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Co-designing Sustainable Solutions Through Design Leadership

theuxblog.com – Medium | Georgi Lewis

RMIT MDF — Future Design Leadership, Georgina Lewis

Design leaders should be delivering a deep understanding of the power of co-design with a strong focus on idea implementation. The problem is we are cultivating our own importance rather than promoting the design process and building the mindset required in stakeholders. Design should not just be for the horn-rimmed snobs, other designers and for those in the know…that becomes preaching to the choir. (Pilloton 2012)

Co-design with a focus on results and implementation should be geared towards people from traditional corporate companies, for the stakeholders navigating change, with apposing and complimentary strengths to design leaders. When you accept the reality that design decisions are coming from outside the design leadership group, from people who are mostly weary of design, you approach those leadership tasks differently (Burka 2017).

Designerly activities or an approach to design that welcomes challenge and iteration through human centered concepts has been at work within non-creative business for a while now (Yuille et al. 2014). However the mindset and ability to apply this knowledge is in custody of the designers. So what happens when the design team leaves? We must through design leadership support stakeholders to build implementation into strategy and deliver sustainable contextual solutions.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” –Albert Einstein

Stakeholders engage design leaders to get from ‘A’ the problem, to ‘B’ the solution, by offering the organization something that they can’t explore by themselves. In my personal experience the main tension point in this co-design exchange is that design leaders and stakeholders often have differing views on what constitutes a successful process and that design thinking is by its very nature divergent. To combat this, stakeholders must be empowered to participate in order to see the transformative power of design frameworks. (Powell 2016)

‘For so many (stakeholders), these steps seem so insufficient and unconnected to their past reality. There is the need to connect this all up, to show it is real, that intuition is powerful, that the chaos is productive. We must encourage divergent thinking to supplement the sequential and reductionist inquiry, so dominate in organisations today.’ (Hobcraft 2017)

In this case design leadership offers a translation service that contextualizes the co-design process for a conservative stakeholder mindset (one that may be reluctant to take risks on divergent and experimental thinking). Ensuring that the stakeholder is placed at the centre of the co-design process so that the correct problem is identified and solved whilst stakeholders come to deeply understand the process themselves.(Martin 2017)

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” –Albert Einstein

The best design leaders bring stakeholders along on the journey with them. They are not simply delivering a solution, but co-creating implementable strategies. It’s not essential to be designerly or able to visualise in order to build practical accessible solutions. It is however important that the stakeholder be aware of the evidence that the strategies are based on and that they are able to workshop ideas themselves. It’s about building the stakeholder mindset and capability whilst mapping a solution. Though we can’t all be designers, we can all be a part of the solution. (Burka 2017)

Design leaders modeling efficient and productive design techniques can add major value by simplifying complex strategies for the uninitiated. As expressed by industry leader Melis Senova in This Human : How to Be the Person Designing for Other People immersion and understanding is key (2017 p.88) ‘Your job isn’t to transmit, it is to connect. When we transmit, we are not monitoring our own listening or that of the person we are communicating with. When we connect, we are concerned with their listening and whether our work is resonating with them.’

Design leadership is using key analogous examples to hypothesize solutions and key research about the organization to craft ways of working that allow contribution, participation and ultimately buy in from the stakeholder. For example in the past when I’ve been in the throws of an ideation phase and circling back on an idea to map the possible paths forward, it has been perceived as a regression rather than a progression by our corporate partners. It requires confident communication to pivot and include the apprehensive stakeholder in this divergent thinking process. Helping them to understand the need for it.

“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.” –Albert Einstein

Understanding the context of an organisation is so important when designing a solution that will be carried out by that organisation. Many frameworks are prescriptive and assume an existing comfort level in design thinking…or they are simply too general to be relevant. As a design leader it’s important to establish trust, make the stakeholder feel understood and deliver workable solutions based on what’s actually useful for the organisation. (Pilloton 2012)

As design leaders we should engage transformative empathy…when stakeholders can’t see a way forward, or when they are extremely removed from (and even judgmental of) the process, being exposed to an analogy or a far out example can free up their thinking. The ultimate goal is that stakeholders start to see things from a new perspective and connect previously disparate ideas for themselves, with the encouragement of the design leader. When stakeholders are unsure and even weary of creating change, design leaders lift the curtain and involve them throughout the design process. The employment of co-design should make the stakeholder responsible for approving and implementing the new vision whilst keeping them invested in and supportive of the design process. (Powell 2016)

I have been known to get the stakeholder asking questions rather than spelling everything out for them. I encourage them to build the prototypes, thus helping them learn about iterations and incremental change. Showing the work when it’s done doesn’t explain the importance of a process. For example it is common to produce an artefact like a journey map or blueprint as a deliverable in the course of the project. I see these artefacts as a tool to help the design team understand the project, but beyond that they are not of much use to the organisation unless they have been designed with employees day-to-day needs in mind. We need to show stakeholders the way, teach them to navigate…not just give them a map.

