Conversations outside the box #3: Opening the black box with co-design

Insights | 9 September, 2019

Jeremy Myserson explores how designing with input from stakeholders makes transformation less traumatic, more effective, and far more sustainable.

As part of Think Work Out of the Box, our book on workplace transformation, Studio Banana sat down with leaders across various industries to hear their thoughts on what tools and environments can best serve the contemporary workforce.

Jeremy Myerson is an academic researcher, author, and activist in people-centered design and innovation. The Director of WORKTECH Academy, which is Unwired’s global knowledge network, he has been named by Wired magazine as one of Britain’s 100 most influential people in digital technology and is recognized as a leading expert in workplace design and innovation.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation about why it’s so crucial to carefully design the co-design process itself and how input from stakeholders is the key to sustainable workplace transformation.

To design for the people, you must design with them

Studio Banana— In publications about your ideas, you describe a subtle move from designing for the people to designing with the people. With this change, the nature of design itself changes.

Jeremy Myerson— Over nearly a decade I have been developing this argument about a shift from designing for people to designing with people. For many decades, designers have acted on behalf of people, and made decisions about the spatial organisation, the materials employed, etc. Most of the time, these decisions were based on insights and research, but the designers adopted a kind of expert mindset in the process. And this attitude, or working method, has a certain validity. However, I find the participatory mindset, and the idea of inviting people to be part of your design process, more convincing. Obviously, this does not entail the invitees designing for themselves. Rather, it simply means that the designers open the “black box” and allow people into the process. It allows people who are not necessarily designers, to use the techniques of designers, to have a say in how they want their workspace to be. And then you can come back with professional ideas and let them test these ideas against the original concept. Looking at the work of Studio Banana, it is clear that you do this.

When you get the co-design processes right, you obtain a much stronger design, more focused on the real needs of people. In the context of the workplace environment, there is a tremendous amount of poor mental health in the workplace, disassociation, and dissatisfaction with standard work environments. In this context, it seems most relevant now to actually modify the design process in order to address people’s needs.

SB— For us, co-design means also to acknowledge, with modesty, that users have insights and know the deep down problems and can easily identify the symptoms. In a co-design process, we designers take the role of facilitators, helping the users identify their needs (and pain-points).

We’ve come to realise how these processes strongly contribute to the employees’ engagement and, as a not-insignificant side-effect, critically help the change management. Through co-design, you start preparing the future users for the transformations they will go through. We often emphasise to our clients the fact that a workplace transformation is traumatic; it entails huge turmoil. Moving from one work setting to another overnight is such a disruptive thing to do. However, by applying a co-design process, the users feel empowered and feel that they have ownership of the solution.

JM— I entirely agree. It seems that one of the main and most important aspects of co-design is its implicit empathy or potential for empathy: co-design is not a scientific, rational, or value-neutral process. Rather, it focuses on individual or de facto needs. It engages the individuals concerned in a very respectful way. Moreover, the process helps to specify how the individual fits within a team and, on a larger scale, how a team fits within an organisation.

Workplace transformation is traumatic. People are asked to work in new settings, in new environments, with new protocols. And what happens if a company does not engage their workforce properly at the front end? They will need a big workforce engagement at the back end, often summarised under the term “change management”. Yet, if you actually go through a co-design process to start with, then you end up with something more intuitively usable at the back end and, consequently, you do not need the change management as such. The employees of a company, or the participants of a co-design process, recognise that decisions have been made and now they have to respond to the new environment, but they are invited to contribute to shaping it. In financial terms, in most cases this clearly implies that through a small investment into co-design at the beginning, at the front end, you can avoid significant amounts poured into change management at the back end.

One thing I would add, though, is that co-design has its limits: there is a point in which professional design expertise has to take over. A couple of years ago, we lead a research project at the Royal College of Art with a consortium of industrial partners around well-being and participatory design. We discovered that too much participation, too much co-design, is slightly unsettling and worrying for people. They want to have their say, they want to create and engage, but then they quite rapidly want to see the professional designers applying and translating their findings into their design proposition.

SB— In our work with the co-design method, we often encounter some initial hesitation at the management level [until] the CEOs, the team leaders, or the real estate managers discover how this method actually leads to more sustainable solutions — sustainable in the sense that the resulting workspaces function exceptionally well. Ideally we would be able to ease or avoid the hesitation from the very beginning.

JM— The problem probably lies deeper down: many companies are afraid of co-design processes because they see it as a forum where employees can complain about and criticise the company and its ways of working. Considering that co-design has this connotation of something to be suspicious about, it is fundamental to carefully design the co-design process itself. Moreover, you need to emphasise the fact that co-design is (only) partly about analysis and much more about the synthesis: it is about listening to people, but just as much about finding a specific layout and design, and then actually realising it in efficient terms.

The full conversation, where we discuss how to go about structuring an effective co-design process, can be found in the Co-Design chapter of Think Work Out of the Box.

If you would like to stay informed and receive more information on the book, join our mailing list.

To learn more about the future of work and how workplace transformation is facilitated and made more effective with co-design, follow Studio Banana on LinkedIn.