Two or more heads are …

….Better than one

Solving a problem, creating a new space, building a new method or machine takes some creativity. Someone has to think through it. But what if there were a way to truly harness two brains? Or better yet, many brains. What if creation, problem-solving could arise from the collaboration of many?

Last week, Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy (’12) sat in on an interesting class. The Institute for Visual Studies presented a lecture and discussion by Liz Sanders who is a pioneer in the use of participatory research methods in the design of spaces, system and interfaces. Her clients have included Apple, Coca Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble and Xerox. She currently teaches at The Ohio State University.

The concept of co-design is not new. Who hasn’t said that two heads are better than one?  Sanders, however, has taken it to a new level. As you’ll read, even JMU’s student engineers are employing co-design to aid those who are challenged with physical disabilities……

Here’s what Tyler learned:

But heads alone won’t do…..

by Tyler McAvoy (’12)

Co-creation. It may sound like one of those buzz words that gets thrown around at business meetings, but to Liz Sanders, it’s the word that’s the center of design.

Her concept of co-creation is simple: Get the people who will use the design into the designing process. Let them explore and create together or let them critique what is already on the drawing board. The more minds involved in a project, the better the final design.

It may sound intuitive, but this is what sets Sanders and her design firm MakeTools apart from the rest of the crowd.  Most designers just go through a bullet point list of things that a client may want.  Not Sanders.  She comes into the midst of a design process and provides a place to create. She sets up scenarios, using everything from Velcro blocks, to full sized prototypes and giant collages to allow people to get their thoughts and feelings across.

It’s a complicated process, though.  Thoughts are rarely organized in a way that’s coherent, and the majority of what Sanders and her team do is to sift through all of the different ideas and focus on the best ones.  They observe, record and engage, all in hopes of gleaning a good idea from the bunch.

Design is not always about logistics though. Emotion makes up a large part of the co-creation process.  “Creativity is not just in the head, it’s in the heart,” Sanders said during her presentation on co-creation. “The more positive the emotion, the more creative one becomes.”

This positivity is what Sanders focuses on. She creates an atmosphere in her co-creating sessions that are fun and relaxed, allowing people to interact in a comfortable atmosphere.  Everyone may be from a different background, but in the sessions, much of the awkwardness quickly dissipates, allowing a free flowing collaborative process.

This model has been adapted by JMU too.  The School of Engineering helps out a local physically disabled person each year by building a bike for them, tailored to fit their needs.  The engineering students build prototypes, and then let the person they’re building it for test it out and critique it. They take those critiques and apply it to the next prototype, going through the process again until the perfect bike is built. It’s a type of real-world application of the type of co-creation Sanders advocates.

Co-creation is a different take on design and development that is becoming more and more popular in every industry.  It’s less about making things that simply look good or provide the most utility; it’s about making things that feel right and are tailored to fit. Co-creation goes beyond the scope of regular design and does something that most design doesn’t do: It thinks about what the people need above what the project head may want.

This week is Disabilities Awareness Week on JMU’s campus. To learn more about what’s happening — co-creation being ONE part — and to learn more about this vibrant community visit their website at
To read more about this semester-long IVS program, go to
To learn about the engineering bicycle project, visit

Late breaking link!  I just got this from Daniel Robinson in IVS. It’s a video of a presentation made by engineering professor Robert Nagel explaining the process engineers used to develop the customized bicycles:


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to Two or more heads are …

  1. shellhite says:

    Nice post, Tyler!! Thanks for sharing with those of us who couldn’t make the talk. Sounds like we missed a really good one!! Great summary!! You rock, kiddo!! \,,/ \,,/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: