Girl-centred Design — what is it?

Stef Monaco
Innovation Hub @ Plan International
3 min readJun 18, 2020

If I had a penny for every time I have heard ‘Girl-centred design is just a marketing thing; it’s the same as participatory methods’; I’d be richer than Bezos.

There is real confusion within the international development and humanitarian communities about what Girl-Centred Design is and how it’s different from participatory methods. We are an industry built on linear repetition and centralised control — with good reason, we work in some of the most difficult contexts in the world so we’re always at risk of causing serious harm. But the thing is, Girl-Centred Design is pretty much the opposite of that.

I think of participatory and Girl-Centred Design both as a continuum and a return to the roots of co-design. Participatory methods introduced the world to the importance of co-creation with all stakeholders. They opened product, service, government, even policy design to democratic legitimacy and accountability. Over time, this became diluted into methods that are consultative, rather than collaborative in nature. Girl-Centred Design is both a return to co-creation and an evolution of it.

Girl-Centred Design requires us to hold true empathy and the implications of this are vast. We must become highly skilled in both big-picture theoretical frameworks, particularly intersectional feminism, critical racial theory and social dominance, as well as in the contexts and lives of the girls we seek to serve. Behaviourally, this means that we must inhabit the space of enablers and supporters, never the lead role in our work. And this covers the entire team, no matter what your role is, no matter whether you have direct interaction with the girls we seek to serve or not. Because bias is also subconscious, unless we practise real allyship and cultural humility; we risk causing harm to the girls we seek to serve through our interactions and eschewing our insights and designs — which in turn increases the risk of failure.

Girl-Centred Design requires us to practice experimental methodologies framed in continuous learning. This is a high threshold because we’re called not only to apply experimental methodologies in often unpredictable, unstable situations (we are working with humans, after all), but also, we’re compelled to remain flexible and adapt quickly based on evidence. This is a tough Venn to occupy: oh so, you want methodological rigour + fluidity and flexibility + giving up control over outcomes so that the lived experiences of the girls we seek to serve lead the process?! Yup, we do. This means there will be a lot of failure involved in this process, and a lot of uncertainty. It is intellectually and emotionally very challenging for the team but trust us, it’s worth it.

Girl-Centred Design is only possible if everything we do during a project is…well, girl-centred. Girl-centrality is a complex idea to define; it cuts across safeguarding and safety, intersectionality, dominance, bias, human-centred and systems thinking. It requires a fundamental change in how we work with girls: in order to meet the ambition of girl-centred design, we must engage with girls in truly inclusive ways, anchored in a profound understanding of local intersectionalities and dominance-non-dominance. We must engage with girls beyond the cognitive. In other words, we work with girls’ whole selves through methodologies that are action, play and arts-based and reinforce core principles such as ‘do no harm’. But this is not enough, we must also ensure that our methodologies are non-extractive nor exploitative, and that we provide value for girls at every interaction point. In turn, to engage with girls in truly meaningful ways, we need to create the safe physical and social spaces for that engagement by working with the multiple levels of interlocking gatekeepers.

Girl-centred Design is a practice, and as such, we’re constantly making mistakes and evolving. We hope to share with you our lessons, experiences, and successes in our practice over the next weeks and months — stay tuned!