Various forms of this question pop up every now and then. On the one (extreme) hand, there is co-design, using focus groups to dictate the design space, and methodological design to fit the creative process into standard work. The other extreme would be the superstar designers of today, who repeat their hit tricks to produce a never ending stream of attractive looking products.
I think it is important to keep a sense of perspective over the co-design/user focus/design ‘stars’ question. Democratic design is not an attractive alternative to ‘hebbedingetjes’, as it will produce bland, unoriginal solutions. We need people who have the guts to come up with inspiring, intensely beautiful, society-shaking visions, who are not afraid to translate those ideas into systems and products.
At the same time, designers should not be so arrogant to think they know it all. They should emerge themselves in the environment they design for, like anthropologists, to truly understand what impact their ideas would have on the people that experience them. At least they should take notice of what has already been done. There for the taking is a vast and growing body of scientific literature on mindsets and behaviors of various focus groups, and methods for doing user experience research.
In my opinion, the reason we should practice user research and co-design in the design process is not to validate our own ideas or to hand over the reigns to the user altogether. Designers should treat literature, user experience research and ethnography not as a ‘client’ or brief, but as a source of inspiration. Be inspired and produce great design that inspires others.