Introduction to community-led co-design

What is co-design?

Co-design is a process of designing with, rather than designing for. Those who are most impacted by the design, especially those with needs least served by existing designs, are involved in the process from its earliest stages. They are engaged throughout the process, and directly contribute to the creation of designs that meet their unique needs. Participants are not involved as research subjects or consultants, rather as designers engaged in active and sustained collaboration.

Co-design can be undertaken at any stage of the design, and it encourages and makes space for a non-linear approach. Our Design Process Map & Walking Guide describes what co-design can look like at different stages of the design process and shows how one might take a non-linear path through those stages. No matter where you are beginning, or where you want to go, you can use co-design to make your design process more inclusive.

Further resources:

Table of contents ↑

What is community-led co-design?

Community-led co-design is an approach in which the co-design process, not just the outcome, is developed in collaboration with community members who will be directly impacted by the design. It engages existing leadership within those communities, by identifying and collaborating with members who will take on the role of facilitation of the co-design sessions.

The partnership with communities can take different forms on a spectrum from project designers working collaboratively with community members to develop the building blocks of the co-design process, up to the point where leadership comes entirely from the community itself.

Recognizing community leadership

By working alongside existing leadership in a community, the process and facilitation are more likely to be contextually appropriate, comfortable, and familiar to the community members. Outside designers without similar lived experience will not have the same cultural knowledge or trust of the community. Leveraging community leadership enables the participation of community members and ensures their contributions in a way that might not be made possible otherwise.

Using a familiar environment

Community-led co-design takes place in the community, in an environment and with people who are already familiar with each other. This is one of the greatest strengths of the community-led co-design approach, as it reduces the burden of adapting to a new environment and new people, and allows co-designers to focus on the design process itself.

Creating more engaged communities

The more influence community members have in deciding on the design process from the beginning, rather than having a prescriptive process imposed on them, the more likely they will be engaged in that process in a committed and sustainable way. This contributes to a greater likelihood that the designs will address their needs and desires.

Moving from design for to design by

Ultimately, community-led co-design moves toward design that is “by us, for us”, in which designs are created by community members for themselves, rather than having designs created for them by others. This respects the idea of “nothing about us without us” and moves the co-design approach towards a more community-led process. Valuing self-determination in this way helps to shape a future where the separation of the researcher/subject is eliminated.

Table of contents ↑

Why do co-design?

Current state

Empathy is not enough

In some design practices, methods are used to stand in for participation of marginalized communities. For example, “empathy exercises” are used to try to help designers empathize with those they are designing for, where designers might use a wheelchair for a week to understand what it’s like to have mobility differences or sleep in a shelter to understand the experience of the unhoused.

These exercises are problematic in that they do not take into account the lived experience and cultural realities of facing the barriers and systemic discrimination of ableism, or the lack of supports or safety net for those with a mental illness that may have led to being unhoused. While empathy is important, it is not enough, and we must include people with lived experience in the design process.

Needs of those on the margins are dismissed as ‘edge cases’

When researchers and designers are analyzing the results of their research, they often look for broad and homogenous user needs. The needs that don’t fit in are often seen as “edge cases” or outliers, and these needs are often dismissed with the justification that only a small proportion of the research population has them. However, when scaled up, these so-called outliers represent a huge number of people who will not be able to use the design. In addition, prioritizing the needs of marginalized groups often results in the needs of those in the center being met as well, and is where unexpected design innovations may be discovered.

Lack of accountability

Designers and researchers using a traditional design process may have little to no accountability to the communities they research and design for. In some cases, once the research is done, participants never hear from researchers and designers again, even though the outcome of their research can deeply impact participants’ everyday lives. This lack of accountability to the community can create distrust, with communities being treated extractively while not experiencing any beneficial change or having the ability to influence the decision-making process. For many communities who have been pushed to the edges of society, research has often played an active part in that marginalization.

Co-design as an approach

Lived experience as expertise

People who are most impacted by a design, have difficulty using a design, or cannot use a design are often those who have the clearest ideas about how to make a design more accessible and inclusive. They have often had to think reflectively about designs that exclude them, and have devised creative workarounds to make the best out of a design that does not fit them. A co-design approach values the lived experiences of people as expertise, respecting and learning from their knowledge throughout the design process.

Start with diverse needs

When people with complex and layered needs design with you, the outcomes of your process are more likely to address a diverse set of needs. And if your design meets a diversity of needs, mainstream users’ needs will more likely also be met. A co-design approach aims to centre the design process around complex needs in this way.

Acknowledging the role of research in marginalization

For communities who have been harmed or alienated by research and the traditional and opposing roles of researcher/research subject, co-design offers an alternative. It strives to bring these power dynamics to light, transfer decision-making power, build in accountability measures, and design collaboratively, rather than prescribing solutions from the outside.

Further resources:

Table of contents ↑