What I mean when I say "CO-Design"

My first job after graduating college was as a community organizer in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. At that job, I learned how to connect with people in meaningful ways and how to envision and create an alternative future. It is also where I learned how to build collective power.

10 years after leaving the Fenway and relocating in Philadelphia I’m a partner at The Action Mill, a small design firm. Every time I use the word “design” to talk about what we do, I know that I leave some people scratching their heads. When many people hear design they think about graphic design, or architecture, or even industrial design. They think about things that are pretty, and often luxuries. But looking back, I now view the past 20 years of my work – as a community organizer and a consultant – through the lens of design. By design I mean a method of understanding and solving problems, recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities, and engaging with people and communities.

When I was 20, my father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Following his death I started a bereavement support program for college students. Looking back I now understand that the process I went through to envision, create, and build support for the program looked a lot like service design. I took into account my own experience with loss and the needs I had, I spoke with other students and professionals in mental health and other services for students and designed a program that filled some critical gaps. A decade later, when Nick Jehlen (the other co-founder of The Action Mill) and I created an international action to challenge George Bush’s mandate during his second inauguration, we spent a lot of time upfront considering and designing for the user experience of the action so that our event, called Turn Your Back on Bush, sent a clear message that generated the media attention that would have the strongest impact.

Now, close to a decade after that action, we use the term CO-Design to describe the kind of design we practice. CO-Design is about creating collaborative relationships that utilize our methodology to solve problems and create or realize opportunities. It is collaborative (co) meaning that we listen and respect the perspective, experience and expertise that our clients, partners and other team members bring to the effort. We let go of our assumptions and trust that what we make together as a result of collaboration will be stronger and better than anything we could do on our own. It is also infused with Community Organizing (CO), meaning that we listen to and work to understand and empathize with a group or team and discover together how to tap into their existing power as well as the power of where they hope to go.

We are in business to help change the world for the better. Through our client work we are focusing our CO-Design methodology on the design of habits for groups and teams. We help teams understand the habits they wish to change, that are keeping them from meeting their goals and aspirations, and CO-Design new habits to replace the old habits. In our death and design project we recently CO-Designed a new service with a former heart surgeon that improves how families and communities talk about and prepare for death.

Community Organizing applied to Design is about harnessing the power of the collective, be it the team in a business or organization, or your customer base. It is about tapping into the agency of the users of the systems we create. CO-Design is participant and stakeholder-focused and takes into account the structures and authority that impact our experience. CO-Design invites these interests in to create something that is not possible for one individual to envision and create on their own.

Jethro Heiko's picture
Jethro Heiko is a partner at The Action Mill


Love this! Great article Jet! Makes me miss working with you.