What is co-design?

Co-design is a participatory approach where designers and non-designers work together to solve problems using designerly ways of thinking, tools and processes. Here non-designers refers to either people with lived experience such as service users or subject matter experts. It's about including the people who will be impacted by an issue in all stages of defining and creating the solution. 

It is creative, participatory and solutions focused. It shares some DNA with other participatory research methods but differs in that it prioritises idea generation and design outputs over research outputs.

There is a 'co' part and a 'design' part.

The co part of co-design is about collaboration and participation. By participation I mean, sharing decision making power. From problem definition, through ideation, to choosing which solution to execute on.

The design part of co-design is often misunderstood. Does co-design mean that participants are creating the final designed outputs? Not necessarily. Design is an approach to problem solving. What makes it unique is that it aims to solve problems by coming up with a bunch of possible solutions, and using making or 'modelling' to test and validate which ones work. It's iterative, adductive and non-liniar (despite how it may come across when looking at popular design tools or methods).

At its core, design is about imagining possible futures, and creating a plan to get there. In my view co-design goes beyond having end users participate in the design process; it is about using designerly tools and ways of thinking to enable participation. This means using design tools to support a shared language of making and doing where experts and end users alike can share tacit knowledge and advocate for their needs. Co-design is about going beyond asking people what their needs are and towards co-developing solutions and imagining what a better world looks like for them.

So a more exciting way to think about it is, rather than design being about including non-designers in the design process, it's about using the designerly tools and ways of thinking to help people who often wouldn't get to participate in creating their own future do so. So participation through design, rather than participation in design.


Some mindsets of core beliefs to embrace as a co-design are moving;

Participation can shift over time

Codesign exists on a spectrum of participatory design methods. The dominant conversation about collaborative design methods is the level of participation and power given to beneficiaries, but the level of participation will often shift during each stage of the design process.

Much of what is called codesign today would be better described as generative research, when people with lived experience are not involved in the problem definition or decision making process the project is more likely some form of Human-centred design.

On many projects a true co-design process will simply be out of scope. True co-design is rare, and sometimes not appropriate for the context. Going around in circles debating if a project is truly co-design or not is a waste of energy. 

Instead we should focus on being human centred as a minimum, and seeing how participatory it is possible (and appropriate) to get within the scope of the project. Then clearly articulating that to participants and stakeholders.

Codesign when done well can be powerful tool and has the potential to help solve the big issues facing society today. But it isn't a silver bullet or a short cut. Organisations can't go from no-design to codesign overnight, but together we can start embodying the codesign mindsets and push towards a more participatory and equitable future.