Co-designing government: innovation through design

When asked in theory class “how do you react to the concept of co-design?”, my first reaction was “wistful”. These past two weeks we have been reading the works of eight authors who each have a slightly different take on design’s place in the world. In this blog post, I will, in turn, offer my perspective on where these authors fall on the below spectrum of “designing for” people versus “designing with” people. To make this perspective a bit more interesting, I will additionally offer insights on whether these authors believe in the value of designing for – and/or with – the citizen versus the consumer.

Allow me to briefly explain why “wistful” was my first reaction. I am currently working for the City of Austin, and I’m on a team which does a significant amount of interfacing between the operations side of the department and the community which we serve. The concept of co-design is often used as an umbrella term for participatory and open design processes. As Jodi Forlizzi describes it, co-design is a sort of “collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process.” It encourages co-creation between companies and their consumers, but this concept may also be applied to governments and their citizens.

The City of Austin is currently working to scale its capacity to design and build services that grow and adapt to residents’ needs. This is fabulous, and makes me feel like I’m in the perfect place to be both working at the City and learning about how to design and build services. However, in government, there is always be room for growth, hence my gut reaction as we discussed the concept of co-design in a reading by Liz Sanders. This reaction made me think about the other authors that we’ve been reading lately, and whether the audience (or collaborators) that they hold in their mind when thinking about design leans more toward the “citizen” or the “consumer” side of the spectrum.

co-designing govt
Chris Le Dantec and Jodi Forlizzi were relatively easy for me to place. Chris recalled his methodology for including specific populations in his design process, so some might argue that he was designing “with” these populations then he should fall on the “with” side, yet I feel that since his aim was to design the product/service for that specific population, he should be staunchly on the “for” side of the scale. Since he focused on a population experiencing homelessness, I believe that Chris would agree that he was designing for citizens, as opposed to designing for consumers.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Jodi who introduced us to product ecology, a design framework to help describe how products evoke social behavior. She falls squarely in the “designing with” camp, yet her main collaborators discussed in our readings were consumers of products, hence the placement on the below map. As mentioned before, Liz (who introduced us to the concept of co-design) is also on the “with” side of the scale and – while she mainly discusses designing with product consumers in our reading, she does point out that the co-creation process is valuable within communities, earning her a spot just barely tipped to the consumer’s side.

Bill Gaver was a curious case. His reading highlighted what he called “cultural probes” and the concept of designing for pleasure. Since this method stresses empathy and engagement to understand the people interacting with a product or service, he seems like he could be tipped to the citizen’s side of the scale, and yet it was often hard to decipher whether he was designing for, designing with, or simply designing with no real goals in mind. This ambiguity landed him at the center of the “for” and “with” scale. And, while we’re talking about curious cases, it feels appropriate to place Don Norman on the chart.

Don self-described his writings as “provocative”, and holds that design research is essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs. Rather, he feels that it is the inventors and those who deal in technology that are truly innovative in the things that they create. Since he seems to believe that design should be based on the needs of the user instead of less important things like aesthetics, it isn’t a huge stretch to think he might prefer to design for citizens rather than consumers, but he doesn’t offer any insights to propel himself up and over that line in our reading.

Jane Fulton Suri outlined the importance of ethnographic research in today’s world. Since the context of her human-centered design framework was set in today’s marketplace, she falls more on the consumer end of the spectrum. However, Jane she does seem interested in designing for the true needs of people, so she may yet become a convert to design for citizens. We also read a piece by our school’s founder, Jon Kolko, and – since our program is focused on solving wicked problems through rigorous human-centered research – he earns himself a place higher on the designing for citizens scale.

Finally, the reading by Paul Dourish offered a pretty cerebral examination of the role of information technology in today’s world in the context of design. Rather than designing with humans, however, Dourish’s perspective often felt framed around the potential to design with technology as we move forward into the future. His article was written in 2004 – before the iPhone was invented – and yet it feels strangely prophetic as today’s technological world is ripe with ever-improving artificial intelligence advances.

In my attempt to place these authors I’ve realized that there is ample room remaining on the “designing with/for citizens” half of the chart, and I hope that this program helps to propel me into that space.