A Q&A with Co-Design Expert Leah Caplan
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Leah Caplan. She is known for her innovative, human centered design work at Birsel + Seck, where she is the VP of Design and Project Management, as well as her work at her own design and branding company, LC&Co Creative. She is dedicated to helping companies create brands, products, and services with, as she would say, purpose and heart, including Target, Staples, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo., and more. We asked her about the power of co-design, how to develop trust with your collaborators, and where she sees great collaboration happening in the industry.
Q: You are known for your wonderful co-design projects. Could you explain what co-design is, and what drew you to it as a collaborative design approach?
A: What I’d really like to do is talk about collaborative design first, before co-design, to lay the groundwork. It’s one of those phrases that I find to be an oxymoron, like the term design thinking. Can you really have design without thinking? Similarly, can you have design without collaboration? Or, at least, can you have successful design without collaboration?
I believe that design as a process is inherently collaborative. To be successful, design can’t exist without collaboration. It requires working with others. Even just the premise of it is collaborative. Design is about solving a problem for others, which in and of itself is a collaborative act. You can’t do it without knowing who that other is. So, with that in mind, let’s go back to co-design.
The co-design work that I do is in collaboration with Ayse Birsel and our team at Birsel + Seck. We’ll talk later about my own side gig but basically I wear a couple different hats, and one of them is the VP of Design and Project Planning at Birsel + Seck. If you don’t know us, we’re a design and innovation studio. We’ve done a lot of work for companies like Herman Miller. We’re known for Ayse’s design process, which is called Deconstruction:Reconstruction. She outlines it in a book that I helped her bring to life called Design the Life You Love. This process is critical to how we do our design work, including our co-design. Co-design is basically what it sounds like: designing side by side with others. In our case, it’s not always with our current clients—although they’re almost always invited to be a part of the session—but with whoever is our target user. What’s key about co-design is the idea that you’re designing WITH, in capital letters, versus designing FOR. It’s based on a belief that everybody has the ability to be creative and solve a problem if they have the guidance, process, and tools to do it. We may not all solve a problem in the same way (thank goodness!), but we can all get into it with the proper guidance, process, and tools.
Q: Could you share an example of a co-design project that demonstrates the power of collaborative design?
A: Probably the best project that I could use to demonstrate this is one that we did for an organization out in California called the SCAN Foundation. They are an independent charitable organization. Their mission is to improve the lives of older adults and help them—and really help everyone—to age with dignity and purpose. Interestingly, that wasn’t how they described themselves before we started working with them, their point of view and tone of voice shifted based on our work.
We started the project in 2019, before the pandemic. We conducted co-design sessions with people who were anywhere between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-five across the country. The idea was to reimagine with them what the aging experience could be. We really wanted to understand: What did they want from their later years in life? What were their needs and challenges? We came into the project with some assumptions, which tended to be the usual assumptions: that, as we get older, everything is about decline. We lose connections, we lose our purpose in life, we leave our work, our family leaves, we lose friends. It was a very negative mindset.
In our ability to sit and do this design work with these individuals, we found that there was much more of a glass half-full versus glass half-empty mindset. A lot of the language that the SCAN Foundation uses also shifted. This idea of helping everyone age well and with purpose came out of that. The big thing was that this design process ended up modeling what these individuals wanted. Through this process, we allowed these individuals, who are often marginalized, to be heard, to be a part of a community of people, to build new relationships, to make friends, to have a purpose, and to feel—to use the word very generously—loved. We worked hard to make sure that the experience acknowledged them. This included the types of rooms we used, the temperature, the lighting, the space around the table, the type of food we offered; we really wanted to make sure that we recognized them. We gave them not just the process and the tools but the place, the comfort, the security.
Our team was carefully curated and we trained each other how to talk to and approach people, and to be preemptive in everything that we did. It was like a service or hospitality model, and that was really important. We acknowledged these individuals and allowed them, through that, to be able to share and dream openly. That’s not easy. I think co-design is most effective when all of that is taken into consideration. It’s not just the process and the tools and the problem that you’re trying to solve but the whole experience. Otherwise, people don’t feel comfortable contributing. In the end, I believe this work helped to shift the perspective, the approaches, and the tone of voice that the SCAN Foundation uses. They’re now more human-centered. They’re also more optimistic in how they present themselves and what they do. It became a little bit less about them, the foundation, and more about who they’re looking to help and the community.
