‘Co-design’ can work well, but let’s not push it too far

Lynda Relph-Knight

The thorny issue of ‘co-design’ raised its head again last week at a debate hosted in London by the Audi Design Foundation.

Is it good to involve ‘lay’ people in design – beyond a preliminary consultation – or does it undermine the position of the designer? And does innovation suffer if users are involved – designers are, after all, supposed to be visionaries who see beyond the obvious? These were some of the concerns expressed by participants in the session.

The usual points were addressed, including Henry Ford’s well-worn quip that public involvement would have had him creating a faster horse rather than a car – an object no one could then envisage – and the panel being asked if they’d fly in a plane designed by everyday folk.

Such comments aren’t new, but nor is public participation in design. In architecture, ‘community’ projects go back to at least the late 1970s and manifest in later schemes such as the Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library by the then Alsop & Störmer. Users are consulted throughout the project, though they don’t do the actual design.

In design we have examples of user groups informing and trialling designs by consultancies taking part in the annual Design Challenge run by the Helen Hamlyn Centre and the Design Business Association to promote inclusive design. We also have initiatives such as The Sorrell Foundation’s work, primarily with schools, and that of Participle, Hilary Cottam’s latest venture. And then there is service design.

But can public participation underpin other areas of design? Should, say, retail buyers have a role in product and packaging design? Probably not. Would passengers have made a better job of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (see Private View, page 10)? Possibly, but where would the ultimate responsibility lie?

The co-design debate hinges on this issue of responsibility. There is a huge difference between involving users in the process and formulating a design. Interpreting people’s needs and desires and moving them forward in a responsible way is surely what designers do best.

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  • C. Horrex November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    We rely on lawyers because they have a better understanding of the law, but we are all aware of the effects personal opinion, ego and the believed immoral aspects these characters have. It’s the judge that takes the responsibility of the decision and like with most projects the final decision will lie with one person, more often than not the client.

    The judge is experienced and is well versed in the understanding of the law, if the decision falls to someone with a lack of understanding and knowledge on the relevant subject it could so easily go wrong.

    I would not want the decisions to be made by the layman, but it doesn’t mean we can’t listen to his opinion.

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