Since commencing our respective design journey’s almost 20 years ago, the importance of ‘intent’ has always been front and centre.

Defining, articulating and sharing intent is key to the commencement of any design project we work on – it is the focal point that all subsequent design and design research activity derives from and the source of the design question itself.

For DMA, articulating intent with our design partners (the people or organisations that engage us) is a formal first step. We don’t embark on designing our research or co-design approach until we have a signed-off a Design Intent statement – it’s a critical part of our engagement approach. It’s usually incorporated into the overall design project as a couple of up-front days.

But two recent projects have allowed us to move beyond using intent articulation as the ‘kick-off’ to the project, to thinking about the articulation of intent as the initial design project itself.


Project 1: Co-designing a health program(s) with, and for 13-16 year olds

Starting Point for the Client Three sponsoring organisations (a University, a State Health Department and a local Health District) with an initial goal wanted to immediately undertake a range of co-design activities with a ‘cohort’ of 13-16 year olds.
The Intent Challenge The three organisations had very different language and goals for the work itself, and we’re new (but extremely keen) to the concept of service and co-design.
Our Approach Instead of pitching the full potential design project we asked the group to invest up-front in a phase of work where we would co-design the intent with them BEFORE we embarked on the co-design project with the cohort they had in mind.

Through a series of facilitated conversations and the use of co-design techniques with our partners we collectively shared and merged the intents of health professionals, bureaucrats, academics and research specialists.

The result
  • The creation of a shared language between three organisations
  • A refinement of the concept of who the co-design would take place with (much broader than an age group)
  • A visualisation of the service system so that we knew what connected and associated work must be taken into account.

And from a business perspective for the client, the artefact produced gives them communication messages, a range of descriptions to explain, engage and get endorsement for progressing within the reality of their business processes.

Now we can embark on the co-design process with a clarity and focus that might have taken time out of the design project itself, because intent was invested in up front.

Project 2: Co-designing support the formal process of ‘identification’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Starting Point for the Client A Federal agency looking for solutions to improve services and results based around identification activity.
The Intent Challenge The junction of identity and identification is complex and detailed and jumping straight to ‘co-design’ as a kind of discovery tool was not the right course to take with a cohort who are the ‘most researched group in the world’. (Aboriginal Research Institute (ARI), 1993, p. 2; Smith, 1999, p. 3)
Our Approach Drawing on the advice and support of our established cultural advisors we set about working with the team to invest in intent up front so that when an effort is made to co-design solutions the Agency can work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities directly knowing that they have already made sense of all of the research and work that has taken place around the topic.
The result A series of thinking tools and insights developed from existing knowledge and lived experience from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collaborators (who helped us shape the tools), so that now the organisation can embark on a broader co-design project from a position of shared and articulated intent.
For this project is was critical that co-design wasn’t only seen as ‘discovery’ and that the community were suddenly asked to be part of a design process that didn’t acknowledge what was already known.


The reflection that articulating intent is a necessary discipline when engaging on a design journey or project (no matter how big or small) is increasingly important as the language and currency of co-design in the public sector takes firmer hold.

Without intent as an anchor, co-design (as described in an excellent recent article in The Mandarin about findings by the University of Melbourne Policy Lab) risks becoming a roll-out of techniques that Departments think they ‘should do’ with no real depth to the actual design question the techniques are seen to be answering.

This investment in intent is actually part of co-design itself. There is no distinction for us between the articulation of intent and what is increasingly being seen as co-design – the workshop or interview or journey map.

Having design partners who are happy to invest in intent up front bodes well for design outcomes and builds real capability in organisations as they understand they need to agree on the question and understand its importance for them, not just put it to the community to answer in creative workshops (no matter how well they might be delivered).

Imagine if every future design request for tender had a component of articulating intent with designers, rather than simply listing the perceived co-design activities that the client thinks should happen and asking designers to ‘quote on that’.

Intent pinpoints what really matters. While the challenge of intent is making sure you are not trying to decide what the problem is too early, the design, business, collaborative and creative outcomes of a defined intent phase is borne out in real practice. And in real design results.

Intent means design starts with ‘why we want to change something’ not ‘what we want to change is…’