Where did co‑design come from?

Spoiler alert it’s over 40 years old

You may have just heard the word co-design for the first-time or you may already be jaded at the thought of it. In any case, there is something about it that has captured your attention. Imagination, cynicism or a combination of both.

If you are unsure and curious about co-design you are in the right place. This article is a snapshot of some of co-design’s origins, influences and toolkit/s. My promise to you is you will find at least one person, project or way of doing things that will compel you to dive a little deeper. This is not quite a timeline — because many of the folks who started in this field of “co-design” are still going — this is selection of the most fascinating folks paving the way to what we call co-design today.

There are many great practitioners I’d love to mention, but for this intro let’s leave this to a nice round 40-years (1978–2018). Before we jump in. If you need an introduction to what co-design is. Here’s where you want to look first.

There are many great practitioners I’d love to mention, but for this intro let’s leave this to a nice round 40-years (1978–2018).

Cooperative design or “Scandinavian” for short

“Participation is a fundamental process, not only for democracy, but also for learning” Bødker et al. (2000)

Cooperative design (sometimes called participatory design) emerged in Norway during the early 1970’s in response to the changing roles of workers as computers and machinery were introduced. Cooperative design was the first well documented example of designers and researchers working together to create environments for generative research by making things together (prototyping).They created tools and activities to allow for workers, unions, workplaces and government departments to design software, working conditions and staff support services. Power imbalances and hierarchical relationships between participants are documented in cooperative design papers, highlighting how participation in design is a political act.

Projects from 70’s-80’s include Norwegian Iron and Metal Workers Union (NJMF), DEMOS, DUE and Utopia. If you want to learn more look into Susanne Bødker, Pelle Ehn, Dan Sjögren, Yngve Sundblad Kristen Nygaard, Olav-Terje Bergo, Åke Sandberg, Morten Kyng, Lars Mathiassen, and Niels Erik Andersen

Key concepts, tools and techniques: ‘designing-by-doing’, ‘mock-up envisionment’, future workshops, organisational games, mock-up design, co-operative prototyping, ethnographic field research, and democratic dialogue, low fidelity prototyping

Collaborative inquiry and Participatory Action Research (PAR)

“Research should be done ‘with’ people and not ‘on’ or ‘for’ them” Davydd J. Greenwood and Morten Levin

Collaborative inquiry, PAR and social engagement do not come from the world of design, instead coming from sociology, community development, feminist studies and organisational development. They are a series of approaches to research that can be traced to two points. Maybe more:

  • After WW2- 1944-with Prussian psychologist and a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany Kurt Lewin “No research without action, no action without research.” and
  • Paulo Freire, Brazillian educator and philosopher who believed that critical reflection was crucial for personal and social change. “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”

Greenwood and Levin emerged with many in the late 1970’s (same time as Scandinavian design) to address the need to evaluate and improve services through grass-root knowledge. All the methods in collaborative enquiry and PAR have the participant as an equal partner with the researcher. This guiding principle determines how the research is designed and facilitated every step along. “ The focus of the inquiry is determined by what the participants consider important, what affects their lives” Greenwood and Levin (2013). Like co-design active involvement of stakeholders is crucial: program clients, practitioners, community members, funders and managers are involved to collect knowledge, evaluate systems and create change.

Key concepts, tools and techniques: Problem trees and force fields, timelines, gaps and conflicts, VIP (Values, Interests, Position), CLIP (Collaboration, Legitimacy, Interests, Power), projection and ideal scenarios, SAS2, cogenerative research, emancipatory research,


Design for all (DfA), Inclusive Design, Disability justice

“Nothing about us, without us expresses the conviction of people with disabilities that they know what is best for them” James Charlton

“By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.” Centre for Excellence in Universal Design

‘Design for all’ is the practice of making products, systems and services accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. As a design movement and approach Design for All is often linked to:

  • universal design that invites all members of society to use a product, system or service and
  • inclusive design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.
  • accessibility design that focuses on making design readily accessible and usable by everyone.

DfA combined with Equity-Centered Community Design should be an important consideration in conducting any type of co-design to mitigate any power imbalances, exclusion or barriers to participation.