This was an intimate experience. The process brought people together, and many of those people are still connected to each other. As we know, this age group is the loneliest age group. There’s a loneliness epidemic. Again, we didn’t know we were doing that until we did it. Once we started, we realized, in addition to everything, this was a place that they wanted to be. It got them out of the house, it brought them in contact with other people. So we started extending the time, so that there was at least half an hour to forty-five minutes after each session wherein people could just connect with one another, have a cup of coffee, etc.
The biggest thing that this work resulted in is a book, Design the Long Life You Love, also by Ayse. The power of this outcome is that we’re now able to share these ideas with a much larger group of people, with the hope of making a cultural shift over time. Older people are marginalized. The ability to share what these individuals said: it’s straight from the horse’s mouth, and it breaks what we traditionally think about older people. There’s a positive perspective. There’s a shift in mindset; new language and approaches. It has so many different prongs to it, and that’s the power of co-design. A product can have that kind of universe that surrounds it as well, but in this case it was an experience and it was a life stage, which is a huge thing to try to tackle.
I think one of the most interesting things that we learned, which again wasn’t something we went in knowing, was that we’re actually not that different. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or ninety five: basic human things that we want and need remain the same. It’s having a purpose, it’s being healthy of mind and body, it’s having vitality. And those things, they don’t change. Just how we access them changes. That was a beautiful aha moment for us. It shouldn’t have been. It feels so obvious but, because of our culture, it wasn’t obvious. Ayse is a master of making complex ideas simple, and the book has some unbelievable illustrations. They’re really funny. They have to do with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that continuum from when you’re young to when you’re older. There’s some fabulous stuff that we don’t think about, but it’s real.
Q: You have said that great collaborations are built on trust, understanding, and curiosity. Could you talk about how you go about developing trust with your collaborators?
A: I believe that, in any relationship, trust comes from actions and attitudes. It’s about being transparent; showing that you’re responsive, reliable, upfront, and honest. And just as important as that is showing that you care, that you are truly passionate about who your collaborators are, and that you value what they have to offer. It’s a bit like what I was saying before about the older adults, they need to know that you respect them. You hear what they have to say, and you make sure to acknowledge and thank them. With kids or in relationships, you want to model the behavior that you’d like to receive. Trust comes through that, and all of this is because you have to have the trust. Because collaboration is an inherently reciprocal process: it has give and take. And you really only want to give and take with people you trust. When you trust each other, you feel comfortable challenging each other. The best way to build trust, and therefore have a successful collaboration, is to pick your collaborators carefully. Great collaboration doesn’t happen with everyone, and it’s important to know and accept that. Also, these relationships often need to be built and nurtured over time. You learn from the positives and the challenges, and then you evolve to make your collaboration better. But there has to be a baseline of trust and respect.
Q: After years of working as a branding and design consultant, you started your own design company, LC&CO Creative. What prompted you to do that, and what role does collaboration play in your work there?
A: In this side gig generation, what I wanted to do was to connect my work with the things that I love, and the things that I really love personally are food, hospitality, retail, travel. My husband works in the food industry, we live and breathe food. Aside from just eating incredible food, we travel for it. Everything in our lives is about food.I started my career in design doing branding—primarily in the retail industry—and I worked with big brands that had huge, daunting budgets because it was the 1990s. What I most loved about doing that work was feeling like I was helping to develop and tell a story, and that story made the company and its products more understandable,delightful, and engaging for its customers. What I realized, or I always knew but then decided I wanted to come back to, was this idea that smaller brands don’t necessarily have the awareness of or the access to those kinds of design and branding services, and I wanted to give it to them. It was this idea of great design that was affordable or sometimes even free. I have done branding workshops for women, immigrant workers in Philadelphia who are looking to become entrepreneurs. I hate this idea that money is a barrier to good design. I know it’s real. I know it’s a reality but it really bothers me. What I liked about my side gig was that, because it was a side gig, I could afford to do it that way. I could afford to try to do more with less, and help the people that I work with do more with less.
