Co-production, co-design and co-creation: what is the difference?

Following on from a recent meeting of the Co-Production Network in Manchester, I thought I would jot down a few comments about the concept of co-production – where it came from, how it works, and how it differs from other forms of innovation such as co-design or experience-led design (UX design).

Co-production is the latest in a series of innovation frameworks that runs roughly as follows:

  • Supplier-centred design (“You can have any colour you like, as long as it is black”)
  • User-centred design (innovation occasioned by watching people and then designing something on their behalf, thus putting the designer in charge)
  • User-led design (in which designers guide people through the process of describing and solving problems for themselves, thus putting the user in charge)
  • Co-design (the idea that understanding of a problem and/or solution can be improved if designers, suppliers and consumers look at it together)
  • Co-production (a fairly new concept, discussed below)
  • Running alongside co-production we also have user experience-led design (aka UX design, which I discuss briefly at the end).

None of these elements can be said to have given way entirely to any successor methodology: for instance, budget airlines like Ryanair have used supplier-centred design thinking with great success, and most of the design effort in areas such as assisted living technologies and urban park design can still be considered user-centred.

The shift from supplier-centred design to user-centred design really began in the 1970s with companies like IDEO. They began by watching people wander round supermarkets, then ran back to their studios where they designed trolleys that could seat a baby. At some point, they also noticed that people were walking past the biscuits, putting some coffee in the shopping trolley, then having to turn round and go back to the biscuits – so they encouraged managers to change the layout of the shop.

By the time I started working at the Design Council in 2003, public services were just beginning to come under scrutiny from the design profession. Designers suspected that these services were very supplier-centric, just as (for instance) the banking sector had been in the 1950s.

The task we had at the Design Council was to build a process by which end users could define both problems and solutions in different areas of the public sector. My area was education. We wondered what would happen if we stopped designing around the needs and preferences of teachers (supplier-centred design) and instead asked the service users (children) to map out new approaches to teaching and learning that would secure their full engagement.

We had some incredible successes, like the 360 degree flexible classroom and the Designmyschool prototype, but we also came to the realisation that user-led design was not the answer. Too often, we saw end-users who lacked training in design and innovation seek to fix known problems of the recent past rather than addressing emerging problems of the future. This led us to the concept of co-design.

Co-design, it seemed to us, created opportunities for designers to push suppliers and consumers to go further than they might by themselves. It was, in effect, an attempt to reduce the likelihood that a user-led design would have a low order and short impact timeframe. The problem was that the term co-design was quickly hijacked in much the same way as the word “sustainable” has been – tagged on to all sorts of pre-existing concepts in order to avoid change rather than deliver it. Faulty stakeholder engagement sessions were re-titled as co-design sessions without there being any change whatsoever in the engagement process. It was a term that people thought they understood and it had the cachet of making them feel cool, like designers, without taking the necessary steps to understand what was involved in being a designer.

In the end, I think that designers came to the conclusion that people were engaging in co-production, which is something very different. Let’s look at the characteristics of both:

Co-design: a design is a plan or method for doing something. The person who discovered that rubbing sticks over tinder can make fire was a designer, and the process was the design. Equally, a person who produces architectural drawings for an office block is a designer, and the plans are the design. Co-design, therefore, occurs when more than one person is involved in drawing up a plan for doing something.

Co-production: production is what happens when the raw materials needed to do something are brought together and combined to generate something new. Working out what to do is design work; doing it is production. So the person who invented airplanes is a designer, but a person who assembles them is a producer. Co-production occurs when more than one person is involved in making something happen.

It is for this reason that some designers have begun to use the term co-creation to encompass the entire process of design and production.

There is, of course, a lot of overlap. When designers have an idea for something new, they have to try to make it. Doing so generates insight into what is working and what needs to be fixed. This process is present even when we are deciding what clothes to wear on a first date. Each prototype becomes the focus of a new design process aimed at overcoming problems. Eventually, the designer is left with a plan for the efficient combination of different items in order to serve a defined purpose. This can then go into single or mass production.

Here, then, are some ideas on what makes co-design work or fail, and what co-production really is:

  • Co-design is an attempt to define a problem and then define a solution; co-production is the attempt to implement the proposed solution; co-creation is the process by which people do both
  • Co-design will fail where one of the parties lacks either the willingness or ability to think like a designer. This happens far too often and is best remedied by using something like Stakeholder Design’s Innovation Readiness Indication Scale (IRIS).
  • Co-production offers huge scope for reducing the failure rate of particular scenarios. For instance, in a GP’s surgery, a patient and the doctor can agree a programme for weight loss that includes some dieting, some tablets and some exercise. If this prescription for change is generated by a process of dialogue and agreement, it has far more chance of succeeding than if the doctor simply instructs the patient to adopt it.

What, then, of experience-led design (UX design)? It is also being carved up. If a doctor asks the patient how a particular drug is affecting them, he or she can then amend the precription, using the patient’s experience to improve the design. If a transport chief tries waiting at a bus stop for an unknown number of minutes, the outcome may well be a display that says how far away the next bus is in minutes. Both examples improve the end user’s experience of a service.

Experience-led design is the process by which a group or an individuals’s experience of a space, system, product or service is enhanced. It may or may not require the active involvement of those groups and individuals, or those who are shaping their experiences. It may be compromised by attempts to improve the experience within an unchallengable context (for instance, improving a lesson but insisting that it takes place in a classroom). However, when the problem is set in the future it offers almost limitless possibilities to be a designer. The caveman who rubbed the sticks together to make fire was either cold or hungry – he wanted a different experience of life, so he designed one.

Imagine how different your world could be if that was how we approached public service design.