Co-design is a design approach where stakeholders meet and improve on each other’s ideas while “rehearsing the future” together. In this process, the designers’ visualisation skills play a crucial role.
By Morten Seifert
A group of senior citizens playing croquet with crooked mallets and tossing Frisbees at the animal figures in the playground. That was the scene in Valby Park in autumn 2011 when PhD Scholar Maria Foverskov from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design co-designed exercise activities for seniors together with staff from the City of Copenhagen, the fitness company Humankoncept and researchers from the IT University of Copenhagen.
The experiences from the project form a central case study in Maria Foverskov’s PhD dissertation on co-design.
“This project is a great example if you want to understand co-design, because it involves many actors with different knowledge and backgrounds who get together to improve on each other’s ideas and develop something new. In co-design, we often use the term ‘rehearsing the future’,” Maria Foverskov explains.
Maria Foverskov hopes that her PhD dissertation will bring new knowledge to design research about working with open design contexts and the so-called ‘living labs’ that the Valby Park project represents. She also aims to expand and modify the designers’ toolkit to make it better suited to open design processes.
The project ‘Aktivt udeliv i Valbyparken’ (Outdoor activities in Valby Park) is an activity under the Innovation Office in the Health and Care Administration of the City of Copenhagen. The City’s goal is to develop new types of exercise activities for senior citizens and to avoid the often rigid conventions that characterise services for senior citizens. In addition to the City of Copenhagen and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design, the project involves the IT University of Copenhagen and the fitness company Humankoncept. And, most importantly: the senior citizens themselves, who are involved in developing the activities.
The project took its point of departure in activities that the seniors already knew and enjoyed: croquet, disc golf, bocce and hockey as well as experimental forms and combinations of the familiar games.
“One of the most popular results was an experimental croquet game with crooked mallets in varying lengths and mallets that were used by players in pairs. Another example was ’safari Frisbee’, where the elderly participants tried to hit the animal figures in the Valby Park playground,” says Maria Foverskov.
In addition to developing new games, the project also aimed to include social media to improve the senior citizens’ networks. The goal was to create bonds in relation to the project, independent of the participants’ traditional network of friends. The seniors should be able to stay updated on the time and place of activities and suggest new activities. The development of simple apps that matched the needs and abilities of a user group who was not familiar with social media required close collaboration with the seniors. The project also launched a blog: http://valbyparken.blogspot.com.
Maria Foverskov is an industrial designer. And the design profession has come a long way in recent years, she says.
“In this sort of project I consider myself a designer of networks and project processes. You might also say that I am designing a new municipal service for senior citizens. In co-design I draw on my visualisation skills. As a designer I can see how something might be different than it is today. And I can make that vision comprehensible and tangible to others,” she explains.
|Associate Professor Thomas Binder and PhD Scholar Maria Foverskov study co-design. Among other things, this involves investigating and testing tools and methods for involving stakeholders in open design processes with many participants.
Photo: Pernille Brun Andersen
Associate Professor Thomas Binder of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design has joined the school’s co-design research cluster. He is one of the Danish researchers with most experience in the field of co-design. He explains what co-design is about:
“Co-design is not a fixed and narrowly defined method. It’s rather an approach to a design task. In co-design the designer engages and becomes part of a process. He must be willing to work with everyone involved in implementing the new solution. In co-design we also acknowledge that the goal of the process might change along the way,” he says, adding that even if co-design remains a relatively new phenomenon, toolkits are beginning to take shape.
“For example in prototyping. In co-design the designer is not necessarily the one who creates the first prototype; instead he may invite the customer to contribute to prototypes from the outset. I see it as a spiral-shaped process, where the initial prototype develops into the next, and the one after that, and so forth.”
Thomas Binder explains why designers are so good at these processes:
“We can initiate and facilitate communication about the new solutions, rendering the future visible and comprehensible, so that the users can envision their place in it. It’s not that different from our work with visual communication in general. People need the designer’s magic mirror in order to grasp the vision of the future. Take the Valby Park project, for example. Sure, as designers we are novices when it comes to services for senior citizens, but we cooperate with the real experts. We bring the ability to grasp the new and unconventional possibilities, something that people are often blind to if they have worked in a given field for too long.”
Thomas Binder explains that in many ways, co-design is the same as co-creation, although the literature on co-creation is typically more directly business-oriented. Both concepts are extensions of ideas that were prevalent in the 1970s aimed at thinking outside the box and ensuring a free flow of creativity. These ideas have had a renaissance in recent years, he explains, although he thinks that today’s designers are more careful not to get too far outside the box. In co-design, recognisability is a key condition for creating a shared space where the stakeholders can meet to explore new possibilities. This is referred to as the ‘exploration of the possible’.
“For example, when we work with the senior citizens in Valby Park, we use the familiar as our point of departure. We create a space that is safe and novel at the same time. The opening to new possibilities is often found exactly at the point where one is unsure whether something is actually new, or whether it is simply a modification of something that was already in place. The familiar is a good basis for involving many different people in a project, as we do in co-design. If the opening is too wide, you might catch a glimpse of something new, but it tends to slip away again. To offer a viable path, the new possibilities should be right in front of us,” says Thomas Binder.
Co-design has proved a useful approach in a wide range of projects. As an example, Thomas Binder mentions the project ‘Rum og arbejde i stadig forandring’ (Work and space in constant change). Here, co-design is used to develop new physical work spaces in companies. The staff is involved in the planning process, and the co-design approach ensures a process that reflects the corporate spirit while also generating functional rooms for the employees in their daily work.
In another project, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design together with the Danish Alzheimer’s Association and the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson developed dialogue tools for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.
The Danish Tax and Customs Administration – SKAT has also worked with the co-design researchers and their students. Together with the cross-ministerial development unit MindLab, they used co-design to improve SKAT’s service to private companies. Using co-design tools the design students developed dialogue instruments and investigated how SKAT can involve the users and develop better service solutions.
“What we do with co-design might resemble what takes place in many communication agencies. But in many cases there is a fairly rigid division of tasks between communication consultants and designers. I would like to loosen that up. Designers have a lot to offer in relation to modern communication,” says Thomas Binder and adds,
“The remarkable conclusion after ten years of successfully working with co-design is that the key is not to organise around projects but around partnerships. We need to create a space where new possibilities are spotted and visualised. That’s what we would like to contribute to with co-design.”
Thomas Binder and Maria Foverskov are members of the co-design research cluster at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design. On the research cluster’s blog you can find news about projects, seminars, courses, modules and other events; visit http://codesignresearch.com/.
You can read more about the method of co-design in the article People With Alzheimer’s Disease Benefit From Design in Mind Design #42, October 2011.