Co-design in the classroom

“Are you a scientist?” a student asked me as he walked into the room with his class group. I paused to think in the midst of organizing construction paper and Play-Doh. “Well, sometimes, yes.”

I was volunteering at Detroit’s University YES Academy for career day.

As I set up a basic hands-on workshop around human-centered design practice, I learned that these students were also going to engineering and biology workshops as part of their career explorations. The scientist question quickly made a lot more sense and prompted me to think further about the context in which I work.

We often blend art and science at The Work Department, as do many human-centered design teams. Our most successful projects involve multidisciplinary teams that approach a challenge through the arts of communication, facilitation, storytelling, or visualization while grounding prototypes in appropriate technology, environmental constraints, or data. I’m grateful to work in a setting where all of these perspectives can co-exist, fold into each other, and produce change. It’s a powerful way to work, and I do what I can to encourage others to build multidisciplinary design teams.

Beginning to document ideas

[Students begin to document ideas in our workshop]

Back to the classroom. I was excited to teach this mini-workshop in order to give students a taste of a particular kind of collaboration. If you’re unfamiliar, human-centered design is a structured process that “helps people hear the needs of the people and communities they’re designing for, create innovative approaches to meet these needs, and offer solutions that work in specific contexts.” It’s usually undertaken by a team of people focusing on a specific design challenge.

For this workshop, I chose to use the challenge: “How might we improve public outdoor spaces in Detroit?” This is, admittedly, vague and perhaps too open, but I thought it would work well for young people who are new to collaborative design. It’s a good question to open a broad, creative exploration.

Beginning to document ideas

[Beginning to document ideas]

The first step of this process is to Discover. A common method for learning about your challenge is to interview people affected by it. So, I had students interview each other about how they currently use outdoor space. I offered these tips, adapted from IDEO:

  1. Begin by understanding how your partner uses outdoor space.
  2. Find out how things makes them feel, what they wish could be different, what they enjoy, what gets in their way.
  3. Your job is to listen and learn, so don’t be afraid to ask “Why?” often.
  4. Ask your partner to visualize an outdoor space they use with a drawing or a diagram.

Our second discovery step was to interpret needs. After each student interviewed one person, I asked everyone to individually reflect on what they learned in their interviews. This took the form of two simple questions:

  1. What are three unique aspects of how your partner uses outdoor space?
  2. What are three needs that your partner has for using outdoor space?

A few unique aspects that students wrote down included “play, walking around, exercising with family, walking cats, building stuff, and playing volleyball.”

Ideation with paper and objects

[Ideation with paper and objects]

I guided the students to form small design teams and prompted them to think about the ideal outdoor space, based on what they learned from the interviews. (The Ideate phase.) We started drawing and diagramming ideas. Once the construction paper, tape, Play-Doh, and glue entered the scene things started getting pretty fun. Teachers helped out by documenting the ideation with iPads.

As we moved into the Prototype phase, informal mockups were born based on each team’s ideas (as much as one can create in 10 minutes). Students envisioned playgrounds, sports fields, food trucks, shelters, and trampolines, among other things.

One design team's vision

[One design team's vision included sports fields, yoga, and coffee]

One design team's vision, including an outdoor market that includes Gucci

[Another design team's vision carved out some space for Gucci]

This short workshop is just the beginning—obviously much more could be done over the course of days, weeks, and months. Nonetheless, this was an opportunity to quickly dive into collaborative and human-centered design. There are too few classrooms in which students are asked to imagine and design together, and especially to approach challenges that are close to home. In fact, there are too few spaces in adult life in which people are encouraged to imagine and create, together. We’re passionate about changing this.

Thanks to the teachers and staff who helped make this workshop a success!

Learn more about human-centered design at