By: Joseph Donia, Pam Sethi, and Ian Chalmers

A Brief History of Co-Design

We live in a world that is more connected than ever. As the interdependent nature of today’s problems become recognized, public and private sector organizations are increasingly turning to co-design for structured collaboration. Intergovernmental units like Denmark’s MindLab and the UK’s Policy Lab have been set up to involve stakeholders in decision-making, from early problem-definition, through to prototyping, testing, and measurement. Still, for many co-design remains a puzzle. What exactly is co-design, what does ‘involvement’ really entail, and which projects are best-suited to co-design?

Collaborative design, or co-design, emerged from Scandinavian participatory design approaches developed in the 1970s and early 1980s. One of the earliest and most frequently cited examples comes from Norway, where metalworkers demanded the right to be included in the design of new technologies affecting their work (see the UTOPIA project). While methods and approaches may differ slightly, like its participatory ancestors co-design advances a few core principles: that those affected by a decision should have a say in its making, that all people are inherently creative, and that the design process should be inclusive and respectful. Put another way, co-design is aligned with a core principle of patient-centred design: ‘nothing about me without me’, and also aligns with trends in inclusive design, where products and services are designed to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Image Credit: Liz Sanders, 2008 

Shifting from “Designer as Expert” to “Designer as Facilitator”

In a sense, all design is co-design, and co-design can be the approach for practically any design project, whether communications, service, user interaction, or user experience, however an important feature that differentiates co-design from other design-based approaches is the way in which participation and inclusion are realized. Many design projects will require expertise from a specific domain (for example, a service redesign of a clinical cardiology unit), which might be outside the scope of knowledge of the public or other stakeholders. However, end-users such as patients, caregivers or family members are impacted by design projects should have a say at key decision-making junctures, such as when moving from prototype to testing, or testing to implementation. In this approach, traditional design roles shift. Designers become facilitators, and users become collaborators and equal partners. In this process, the approach its self is co-designed, down to how and when co-design participants are involved.

As such, a true co-design process will involve a degree of tension – and that’s okay! Decision-making may be slower, but will be more democratic. Not all stakeholders will be willing to share the power, and seemingly small factors affecting the design environment from its location, down to seating arrangements can have an impact on the success of a co-design project. A good facilitator will be attuned to these dynamics, and work to mitigate them wherever possible. For some facilitation tips, be sure to check out the list of resources at the end of this article.

Co-Design vs Action Research vs Experience-Based Design

Those familiar with social sciences research might draw parallels between co-design and action research – both of which emphasize learning by doing and can support community development. While co-design can be particularly useful at the ‘do’ phase of action research, it does not typically involve research ambitions, and is therefore more outcomes focused. As a design process, it also unsurprisingly relies much more on abductive reasoning and design-based methods than traditional scientific modes of inquiry.

Another related approach, which even shares part of its name, is experience-based co-design (EBCD). EBCD is a co-design approach created by the UK’s National Health Service and employs its own particular methods (notably video-recorded stories as a way to synthesize insights), and has an explicit focus on improving experiences of care.

When to use Co-Design?

Addressing broader health quality issues, particularly equity and access, can be well suited to a co-design approach. At the same time, it’s worth noting that some projects are better suited to co-design than others. In general, co-design works best when:

  • Your problem isn’t yet clearly defined
  • Your current solution or approach isn’t working and you don’t know why
  • You have evidence, but implementation has been/will be a challenge
  • Many stakeholders are involved, and each advance competing definitions of value

You may encounter challenges in your co-design project if:

  • You’re on a tight timeline
  • There’s a risk of politics compromising democratic decision making

Because of co-design’s inclusive and democratic nature, it is often touted as an inherently more ethical approach, making it particularly suitable for addressing health equity. In fact, a co-design approach was at the centre of an Irish policy and service project which aimed to improve equity, access, and integration of services for people experiencing homelessness. At its best, co-design makes space for marginalized voices, resulting in solutions that are more culturally relevant, which in-turn can increase trust and social capital – a currency designers, public officials, and private sector organizations will increasingly be expected to trade in.

Co-Design & Health Equity

The ideals of co-design shouldn’t ignore the fact that co-design too, is deeply intertwined with politics of class – who gets to participate in design activities can depend on who has access to the designers and institutions organizing the events, which is largely determined by social factors. Designers and project leaders will need to take that into account, effectively co-designing their co-design projects to reduce harm and exclusion in an iterative process throughout that is open to feedback. Similarly, no two co-design projects will look alike, and while toolkits are useful for introducing co-design methods and concepts, each project approach should be adapted to local knowledge and practice.

Co-design represents a powerful approach to involving communities in their own care, but can stand in contrast to many established ‘ways of doing things’, making co-design as much a culture-change project as it is a set of methods. Knowing where co-design is appropriate, and advocating for it at every opportunity will go a long way to ensuring that when you’re designing for communities, you’re doing right by them.

Want to learn more about co-design? Check out these resources below, contact us.



Politics & Design Method



New Zealand Weitemata District Health Board Health Service Co-Design Toolkit

The Co-Design Workshop: The Facilitator’s Pocket Guide Co-Design Tools Introduction

WACOSS Co-Design Toolkit

WACOSS Co-Design Toolkit Project Appropriateness Checklist

New South Wales Council of Social Service Co-Design Principles


Patient involvement 2.0: Experience-based co-design supported by action research

A Framework for Organizing the Tools and Techniques of Participatory Design

Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in co-designing

Co-creation and the new landscapes of design

Experience-based Co-design and Healthcare Improvement: Realizing Participatory Design in the Public Sector

Co-design and implementation research: challenges and solutions for ethics committees


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