Is this co-design?

January 14, 2021

This past week, I was in a meeting with many people across many disciplines. We came together to talk about research. And, without going into any specifics, we landed on the topic of “is this co-design or?”

I’m sure quite a few of you have heard this question many, many times. As you can imagine, I hear it quite a lot writing this newsletter (and being a user researcher). Ironically, I’ve realized that my inclination is usually to say, “well, not quite.”

As far as participation goes, co-design is pretty far up the ladder. To borrow from Kelly-Ann McKercher:

If you don’t have time to build relationships, you don’t have time for co-design.

I so often come back to this idea, are we building relationships or are we including people for a moment in time. When I’m doing research, whether peer- or practitioner-led, I imagine we’re moving up the ladder, but are we close to the top?

My point being, it’s a spectrum. And when we talk about participation, we use a lot of jargon (as Nandini shows, in just 105 characters). So, as we reconvene and we start a brand new year, I thought why not reflect on what we mean by the co-word.


What we mean by “co-design”

Co-design is a partnership, more than it is a process.

In this blog, Janet discusses co-design within the context of the Defra Future Farming programme. It’s useful to hear them discuss, in detail and with clarity, what a co-design approach looks like for this project. It sounds like, for them, it means including a lot of different actors in giving feedback and using that to inform decisions, designs and the future of farming.

Co-design is what happens behind the curtain

If you set out to co-design, you must be willing to hear that people with lived experience do not need more products, programs or services, and they may not even need you.

KA has a way of making co-design feel practical, necessary and achievable – but without comprising on integrity and relationships. If you feel like co-design is a catchy buzzword to throw in to win a bid, clear your schedule and check out their work.

Co-design isn’t new. Spoiler alert it’s over 40 years old.

I started following Jo sometime last year. In this blog, she gives an overview of the history of co-design, it’s influences and how it’s been shaped over time. As Ovetta Sampson points out in the comments, this summary requires expansion through a decolonized perspective. But, if you find yourself wondering the difference between participatory action research and human-centred design (etc.) this will likely help you pull all those pieces together.


As Liz Sanders said:

Participatory experience is not simply a method or set of methodologies, it is a mindset and an attitude about people. It is the belief that all people have something to offer to the design process.

This was originally published on my newsletter, Design With. It was archived in 2023.