What is co-design?
The V&A Museum of childhood is embarking on a journey of reinvention. Our vision is to build creative confidence among our users, and to become a powerful advocate for creativity and learning through play. But how can this be done?
At the heart of this process of re-imagining the V&A Museum of Childhood is co-design. Co-design is the practice by which users are not simply consulted as part of a development process, but become active, creative collaborators in our process. The term has been around for a long time and it goes by many names including participatory practice, co-creation, co-curation, participatory design, among others. It has been used as a process to develop almost everything: from software and urban design through to social services and labour relations.
The methodology focuses on iterative, user centred processes over predetermined design outcomes. In civic society this process is not just about effective design outcomes, but also about agency, empowerment, ownership and democracy. Whatever the product or outcome, the end-user is at the heart of the process. This ensures that the outcome best suits their needs.
If museums are truly public spaces, surely the public should have some say in how they are shaped?
At the V&A Museum of Childhood we have been experimenting with the co-design process to explore how our visitors might impact on the architectural evolution of the building, inspired by their desired and imagined engagement with its spaces.
We have been working with local primary and secondary school children, toddlers, teachers, SEND teachers, families, as well as with museum staff. They have been working collaboratively with the architects De Matos Ryan to shape the direction of the design project.
The co-design participants joined relaxed and welcoming workshops, where they were encouraged to follow lines of design inquiry through various observational and making activities. Architects and staff supported the groups in imagining and expressing their experiences and expectations so they could actively participate in the design process.
What did we do and how did we do it?
- The architects gave short, evocative presentations, identifying key issues with the project which allowed participants to produce their own creative responses and solutions to the problems.
- We explored the museum on foot, analysing areas that are in need of work and discussing what each user requires from that particular space.
- We used the rich and varied museum collections to inspire the conversations within the workshops, trying to link them thematically to different areas of the museum.
- There were playful, activity-based, ideas generation sessions. Our aim was to develop imaginative designs that addressed the thoughts and needs of a wide variety of visitors. This allowed us to look at the commonality between all of the ideas and turn them into tangible themes and objectives.
- The workshops gave us an opportunity to ‘cross-fertilise’ design ideas between different groups, helping us to develop our design brief in greater detail.
- We allowed time for critical analysis of the ideas that were generated in each activity. This allowed participants to further clarify their thinking, thus enhancing the quality of design. Each session built on the previous ones, and continued to develop (with the participants) throughout the process.
The museum as a learning tool
The project will transform the entire museum into a learning tool, supporting our vision of the Museum of Childhood being a place for celebrating imagination and ingenuity. Co-design is the backbone of our approach to the reinvention of MoC. It is not only important to the design project but will impact on our working cultures, our practices and our programmes far into the future. Our ambition is to be a porous, listening, representative and responsive museum that genuinely has users’ needs at its heart.
And this is only the beginning! We have many more co-design workshops to go, with the planning for 2019 well underway. If we are to fulfil Henry Cole’s ambition to be a ‘powerful antidote to the Gin Palace’ we need to give people what they want and what better way to do that than to create it with them?