Designing 'with' not 'for': the social movement of co-design

School of Design Innovation alumni Kelly Ann McKercher (they/them) has forged a varied career that spans design, teaching, and public health.

They are now a pioneer in the field of co-design and have recently written a book, Beyond Sticky Notes, about the mindsets and methods of co-design, aimed at both new and experienced practitioners.

Kelly Ann studied a Bachelor in Design Innovation, majoring in Culture and Context (now Design for Social Innovation) with a minor in Cultural Anthropology.

“I have always had a deep curiosity for people and culture, as well as tons of empathy, a passion for social justice, and a desire to do work that does good,” says Kelly Ann.

Now based in Sydney, Australia, Kelly Ann has infused that curiosity, empathy, and passion into their work. They have a number of different roles.

“I work in public health as a design leader. That work involves coaching, mentoring, and increasing our organisation’s understanding, practice, and capacity to benefit from design. I teach, speak and write about design for all kinds of publications and audiences. I also convene a trans-Tasman community of practice called the Co-design Club with my collaborator and fellow kiwi Dr Emma Blomkamp. The Co-design Club brings together advanced practitioners from Aotearoa and Australia to share support, explore tension and intersectionality, learn, and advance the practice.”

Co-design is an area that Kelly Ann is passionate about, which led to them writing the book that discusses their practices.

“I so often see design or decision-making practices pretending to be co-design, which are really just workshops, ‘fancier’ consultation or decision-makers trying to justify decisions that have already been made,” says Kelly Ann.

“While co-design has increased in popularity and started appearing in mainstream media, it is poorly understood and often poorly applied. I couldn’t find any books that explained the social movement side of co-design—the need to transform inequitable power structures, improve institutional listening— or that went into the ‘how’, not only the ‘why’, or that looked interesting enough to read.”

Their new book builds on the concepts of co-design that already exist and adds lessons from their experiences working in social innovation, design agencies, government, and the community.

Kelly Ann explains that co-design is about designing with people, families, and communities rather than for them. “It is about restoring dignity, power and choice to people so that they control the decisions that shape their lives, bodies and livelihoods. It sounds simple and obvious—but doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should or could.”

The design background gained at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington gave Kelly Ann an invaluable insight into where their skills lay as well as introducing them to a broad range of design methods and mindsets that they’ve used extensively in their career.

“Studying design helped me see very early on that I am not a designer maker (I made terrible models, furniture and digital products), but that there was hope for me in using my creativity and care for people in conceptual design, design ethnography, and social innovation. Studying Design for Social Innovation taught me how to think, and then my career and experiences working with the community have taught me the rest.”

Kelly Ann has seen first-hand how Australia has been impacted by COVID-19.

“Our systems have always needed radical transformation to be more caring, equitable and compassionate. COVID-19 has made that much more visible to many more people, which provides us an opportunity to rethink our mindsets and models, at scale. Working in public health, I see the tireless efforts of my colleagues at the frontline and I sometimes feel powerless to help out in a direct way.”

However, there are some benefits to being across the ditch. “The weather is infinitely better in Australia than it is in Wellington (sorry). The coffee, however, is much worse.”

Kelly Ann continues to have strong links with practitioners and projects at home in New Zealand. To find out more about their work, visit