The Secret To Making Design Co-Creation Work

Dennis Hambeukers
Jan 30, 2019 · 4 min read

Co-creation is one of the highest performing problem solving strategies. If you do it right that is. Not only does it increase the total mental capacity that is being applied to solving problems, it also creates the crucial engagement for solutions. You end up with validated ideas that are the result of massive thinking power.

But not everybody is an expert. When you are involved in a co-creation process as a designer, everyone can — and should — provide input on matters of design. You can find yourself in a situation where everyone thinks they know about design or in a situation where nobody wants to comment on design because they are not experts. In both cases, and everything in between, the best strategy is humility.

When everybody is a designer

In a context where everyone has an opinion on design, you might feel cornered, pushed, criticized. Everybody has their own opinions, their own assumptions on what works best, their own personal preferences. When that happens, I found it works best to let everyone give their input and be open about it. If someone has a better idea on some aspect of the design, that is only a good thing. Even if you didn’t think of it, if it’s better, the project will only benefit.

Pro skills

But humility and openness is not enough. You also have to be an expert. Being a professional designer means that you have skills, knowledge and experience, non-designers don’t have. Seeing the big picture, knowing what works best form research, seeing how in the design things connect and how one decision impacts many other, is part of what you bring to the table. So humbly educate people on what you know about design. Most people like to learn and it gives you the opportunity to establish your authority while still remaining open to input.

The other day I heard someone compare this to being a professional chef. Many people can cook a nice meal in their kitchen for their family or friends. But it’s not quite the same as working as a chef in a professional kitchen. Pro skills extend beyond basic parts and skills.

The user decides

I found it also works to remember why you are doing things: to help the user. The user is the one who decides what works best. Even when you might be right most of the times because you are a pro designer, all design decisions are hypotheses that have to be validated by the user. Let the user be the judge of design decisions and open up that process to all stakeholders. If someone has an idea that works: great. That doesn’t mean you are not a good designer.

Articulating decisions

It might require you to train yourself in articulating design decisions. Many designers work on gut feeling and do what feels right, but in an open setting of co-creation, it’s important to explain design decisions. That way you can strengthen your position and keep the discussions focussed. It’s not about beauty but about what works. You don’t want the discussion to be about taste, but about function.

When nobody is a designer

You can also have too much authority in a co-creation process. You can also find yourself opening up the design process and find that nobody responds. Apart from expressing your humility and presenting the co-creation process as a safe environment and stating that everyone can have a good idea on design that will help the project, I found that it helps to connect design to each person’s job. In the end, a lot of decisions that people make end up influencing the design. If the project manager doesn’t manage the project well, design might suffer. If the software cannot deliver the designed functions, the user experience suffers. If domain experts don’t express their insights well, functions might not work the way they should. Everyone is a designer, everyone is a user, everyone has valuable insights that can help the design. I always try to actively engage with all stakeholders to find out how the design impacts their job and to get access to their domain knowledge. If you work the insights you got from those interactions back into the design, you can create an atmosphere in which people start to open up and more actively give their input. Here humility is also key. It’s crucial to not put design above other jobs, but also not beneath.

You are the expert, but you are humble. I found that opening up the design process presents its own set of challenges. But if you can be humble and an expert at the same time, you’ll manage, learn and grow.

Lead in a way that everyone wins

Be as humble as only an expert can be. This is the way to lead with design so everyone wins.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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