What is codesign?

Co-design is about including the people who will be impacted by a product or service in the design process and sharing power across all stages. 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.

Codesign is a collection of Methods, Mindsets and tools built around the idea that all people are creative and involving the beneficiaries of a product, service or system will lead to better outcomes for all.



The generative tools and toolkits used in co-design workshops to aid creativity and share tacit knowledge.

These can be things like worksheets, post-it notes or more tactile tools like lego, play-doh or building blocks. Tools help people who are not comfortable being creative, or don’t have language to express their experience.

Generative toolkits are the scaffolding that design facilitators use to help non-designers engage in the design process.1 They provide a starting point for creativity and lower the barriers for participants, giving people from different backgrounds a shared collaborative language.

  • Are typically a collection of 2D and 3D materials and elements used to facilitate the design process

  • Aid in creative play and creative expression


The methods and tools of co-design can be used in other contexts, but without a shift in mindset, efforts to truly collaborate with people with lived experience can be undermined. With that in mind here are some of the beliefs and mindsets to strive for in co-design projects.

From subject to partner

One of the biggest shifts for people new to co-design is the move of thinking of participants as subjects to be researched, or end users who will receive a service to partners in the definition, design and sometimes delivery of a service.

This will be familiar for people engaged in participatory community development approaches. In a co-design team people with lived expertise are partners with subject matter experts. You are all equal participants in the process, with the same amount of power.

A focus on making and action

Co-design is a form of participatory action research and as such has a focus on making change. It's a way of learning through doing rather than theorising.

One of the key differences between co-design and other forms of participatory community engagement is the focus on making. Making things opens up new ways of thinking for people and helps both generate ideas and express complex or difficult topics which can be hard to grapple with through words alone.

Connecting unlike-minded people

Co-design doesn’t mean just designing with end users, but bringing together end users with other experts. Users are experts in their experience, subject matter experts are experts in their domain, and design facilitators are experts in providing the right tools and structure to enable effective collaboration between these groups.

Co-design recognises these different experiences and brings them together to design collaboratively. These differences in experience can often spark new ideas that the groups would not have reached separately.

Prioritising relationships

A shift in evolution from traditional product based design to more participatory methods is the shift in focus from the design of a thing to a growing emphasis on the building of beneficial relationships and networks.

Relationships and networks are a fundamental necessity to tackle systemic issues and co-design recognises that the relationships and collaborations required to deliver on a project are as important as any design artefact.

Mutually rewarding

Co-design should not feel like an extractive process where participants are mined for their ideas and insights. It should be mutually rewarding for both participants, partners and facilitators.

This can come from capability building that we talked about earlier, it can come from the intrinsic joy in connecting with others and being creative, or feeling heard.

Importantly it should also come from partners being fairly remunerated for their time.

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.