Letting go of Design

Alastair Somerville
2 min readJan 3, 2018

I was watching a Twitter argument today about Design today. It seemed to be about constructing the word and the action it describes to a professionally privileged group: designers.

As such that’s not a problem. Professional expertise and knowledge should be appreciated.

It’s more of an issue if your organisation is attempting Participatory Design or CoDesign.

In these circumstances, who can design and what design is, does fracture hard definitions.

Herbert Simon’s view is useful on this:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

Welcome to our CoDesign session and let’s meet our Designer

Possibly my least favourite part of CoDesign sesssions is when participants are introduced to the designers.

It immediately makes clear that they are not designers. Designers are those people, with that title. They own Design.

That moment privileges the knowledge and power of a small group in a room full of knowledge and experiences.

It crashes CoDesign.

Design: it’s not what you know

The diagram at the top of this article was one I drew while watching the Twitter argument.

I was trying to say that design is a process of thinking and making in which there are many moments which can be validly described as design.

In CoDesign, the capabilities and knowledge of all participants need to validated as design. Excluding some thoughts, some ideas, some prototypes as not designerly is not good enough.

They can be stupid thoughts, bad ideas and useless prototypes but those judgements do not exclude them simply as they’re not design.

CoDesign accepts and values the skills of participants. It does not privilege titles. It is about shared power.

Who validates the valid?

What the diagram doesn’t do well is ask who validates the acts of design in a session.

This is where participants can seek out the most powerful or best titled persons in the room. This is why naming some people as organisers or designers can go wrong. Even if they don’t want to take the role of judge, it will default to them.

How to stop that default is hard. There’s different approaches, using randomness or finding new/natural leaders. All have risks and all have trust issues.

I’m not going to answer the problem here (as I don’t have one).

This article was about how CoDesign demands a wider view on what Design represents and who can design. Using the focus of the professional designer can collapse a CoDesign session.

Design is powerful, CoDesign is powerful but great care needs to be taken in every session.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX