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10 Years of Using ‘Design by Consensus’ in Education and Research

Posted on 8 May 2024

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By Dr Busayawan Lam

In this piece, Dr Buswayan Lam reflects on her experience of using The Glass-House workshop Design by Consensus in her work.

I came across Design by Consensus (DbC) in 2013, when my colleagues and I employed this methodology in our research projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). As an academic who has been teaching and conducting various studies in the field of co-design for a number of years, I found DbC very useful, since it encompasses all key elements of co-design (e.g., telling, making and enacting) really well. The DbC workshop begins by assigning different roles to different stakeholders. By putting people in someone else’s shoes, the workshop helps different stakeholders build empathy with each other. After that, they are expected to work together to come up with a vision statement and a design solution, which requires different stakeholders to negotiate, communicate and develop understanding for each other in order to reach consensus decisions. Each group then shares their design ideas with the other groups, which kick-starts an interesting conversation about designing for and with diverse stakeholders.  

DbC has worked well in many different settings. In a project entitled Unearth Hidden Assets through Community Co-design and Co-production(2013 – 14), we employed it to help people identify underutilised assets (e.g., skills and spaces) in their neighbourhoods and explore how they could be put into good use for the benefits of the local communities. In another project entitled Scaling Up Co-Design Research and Practice: Building Community-Academic Capacity and Extending Reach (2013 – 14), we employed DbC as a means to help academic researchers and practitioners design cross-pollination activities that could help each other scale up their practice and expand their reach further. 

Using Design by Consensus in the University Context

Since 2013, I have been running DbC workshops with postgraduate students on a yearly basis at Brunel University – see examples in Figure 1. There are several versions of DbC workshops and materials. I generally used the version developed specifically for the research project titled Fostering Creative Citizens through Co-Design and Public Makerspaces (2018 – 21), which was designed to help people visualise how public makerspaces could be like and how these spaces could support everyday creative activities (e.g., knitting). It contains 12 roles (e.g., casual maker and equipment manager) and different space requirements (e.g., clean space, noisy space and people working together) – see all details via this link. I have used the DbC workshop with students from MA Design Strategy & Innovation and MA Design & Branding Strategy programmes as a means to help them develop co-design skills. I have also run the DbC workshop with students from MSc Integrated Product Design course in order to introduce them to participatory research tools. While the MA students came from various creative fields (e.g., marketing), MSc students generally came from design backgrounds (e.g., product design). 

The floorpans produced during the workshops shop varied approaches to designing a makerspace.

I have found the DbC workshop useful in helping students develop soft skills such as empathy, communication, cultural sensitivity and leadership, that are difficult to teach in traditional classes. Although I have not put any formal mechanism in place to evaluate the success of these workshops, I know that these workshops have helped them develop co-design skills, as I have seen that many students have adapted some elements of it for their dissertations, especially in their design research methods. 

Using Design by Consensus Online with Students

Although the DbC workshop was originally designed for use in person, I managed to run several DbC workshops online during the pandemic. I did not use Miro, Mural or other online workspaces, since many students were unfamiliar with them. I decided instead to share an MS PowerPoint slide on screen with all students via Teams/Zoom – see Figure 2. Because students could not add/move any design elements (e.g., spaces for different types of workshops) on screen without my help, they had to discuss their ideas with everyone and reach some form of agreement before I would add what they suggested onto the slide. I found this particularly useful as, during in-person workshops, students sometimes added design elements to the floor plans without explaining their motivations or reasoning.

Makerspaces created via online workshops

I found that different groups of students approached the design task in this online space differently. For example, some groups focused on shared spaces whilst others made sure that all requirements were met – see Figure 3. While students who preferred direct communication shared their thoughts and opinions openly, others, who favour indirect communication, shared their ideas and requirements through the chat box and/or post-it notes. I also noticed that students from non-design backgrounds often let those with design backgrounds (especially architectural/interior design) take the lead. I often had to intervene to make sure that everyone had opportunities to share their views equally. 

Some focused on creating large shared spaces, while others divided the space into several smaller spaces for individuals.

Although most students took some time to get into their assigned roles, once they got ‘the hang of it’, they managed to work well together. Different cultures often influenced results. Some groups really cared about social aspects of the spaces they were co-designing, while others were more interested in the business side of them. They also added a number of new elements to the design, e.g., first aid kits, cinemas and lobby – see Figure 4, which were not included in the basic workshop kit. 

I was pleased that most students took the exercise seriously – especially after they learned that the DbC workshop was developed by practitioners involved in real-life placemaking projects that dealt with multiple stakeholders. The students were really proud of their achievements (both their shared vision statement and their design ideas). Most of them took photographs of what they had co-created with their teammates. Many students also asked me for extra time because they wanted to spend more time on the workshop tasks and further develop their ideas. I could see that, by the end of the session, students had a good grasp of co-design and many of them wanted to find out more about DbC and asked for Facilitation Guide.

Students used workshop collaging materials and also added their own elements.

Spread the Word

I have already shared this methodology with other academics in the design field through various projects, e.g., Design and Innovation Capacity Building in India (DESINNO). It would be great to share it with a wider audience, especially researchers and practitioners outside of the creative fields, as I believe that it could be applied to many different subject areas.

Dr Busayawan Lam is a Reader at Brunel School of Design, Brunel University London.

If you would like to know more about Design by Consensus, have a look at our dedicated page on The Glass-House website hereYou can find the Design by Consensus: Makerspaces Facilitation Guide here.