The buzzwordification of Co-Design | by sahibzada mayed | صاحبزادہ مائد | Jan, 2024


As designers seek to increase collaboration with impacted communities, has co-design become a buzzword?

An illustration with a light blue background and exaggerated typography that shows words such as Co-Design, Corporate, Commodified, Community, Coercive, Collaboration, etc. These words extend diagonally across the page and some words are cut off and not shown completely in the illustration.

In recent years, co-design has emerged as an increasingly popular area of interest to drive social change and transformation. Many practitioners hail co-design as the “solution” to community engagement as it fosters creativity, enables collaboration, and catalyzes innovation. However, what claims to be a way to democratize our design practices and share power ends up being a reproduction of whiteness and coloniality.

Dare I say, it has become a buzzword. 😱 [emoji: Face Screaming in Fear]

My critique here is not to suggest that we abandon co-design as a way of practicing, but rather quite the opposite. We must explicitly uproot the narratives that have depoliticized and dehistoricized the use of co-design and its potential to create shared, community-driven outcomes. We need to locate the roots and histories of co-design through its evolutionary process. Contrary to Eurocentric perspectives of how co-design is believed to emanate from “cooperative design” being practiced by trade unions in Scandinavia in the 1970s and 80s, we know quite well that there is no singular history of co-design and its derivatives. Victor Udoewa in his paper on radical participatory design contextualizes how “it does not make sense to talk about the ‘history of PD,’ as if there were a historical moment in time during which PD began apart from the historical start of communities. There is no such moment (Udoewa, 2022).”

I think it is incredibly important to tease apart the relations between designers and the communities they are designing for and with. The very nature of the separation between those who practice design and those who are impacted by it is deeply rooted in colonial norms and maintains power hierarchies that we seek to disrupt. The idea that design can be practiced without honoring place and space further strengthens the status quo by “hiring an expert outside and disconnected from the community to lead and resolve a community problem or issue (Udoewa, 2022).”

The illusion of sharing power


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