Democratic designing

What are we selling?

I keep standing in a room with interested and curious partners that listen to my reasons behind introducing codesign to their projects. And the list is long, believe me: collaborative networks, sustainable outcome, user involvement, democratic decisions, playful approaches, responsible research, open cards, reflective decisions, diverse reach, problem cruncher…  Maybe it’s too long. And at the end of my spiel that highlights the multiple and diverse benefits and outcomes, I end up with the feeling: What am I selling? How do I describe my business plan in one sentence? Am I selling a design? Yes, but I’m not sure in what form. It can end up being an adjustment, a website or a chair. Am I selling a process? Yes, but we will change it along the way. Am I selling collaboration? Yes, but I don’t know the collaborators.

Merkel et al. (2004) explains the codesigner’s role very well:

“The focus should not just be on design skills but on the designer’s ability to create conditions that encourage a collaborative design process and active reflection” (Simonsen et al. 2013, 189; Merkel et al. 2004, 7).

So the question is, how should one sell a collaborative design process? Why should anyone want a codesign process? The truth is, I really don’t know sometimes. It has nothing to do with my belief in the methods. I strongly believe in the innovative and sustainable process and results of codesign. It has something to do with not knowing where we end up. I cannot know, because not knowing is a fundamental necessity in codesign. And this necessity brings a lot of risk. A risk that most companies and organisations strive to minimize. For this uncertainty we buy trust with the reputable values that the methods bring. Values like democracy, sustainability, innovation and collaboration, is the packaging of codesign’s chance.

In the Nørrebro library project, we bought this trust through an invitation film – a film that was directed to recruit citizens to our workshop, but indirectly was a buy-in to reach stakeholders and the staff at the library. After reading DiSalvo, Clement and Pipek’s take on communities (Simonsen et al 2013), it became clear how important it is to motivate the community we are designing for. We needed the staff to trust and engage with our methods, and the stakeholders to see the values we brought in the local context. Last but not least, we needed them to see their own thoughts and values being addressed in our material. We used the words that the staff and stakeholders had used throughout the video to represent the neighborhood in their language. I think this ‘buy-in product’ is important, and it is not limited to the video media. The private sector tends to not want to take the chance, and it’s therefore even more important to have a product midway.

You take a chance by engaging in an open ended experiment, but is it possible to put codesign on a can? Making it more concrete and chewable? Yes, everything is possible, but then there is no room for uncertainty, and in my opinion this is where all the magic happens. The magic that makes the use of values like democratic collaboration and sustainability possible. I believe that we can package some tools and processes through time that minimize the risk. But it’s a fine line between pushing the limits of uncertainty and killing the real innovation. I believe in codesign and selling it wide, but there is no reason to sell out.


This article was written for the book Democratic Design Experiments, that I and 5 other codesign students wrote to reflect and elaborate on our work with culture centers and libraries in Copenhagen.