In that business the collaboration is immediate because, again, these are small customers. We work hand in hand. In a lot of cases I live and breathe their businesses because we’re so interconnected and there’s so much trust between us. I love what they do. When I’m excited by something I want to deep dive into it, and I can do that with them. I’m not able to do that often on the bigger projects. I can love the project and I can deep dive into their business, but I can’t necessarily be as intimate as I am with my own work, which covers everything from one-off restaurants to arts and crafts malls, to a cookie company…they’re little businesses that are just trying to make it work, and there aren’t many people to help them. It’s educational, too, because they don’t know these things. So they’re learning about design while I’m learning about them, and it’s a real collaborative, reciprocal process.
Q: Are there industries that are doing a better job of incorporating collaborative design principles? What do you see as key drivers of collaborative design being adopted more widely in the industry?
A: It’s a great question and my answer for the first one is: I’m not sure. I think there are many industries and companies that have this intention. But I think it tends to be more individuals who are driving this than corporate mandates or a collaborative culture. There’s this idea of conscious collaboration and unconscious collaboration, particularly in design because, as I said, it’s inherently collaborative but people aren’t necessarily talking about it that way. There’s a lack of recognition or understanding that design is a process that is collaborative. When you go beyond designers or design firms and you look within organizations people still don’t even understand what design is.
Design relies on others to happen. That is a blessing and a curse, particularly in companies, where everyone wants to be the owner of the project or to be seen as the hero; I made this happen and now I get the credit. I believe that if designers could go beyond that—and I don’t want to offend anybody but ego does have to be put to the side—then collaboration would be easier.
I think some of the best collaborative design is happening in non-design creative fields. It happens in film, in theater, in music, in dance, in the culinary arts, and in a chef’s kitchen. I think this is because it’s openly understood that collaboration is foundational to the process and its success. In a kitchen, it’s even foundational to its safety, right? Somehow that seems to get lost in our industry, that it’s foundational. Maybe because design is usually paired with business, and the objectives of those things can often be at odds; solving a problem versus making money. I think it continues to be misunderstood.
The key drivers are people, education, and building awareness and understanding. Again, people need to understand that design is inherently collaborative. We wouldn’t need to define it as such if they understood that. We could then build the conditions for making it more successful. A key aspect of that is going to be communication. What I mean by that is not just speaking, but listening. Listening is key to collaboration, and we’re not all good at doing that. That’s again because our culture says, You want to be seen and heard, and that’s what makes you successful. That’s how you’re often measured. Quietness and being the listener in the room are not necessarily valued to the degree that they should be but it’s one of the most important skills in collaboration; hearing others, gauging what they have to say, assessing what’s valuable, what needs to be explored further, what needs to get done, and what needs to be gently pushed back on. These are all really important elements: who’s comfortable, who’s uncomfortable. These are important parts to collaboration and you won’t pick them up unless you’re listening. Collaboration is about learning, sharing, leading, and supporting each other, and you can’t do that without listening.
Q: You talk about working with Purpose and Heart. Could you talk about what that means and how you bring it into your day to day design practice?
A: For me, purpose and heart is about designing things that are meaningful and that will resonate emotionally. It’s creating things that exist for a reason, they answer a why for the creator and the customer or user. The emotional side of it is what makes them sing. The heartfelt part is visceral and hard to explain. It’s about something that you feel; it just feels right. It’s like Goldilocks sitting in the chairs. She gets to the final chair and it is just right. She tried all the others, they didn’t work. It’s a feeling, it’s a sense. I think many of us who work in design, whether it’s branding or product or another area, we know when something is right. I always rub my fingers together to express it, because it’s a feeling.
The question of how I bring purpose and heart into my work brings us back to collaboration. When I’m working with my clients, I want them to trust me. I want to have a deep understanding of who they are, and I want them to feel my curiosity. And I do this by asking a lot of questions. Questions like, What makes you tick? And really intensely listening. That’s been a part of my DNA from early on. When I was in my 20s I worked with a client who said, The thing about you is that you really are a good listener.
The other part of purpose and heart for me comes from working on projects that really get me excited. If I’m excited, I want to get to the heart of what the project is about. I will often say to clients that I feel like my work is almost like being a medium.My job is to help draw out of them what is already there. I just help them bring it to fruition. Ayse calls me her design doula. Same idea: what could be more about purpose and heart than the role of a doula? I allow myself to be taken over by their ideas and projects, and they become important to me. It’s my purpose and heart, but I’m also helping them to get to the purpose and the heart of what they do. The purpose being why they exist and the heart being what’s going to make them sing.
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