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Mixing your own drink at the soda fountain, ordering a personal message on a paper greeting card, or selecting the fabric, sleeve style, and length of a dress — these are all ways brands are co-creating products with their customers. And, more and more, these experiences are becoming central to the design process.

Today’s customers want highly personalized, highly customized design and creative content. By letting your clients and customers make choices about the products you design for them, you can deliver these targeted experiences — and cultivate greater satisfaction, greater loyalty and greater customer value.

That’s why customer-driven co-creation is becoming a central part of the design process for so many designers and creative companies. From customized running shoes to highly-personalized wedding invitations, designers and businesses learn a lot about their customers through the co-creation process. Here are five ways designers are making co-creation work for their businesses and how you can begin integrating the power of co-creation in your own work.

1. Involve the customer from the beginning.

Kristin Berry, owner of wedding creative company Miss Design Berry, leans heavily on co-creation to customize wedding products for her clients, and it all begins from the first conversation. “We talk about the customer’s vision — their wedding colors and the fonts they like to portraits of themselves or their pets,” says Kristin. “This conversation kicks off the whole design journey.”

When done correctly, co-creation is a deliberate process aimed at streamlining and simplifying the entire design process. Establishing expectations from the beginning curbs the amount of back-and-forth needed to get a project just right. “Having an open, collaborative conversation ensures that our vision is aligned with the customer’s and that designers know the goal and have all the assets they need to reach it,” says Kristin.

Miss Design Berry works with customers to create personalized wedding products, like invitations with custom portraits of the bride and groom. Courtesy of Miss Design Berry.

Involving the customer from the start of a project doesn’t mean sacrificing your entire development process. Individuals like Drew Howells-Tabacco, Director of altSpace by LiquidSpace, know that for many companies a profitable business hinges on a standardized production workflow — in this case, creating customized office spaces from prefabricated pieces.

The co-creation process for altSpace by LiquidSpace delivers personalization without losing efficiency. “We go through a design scope and informal feedback session to determine the best use case for the floorplan and client,” says Drew. “This collaboration allows us to keep our supply chain intact, while also solving for our customer’s workspace needs.”

2. Use data to know what customers want most.

It may be tempting to make every element of your product customizable, but looking at the data from what customers have asked for in the past can help you offer targeted personalization for the things that matter most to them. By organizing and analyzing these inputs, designers can better develop foundational products that appeal to customers on a basic level, with targeted areas for co-creation. This style builds off existing workflows while still creating a personalized end product.

For example, Keir McCarton at KIO Cards, which specializes in handmade cards and paper crafts, recognized that the most frequent request from KIO’s customers was the option to personalize the card with unique messages, such as private jokes or pet names between the customer and the recipient.

With this trend in mind, KIO now offers standard card designs with the option to personalize the message, eliminating the time and effort of starting a card from scratch for both KIO designers and the customer.

3. Let customer innovation inspire your design and development.

Never forget that customers can be a limitless resource for innovative ideas. “Nearly every customer has new needs,” says Drew. “With altSpace, we say the key is to not be surprised by their needs. Instead, designers can learn by acting on customers’ requests.”

With altSpace by LiquidSpace, clients can choose from one of three design kits, Sprint, Launch, and Thrive. Or, they can go for a Tailored option, which involves the most customization. Courtesy of altSpace by LiquidSpace.

Customer-driven innovation is responsible for a large part of Miss Design Berry’s growth and evolution as well. Kristin explains that she had a very specific direction in mind when the business launched. But her customers pushed back, offering their suggestions and making custom requests that forced Kristin to think about her business’ design offering. “We just kept getting requests. ‘Can you tweak this?’ ‘Can you add this?’ It really became about designing for the client as an individual instead of as a collective whole.” Today, the company’s signature personalized offering sets it apart from competitors, and creating new and exciting designs every day is part of why the company’s designers love their jobs.  

4. Use the right design tools.

One of the biggest challenges facing the co-creation process is time. It takes time to create customized designs. But with the right tools, designers can work quickly and make their jobs simpler.  

“In our design process, it’s all about efficiency without sacrificing creativity,” says Keir. “We love the artistic flexibility Creative Cloud gives us as we design. It makes the process of incorporating personalized details really simple and time efficient.” Designers at KIO Cards use Photoshop to create digital illustrations and other visual elements for new card designs. They also use it to easily incorporate personal messages, color preferences, and other customized elements to existing cards.

KIO Cards uses Creative Cloud, especially Photoshop, to take standard card designs and add personalized messages as well as design bespoke cards from scratch. Courtesy of KIO Cards.

Kristin’s designers carry out similar functions in Illustrator, while Drew’s team adds InDesign into the mix. Whatever your project, the perfect design tool exists to make co-creation as easy as possible and deliver the beautiful results. And the cloud functionality allows designers to collaborate and share ideas.

5. Loyalty is the true end result.

At first glance, co-creating with customers can seem intimidating. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to be flexible with traditional workflows. Designers may ask, “Is it really worth it?” Remember that much of co-creation is less about the product itself and more about giving customers a reason to be loyal to your brand and your designs. “As customers are involved in the creative process, they feel so much more invested,” Kristin says. “That customer-client relationship is so much stronger, and you end up making a client for life because of it.”

Whether it’s a new concept for your business or something you’ve integrated since the beginning, co-creating with customers can help designers better understand what matters most to their audience and, as a result, cultivate optimized products and experiences.

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