We are in the middle of massive change. Society is slowly but surely giving way to the notion of communities being people centered. This means that people who are not educated in design are designing and the boundaries between disciplines are blurring. Now the action is in the fuzzy front end of the development process with a focus on experiential rather than physical concerns. It’s all about new ways to understand and to empathise with the needs and dreams of real people in their communities.

So this is an exciting and a confusing time for designers. The excitement comes partly from the significant recent interest of the planning community in the value of service design. The excitement is particularly evident in the fuzzy front end of the design development process.

The buzz words being thrown around today include co-creation, innovation, design thinking, human-centered, people-centered, user-generated and so on. Exactly what co-creation is and how it is to be done is generating a fair amount of the confusion, debate and interest.

We believe co-creation puts tools for creativity and communication in the hands of the people who will be served through design. It is only though collective thinking and acting that we will be able to use design to help address the challenges we face today.

Co-creation is about connecting people. There is a method, a framework that can be taught conceptually and tools that can be embedded inside organizations. But at the heart of it is transforming people who suddenly see the world through a different lens.

So what makes designers good at co-creation?

We visualise. The unique skills in our toolbox are advanced skills in drawing people, ideas and scenarios. Someone clever once said ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. This phrase, as overused as it is, refers to the idea that complex stories can be explained with just a single still image, or that an image may be more descriptive, useful and provocative than substantial amounts of text. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Designers work with neighbourhoods and communities to visualise their lives, ideas and opinions. Visualising is all about empathising and seeing the world as a child would. The best designers are the keenest observers who notice little things that others miss. Drawings attract attention quickly. They allow people do their own thinking and ultimately tells a story.

Designers spend years learning how to draw. Drawing is not just about illustrating idea, that can also be created with graphics software. Instead, designers learn to draw so they can express ideas. Words and numbers are fine, but only drawing simultaneously reveals both the functions of a new idea and how it makes people feel. To draw ideas accurately, decisions have to be made that can be avoided by even the most academic report; aesthetic issues have to be addressed that cannot be resolved by the most intricate statistical paper. Whether the design task at hand is a mobile phone, a new shop front or a new postal service, drawing forces decisions.

Our job is not only to understand what is going on inside peoples heads but to find ways of getting that thinking out into the world, where it can be shared with others and, ultimately, translated into ideas that lead to action.