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ACD Conversation Lab 13: The role of joy and fun in co-design

By Nataly Raab

On the 29th of June members and friends of the Association of Collaborative Design met online for our regular Conversation Lab which is an opportunity to connect, network and discuss co-design practice. This time we talked about the role of joy and fun in co-design.

Why this topic? For members of our team, it had become apparent that sometimes the fun and joy can leak out of processes of co-design. As one attendee put it “engagement can be terrifying”. You might point out that engagement and consultation are not quite the same as co-design, but they may be part of it and even the most carefully crafted processes of authentic co-design can sometimes land up being a bit tense, or fraught, or awkward, and just not very fun for anyone.

To think about the role of joy and fun in co-design is not to trivialise the very real feelings of frustration, anger and sometimes terror that can arise in attempts at coproduction, but instead to ask the rather radical question of why feelings of delight might be worth aspiring to when we facilitate processes of co-design and what tactics we might use to get there. To help us explore this question, we invited Jenny Male of Play:Disrupt to speak to us about a tactic they use for cultivating joy and fun in all things co-design – play.

Quoting playful mastermind Bernard De Koven, Jenny explained what’s so special about play.

"Play is about being open and vulnerable. Play is all about that vulnerability, about being responsive, yielding to the moment. You might not be playing, but if you are willing to play, at the drop of a hat, the bounce of a ball, the glance of a toddler, the wag of a tail - then you are open to any opportunity. You are loose. Responsive. Present."

Play, Jenny explained, is a powerful tool in co-design because it engages hearts, minds, and bodies, and in doing so it can break down barriers and facilitate authentic connection between people. Responding to the prompt “The most fun I’ve had with co-design was when I…” participants mentioned swings, art, murals, spray-painting, storytelling, Zoom dancing, street Zumba, and model-making as other ingredients they had used to make co-design fun and joyful.

People are not always willing to play at the drop of a hat, the bounce of a ball, the glance of a toddler, the wag of a tail, however. It can be difficult to be loose, responsive, and present. So, what can we do, as practitioners, when this is the case? One participant spoke of the value of integrating small and tangential cultural activities into co-design explaining that it is often easier and more exciting for people to participate in cultural activities that act as a ‘way in’ for discussion. Tangential activities such as immersive street theatre can be less pressured, and more attractive to wider groups of people.

There was also a sense from our discussion that spontaneity and surprise can be harnessed in processes of creative co-design precisely because of their capacity for disarming. One participant explained that surprise allows people to enjoy processes even when they expect not to. Herein lies the ingredients for delight. Similarly, interactions outside of the comfort zone provide grounds for connection through shared feelings of vulnerability.


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