How co-designing with young people can change your practice

Rosie Patterson, animator, explores the assumptions, challenges and benefits involved in co-production, reflecting on her work with IAP to design an educational resource tackling gender-based violence.

When I first entered the Inclusion As Prevention project, I thought I would approach it as I would working with any client seeking animation support: conduct initial conversations; gather information; ask a few questions regarding colour, content, and aesthetics etc. then head off on my own to start the long process of designing the content. The brief was an exciting one: working with an innovative, community-driven project that seeks to support young voices through co-design, and producing an animation to educate young people and their families on the topic of domestic and gender-based violence. This would feed into one of the overall aims of the project: to collaboratively shift and re-shape the delivery of services for children and young people at risk of offending, and their families.

What I was met with was very different to my initial expectations. The utilisation of co-design, creating a safe space for young people to share their experiences and using these stories to guide the design process has changed my ideation of what my creative career will look like – and how creative processes can be.

Co-design helped to challenge assumptions around young people

One of the downsides of the rise of social media is the myriad of social norms that are arising that contribute to the toxic normalisation of sexist and derogatory behaviour, both online and off. And this is the modern social landscape that young people are navigating. This is a difficult subject to discuss as it is, but this difficulty can often be exacerbated when people assume that young people know the risks and how to help themselves – or worse, the assumption that this happens to “older” children – or if they’re not believed when they’ve been the victims of abuse.

I too imagined that the young people could potentially be resistant to speaking about gender-based violence or have limited knowledge of the subject due to their age. It was here that my own thinking was challenged, and I took away three key lessons from the young people:

  • They already had a deep comprehension of the subject surrounding gender-based violence and were able to clearly articulate their thoughts and opinions.
  • They had very honest and diverse takes on domestic and gender-based violence, and often pointed out topics and ideas that the adults in the room hadn’t considered.
  • They were very articulate when discussing mental health and the effects that gender-based violence can have on victims, and approached the topic with deep empathy, maturity, and sensitivity.

Co-design creates spaces where power is shared

Young people often spend a lot of time in environments where there is a hierarchical system, whether that be parent and child, teacher and student etc. This can be mirrored in the animator-client relationship, which can at times be quite extractive for the people you’re working with. Usually, a freelance animator working alone will take ownership over the visuals of the project from start to finish, responding to feedback from the client as they go. With that, when a project is completed, comes a sense of pride over having created something from start to finish, alone. Working with Inclusion as Prevention and Dartington Service Design Lab, I was initially apprehensive about whether this dynamic would be repeated, given there were nearly the same number of adults as young people in the room.

But in this case, the young people were able to challenge my own process as both a researcher and a designer, taking the lead on character design, colour consideration, and designing and recording a script-based narrative. Working collaboratively over 8 weeks, they consistently showed up with new ideas and different avenues to explore. They regularly challenged their own ideas and assumptions to ensure they were delivering the message they wanted in the best way possible.

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Working collaboratively to create a physical output ensures that everyone involved has ownership over something concrete and creative. I’ve also understood the value of sharing the outcome of hard work with others – it’s empowering for everyone involved in a project, and a truer reflection of all involved.

Co-design prioritises people’s stories and life experiences

To do this work and create a safe space for sharing ideas and feeling valued, IAP partners Dartington Service Design Lab designed and facilitated weekly sessions with the young people. They used a story-telling method of research to share power, and create an environment in which everyone’s lived experience, knowledge and skills were valued. We analysed their lived experiences, dissecting them together and discussing how they were impactful. We looked to establish how we, and others, could learn from them. This is part of their “integrated approach” to using and generating different forms of evidence to create better systems of support for young people and their families.

As the weekly sessions progressed, I saw each and every young person become more comfortable and confident with sharing their own lived experiences and ideas surrounding gender-based violence. This created a cycle where the more each individual shared, the more ownership and power they had over the outputs they were creating. This method of using storytelling to conduct research was not something I had encountered before, but by spending most of our time at the beginning of the process talking, sharing stories and opinions, and recording interesting lines of thought to be developed further into our work together, we were left with a bank of diverse experiences that we could draw on when designing the animation.

By ensuring there is a clear representation of multiple views and backgrounds, and adopting an environment of respect, we have allowed the young people to trust us with sharing their experiences and channelling them into a call for action.

Creating Space for Change

According to Women’s Aid, in 2021, more than 4 out of 5 victims of domestic abuse identified as women. The police recorded 65,251 incidents of domestic abuse, an increase of 4% compared to the previous year. This is the fifth year in a row that this figure has shown an increase.

It’s clear from my experience of collaborating with the young people just how valuable their voice is in the discourse surrounding gender-based violence. Co-design works and creates an environment where young people feel they can actively use their voice and contribute to change in their communities.

This experience has left us with a deeply impactful, visually engaging animation, designed by and for young people, using real lived experiences as invaluable testimonies that can potentially prevent gender-based violence.

The animation is currently being trialled as an asset to support teachers in schools when discussing gender-based violence with students. The young people have expertly designed the narrative so that it simultaneously educates viewers on the issue and inspires them to tackle gender-based violence in their own daily lives, taking early action to prevent an environment where sexist behaviour is normalised.

You can see more of these outputs on the Inclusion as Prevention Twitter

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