The case for co-design in HE

View all tags
Ponte di Calatrava (Constitution Bridge), Venice

Learning designer Diana Foster explores the benefits of collaborative design, including rapid prototyping, alleviated pressure on designers and stakeholder engagement.

Ponte di Calatrava is a stunning bridge in Venice designed by an award-winning architect chosen for the prestigious assignment through a hard-won public selection. Yet the bridge is a design failure.

Steps embedded in its steep pavement mean that many stumble, elderly people struggle, wheelchair users cannot cross and the din from tourists’ wheeled suitcases as they cross from the adjoining station is unbearable. During winter, in the frequent fog that descends on Venice, it’s hard not to slip on the ice. The authorities later added a ferry to its side to overcome these issues, at great expense.

Do these user issues sound familiar?

What is co-design?

You’re probably thinking: why didn't they simply ask people to test it and walk across it? And that, in a nutshell, relates to co-design. Co-design involves human users in design from the start, and comes from design thinking. Architecture may be a field prone to expensive mistakes and aesthetic imperatives. By contrast, ‘human-centric’ design refocuses attention to the human ‘user’.

A history of design thinking

Design thinking has its origins in the Scandinavian participatory design movement of the 1970s. If human-centred design is about gaining insight into how humans experience a product or service, participatory design is about involving the stakeholders in the design process; co-design is about designing together. It’s an approach that is growing in education at all levels.

Rapid prototyping

Design thinking also tests out on users early ‘prototypes’, thus avoiding expensive mistakes later. A small iteration early on is simpler to fix - certainly in the case of the bridge!

By including all stakeholders, co-design is also more democratic, as multiple perspectives are considered. It’s collaborative, too, and a key benefit of involving all your stakeholders is increased engagement with the overall project.

I find co-design workshops with academic partners rewarding not just because of the effect of having a room of knowledge and subject matter expertise, but because by designing together, we have co-created. Everyone has buy in and ownership. Co-designing can also speed up the process of arriving at an agreed approach: a workshop to draw up a strawman design can bring various debates to a practical close.

Co-designing with students

Engaging students as co-creators of curricula is also gaining ground. I co-faciliated a ‘design sprint’ with prospective students at Pearson College London on a trial project to inform the design of an upcoming undergraduate programme.

Students investigated the role of tutor input: they considered how much is needed and gave feedback on learning in this manner. An in-depth debrief with the group was followed by a survey and individual interviews. The students' feedback resulted in tweaks to the design of the project element of the course.

Analysis vs. action

Traditional design spends a great deal of time analysing before anything is developed; whereas the focus of design thinking is on trying out ideas early - gaining feedback and learning from these trials. It’s iterative, consultative and ‘fail-safe’: don’t build the whole bridge - try out a model first.

Learn from your mistakes. Adapt. Improve.

More associated with the creative industries, this approach was popularised by IDEO and its founder David Kelley, academic director of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. It’s also a different mindset - it’s playful. It’s about collaboration and experimentation. You can see how it fits with the fast-changing era of digital apps and rapid innovation – and today’s Gen Z students.

Empathic design

Design thinking has basic stages which feed into one another and loop back. It's key - and aligns with Pearson's student-centric focus, that we start by getting as close to the learners - empathising before defining - then moving to ideation before we prototype and test. The mistake we make is to jump to 'solutioning' before we understand.

Benefits to learning designers

Design thinking makes design processes available to all of us, not just to the expert designers. Its collaborative nature may threaten some as it may not seem to be expert-led.

To me, as an online learning designer of over 20 years’ experience, and an ex-teacher, this more iterative, inclusive methodology, with its audience as participants, opens up my thinking to others’ insights, and is a thorough way of validating initial ideas.

And guess what? As professionals, we can breathe a sigh of relief: it doesn’t all hinge on one genius, and it relieves the pressure to be right first time.

Learn more

Learn more about how we put design thinking into practice in our course development service.

Find out more

Trischler, Jakob, Simon J. Pervan, Stephen J. Kelly and Don R. Scott (2018), "The value of codesign: The effect of customer involvement in service design teams", Journal of Service Research, 21(1): 75-100


About the author

Diana Foster is the lead learning experience design consultant for Pearson higher education in the UK.