“If you can‘t explain it simply, you don‘t understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein

By engaging in deep research to understand the stakeholders’ point of view as well as the base capabilities of the organisation, a design leader infiltrates the organisation and prioritises making a stakeholder feel understood. It is with this knowledge that the leader and the stakeholder might begin to work together towards a common achievable goal. It’s important to get the stakeholders doing the work of design with you. After all the double diamond means nothing to you unless you are along for the journey and understanding the benefits of divergent and convergent thinking. (Senova 2017)

We are experiencing a surge in design thinking being employed within traditionally non-creative environments such as the government and not for profit sectors. The impact design can make within an organisation is proportional to the ownership people have over the design concepts being applied within the business.

Co-design needs to be stakeholder centric and happen in an immersive fashion with a main contact from the organisation (a key stakeholder) being included. The organisation is putting a lot of faith in the design leader and I have observed that the sooner a representative from the organisation is involved in the process, the sooner that trust is won. I’ve noticed that the co-located stakeholder has a foot in both camps and their responsibility to their organisation must be respected. Design leaders model and facilitate productive design techniques and should be able to engage stakeholders and easily explain the value of design principles. Design leadership provides empowerment for employees to disrupt in order to make change. (Budds 2017)

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” -Albert Einstein

Design leaders, must be self aware and deeply curious about situations and about others. Senova calls it being powerfully in service (by understanding the context of other people) so you can be of best service. The design leader is the person in the room who is most able to understand stakeholder needs and the specific design strategies that will best fulfil their goals. (Senova, 2017) ‘It means being genuinely interested in understanding the context of the person so you can design an approach together…to be powerfully in service of other people you need to be powerfully connected with yourself, your work and the outcomes you are working towards.’ (2017 p.116)

Delivery is the final stage of the project but only the very start of implementation. To set the stakeholder up for success the work of the design leader should start at the beginning of the project…when you’re aligning goals; you need to address how the goals will be delivered by building capabilities within the organisation. Being passionately curious, promoting a beginner mindset and exposing the stakeholder to new ways of working are key skills that a design leader should model in order to inspire confidence and build capability in the stakeholder. (Senova 2017)

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” -Albert Einstein

The design transformation process is unconventional (messy) and powerful (scary). As design leaders we should be cultivating understanding by promoting a flexible mindset in organisations and encouraging soft skills in individuals so that they might create their own change. A new way, one that’s smart, human, cultural, social and agile and that has innovation at the core of every move it makes is required. That way could be co-design, facilitated by design lead­ers. (Mootee 2013)

Design leaders can fight systematic bureaucracy by being a little bit rebellious and highly collaborative. By inspiring solutions that shift perspectives from profitability to sustainability, without compromising success, win win situations can be crafted. (Powell 2016)

Co-design with a focus on implementation is hard but we should do it anyway as it’s the key to getting sustainable results. Design leaders have learned to see the invisible connections and envision alternate futures. To have skills and expertise is one thing, but to build those capabilities and mindsets within others is quite another.


Bright Drops 2016, 27 Quirky Albert Einstein Quotes on Everything, viewed 2 September 2017, http://brightdrops.com/albert-einstein-quotes.

Budds, D., 9 Ideas Shaping The Future Of Design, According To Ideo, Microsoft, Autodesk, MIT, And More “Our profession is in between ‘utopia and oblivion.’ It will be oblivion if we continue focusing on minor aesthetic problems.”
Fast Co-Design 2017, viewed 12 September 2017 <https://www.fastcodesign.com/90139617/9-ideas-shaping-the-future-of-design-according-to-ideo-microsoft-autodesk-mit-and-more>.

Burka, D., Everyone is a designer. Get over it, Google Ventures Library Medium, 2017, viewed 2 September 2017,https://library.gv.com/everyone-is-a-designer-get-over-it-501cc9a2f434.

Hobcraft, P., The limitations, criticisms and new pathways for Design Thinking — Part two, Paul4innovating’s Innovation Views, Building the Innovation DNA August 7 2017, viewed 21 September 2017, https://paul4innovating.com/2017/08/07/the-limitations-criticisms-and-new-pathways-for-design-thinking-part-two/.

Martin, L., Golsby-Smith, T. Management is Much More Than a Science, Harvard Business Review September October 2017, viewed 21 September 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/09/management-is-much-more-than-a-science.

Mootee, I. Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation What They Can’t Teach You at Busi­ness or Design School. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013.

Pilloton, E. “OPENING KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Tell Them I Built This: A Story of Community Transformation through Design, Youth, and Education.” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2012, no. 1 (2012): 7–17.

Powell, A., How IDEO Designers Persuade Companies to Accept change, Harvard Business Review 2014, viewed 15 September 2017, https://hbr.org/2016/05/how-ideo-designers-persuade-companies-to-accept-change.

Senova, M. This Human: How to Be the Person Designing for Other People. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS Publishers, 2017.

Yuille, J., Vaughan, L., Varadarajan, S., Brennan, L., Leading Through Design: Developing Skills for Affinity and Ambiguity, Design Management Journal Volume 9, Issue 1, pages 113–123, October 2014


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