the design process. I think that there’s a time and place for everything – times when a client needs our expertise and we can give that to them, but also times when they can and should be involved. That opening up of the funnel allows for all of the possibilities to come forward and creates a less linear approach to the beginning, middle and end of a project. Those deviations and the ideas that come off of the co-creation are normally the bits that make things interesting and original.

A big part of co-creation is giving the people in the workshop a sense of ownership over the project that they’re working on. I think that’s one of the most positive things to come out of it. If we’re trying to create a brand or work with someone to solve a creative problem that they’re involved in, it makes them feel a part of that solution. It’s not just that they’ve gone to a design agency and said “we’re stuck” and then three months later they get the solution and they think that magic has happened in-between. It allows people to understand that they’ve got this creative potential and purpose within them. So many people come to workshops and say “I’m not going to be any use, I’m not creative” but they are; everybody has something to offer and co-creation is a great exercise in getting people involved and building self-esteem, and even giving people a taste of what it’s like to be a designer and to make change.

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Barnardo’s

Our work with Barnardo’s has been all about supporting care-experienced young people (either in or leaving care) to help them to develop the skills they need to live independently.

Throughout the first stage of our LifeLabs work with Barnardo’s, because we were building things for care-experienced young people we had to go beyond simply taking our solutions to test on the end user group and instead build the solutions WITH the user group. We didn’t take anything, in terms of what we thought, as gospel. We worked with a group of those young people to build a growing online hub populated with video-based and AR resources that they said they needed.

If we made any assumptions through the process then they were run past the young people in the co-creation workshops, but mostly we avoided making any assumptions because we started from the ground level up with the young people. Every possible angle was run through co-creation and we thought that was the best way to stay true to the brief. We were there to do some research and come at it using our expertise, but truly the best people who know what they want are the people who you’re working for, who need the outcomes. For that project we created a range of assets, including developing virtual reality cooking experiments (and in that case we had feedback that whilst some users loved it, others found it a bit discombobulating so we took a step back and reassessed). Part of it was digital using VR, but we also made sure there were other elements to the project such as step-by-step instructional videos that didn’t require somebody to wear a VR headset. Co-creating is great from a critiquing standpoint because there’s nobody better to make you take a step back and reassess where you are in a project than the people who are going to be using it, because you can’t argue against that feedback. I think that designers critiquing designers always come at it from that insular world and perhaps an academic stand-point where you can discuss what shade of purple something should be, whereas the end-user doesn’t care what shade of purple it is, they want it to function and do what they need it to do. They might need it to be green instead of purple. Co-design and co-creation is a very humbling experience from that perspective. It’s a great stress test for ideas, and a great way to design and create something solely for the end user without the risk of any professional designer indulgence sneaking in.

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If you have a project in mind for 2022 and wonder whether it would be suitable for or benefit from being co-designed and co-created with you or your user group, then we’d love to learn more and talk to you about what we could offer.