Our studio is a place where we play with space and scenarios. There is a lot of ‘What if?’ discussion. As designers working together, we have a shorthand: we scribble, we model, we leap forward, we backtrack. But we do work in a vacuum, because our field of operation is inherently connected with the people who will use, live in, work at or visit our projects and we have much to learn from them. Their insights, experiences and off-the-cuff comments are valuable, so we pay attention in every way we can. We co-design.
The key principle of co-design is that users, being experts in their own experience, are central to the design process. We know that we design more successful projects when we work with wider groups of stakeholders.
Co-design takes many forms. As we develop a brief, it can involve working out loud with clients and users to closely define scope and ambience, working with quick capacity studies and sketches. As the vision for a project emerges, we might workshop these ideas around a table or take work out onto the street while a project is still in flux. Naturally, we use digital platforms but face-to-face encounters are our best way to move the design on and find the authenticity of each project. We know through experience that good solutions emerge through hard work, rapid iteration, broad-brush visioning and haggling over details - all of which benefits from the aerating of ideas with as many participants as possible.
It is not unusual for project managers in the construction industry to see design as a process that needs careful handling and control. They will only contemplate contact with wider groups once the design is all but fixed in order to minimise risks to a programme. Our experience is that early co-design processes can validate some ideas and perhaps throw others into question and that this early feedback loop is a more efficient, less contentious and, in the long run, less time-consuming mode of decision-making.
CASE STUDY: The Hive
In north London, Ash Sakula collaborated with LB Camden to co-design a project to transform a former post office into the Hive, a centre for young people to access counselling, sexual health services, employment advice and training opportunities, as well as study, take part in activities or simply hang out. The heart of the project was the Young People’s Board that we set up together, made up of local young people from diverse backgrounds, with whom we worked closely at every stage of the project. Collaborating with such focused and thorough young people, and to witness their pragmatism and thoughtfulness, was a fulfilling experience as it is rare to have the opportunity to work so closely with a project’s end-user. The co-design process made it possible to pinpoint exactly what it was the centre’s users required – a process that is so often overlooked – and to allow young people the autonomy to decide not only what services they require, but how they are provided, giving them a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride.
Pre-construction: we visited the site and discussed how the space felt and which aspects of it we liked and disliked.
Concept development: the group took on the roles of different users and discussed how they would use the centre and considerations that should be made for them. This lead to a discussion about the concept behind the building, with the young people sharing their concerns about stigma and expressing the importance that young people should actually want to go to thecentre. The solution we came to was it should mix a social aspect alongside the services that will be provided, which in turn flagged an in-depth discussion about how the spaces should be arranged. Ash Sakula then prepared proposals to reflect these discussions.
Design: there was a very open discussion about proposals, their benefits and shortcomings. In a number of iterations, we reached a design that was felt to reflect the desires and needs. Board members had to consider others’ needs and choose between competing needs, even when the outcome was not in their favour.
Specification: the board discussed in detail how the space should feel, selecting a colour palette and furnishings. Ash Sakula proposed themes which the design board critiqued before settling on a concept of Bohemian with a hint of industrial. They had to give thought to every element in the building and make considered decisions that did not necessarily reflect their personal preferences, taking account of budget, usability, durability and design.
Construction: young people saw their ideas move from design to construction. On site, we discussed limitations we had encountered and showed how we apply building regulations and meet standards. The group learned how to conduct themselves safely on a live construction site.
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