There is still work to do in making co-design more accessible for people with disabilities. Pioneers here are authors and activists we can learn from are Ron Mace, Jim (James) Charlton, Judi Chamberlin, Liz Jackson. History-wise: Learn more about the design for disability history in Bess Williamson’s Accessible America or for a totally different perspective read Alison Kafer’s: Feminist, Queer, Crip.

Key concepts, tools and techniques: accessibility, equity, representation, barriers to participation, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, racial equity tools, respect, psychological safety, universal design, design for disabilities, Inclusive Design Research Centre, Social Justice Repair Kit, Inclusive design guide, identity first language, people first language, social model of disability, human rights!

Human-centred design, empathic design, value-sensitive design

“When I came into design 30 years ago, designers knew they were designing for people but they didn’t think a lot about the people. IDEO was a pioneer in emphasising the point that we were designing for people — that we needed to know about people, engage with them, and learn about their lives. As time has gone on, we’ve evolved to designing more with people — bringing people more fully into the process. That’s a development from designing for people to designing with people.” Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO U

Human-centred design (HCD) and empathic design are approaches that started hitting the scene in the 90’s. Now only HCD and it’s business-focused sidekick Design thinking remain. HCD and empathic design focus on the importance of empathy in developing quality products that meet customer needs. This means designers, researchers or design researchers try to engage potential users in the development of products or services. The level of engagement can vary from observation all the way through to co-creation (and co-design).

In the 1990’s Empathic design was supported by the voices of Jane Fulton Suri and David Kelley of IDEO who also stressed the need for qualitative research to inform and inspire designers to create ‘more useful and enjoyable things for people [they] may never meet’. Value-sensitive design came about in the mid-90’s too originating in the Value Sensitive Design Research Lab with Batya Friedman, David Hendry and Helen Nissenbaum. It centred specifically around the belief that the design of technology must account for human values. Although, Empathic design may be a term no longer used it started a trend of putting people with ‘lived experience’ at the centre of a holistic design process.

Key concepts, tools and techniques: Qualitative research, design ethnography, anthropology, immersion, contextual inquiry, design research, human centred design, design thinking, value-sensitive design

Design Activism — Design Justice

“Participation emancipates people by making them active contributors rather than passive recipients. It is therefore a form of design humanism aimed at reducing domination.” Alastair Fuad-Luke

…if you don’t recognize that design can also be strategic you cannot imagine that design can play an important role in triggering, supporting and scaling-up social innovation. Ezio Manzini

Democratising design is a political act. Co-design done well has profound impact of the system it is in. For that reason it is an approach to design activism. To define ‘Design activism’ it is a for-purpose movement that uses design to create social impact. It became official the 90’s when social design and service design first emerged from Politecnico di Milano. Before that all we had as professional was eccentric gurus like Victor Papanek and Buckminister Fuller or artists.

I’m not sure if there are folks officially called ‘Design activists’ but the big names for popularising the term design activism were Ezio Manzini and Alastair Fuad-Luke. They strove to redesigning services and systems for sustainability advocating for openness, collaboration and co-design with communities to make change real.

Fuad-Luke’s Design Activism highlights how co-design is different to other practices, while Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs describes how to facilitate inclusion in the design process.

Picking up from that the Design Justice Network has been doing some great work in this space. Their angle? Well…

Design mediates so much of our realities and has tremendous impact on our lives, yet very few of us participate in design processes. In particular, the people who are most adversely affected by design decisions — about visual culture, new technologies, the planning of our communities, or the structure of our political and economic systems — tend to have the least influence on those decisions and how they are made.

Key concepts, tools and techniques: Citizen’s assemblies, Emancipatory research, Social Action skills, Power mapping, Storytelling, Theory of change, The Design Activist’s Handbook: How to Change the World (Or at Least Your Part of It) with Socially Conscious Design, Design for the Real World, Design Justice Network, Decolonising Design,


Make Tools (a.k.a co-creation secret sauce)

“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 and that they can be both articulate and creative when given appropriate tools with which to express themselves.” Sanders (2002)

Co-design, design research and action-based research rely heavily on MakeTools and generative techniques to host conversations and capture the thought processes of others. MakeTools typically combine physical objects and generative activities and deep questions. Their goal is to help people — regardless of background — create and communicate past experiences or new ideas.

What is interesting about MakeTools themselves: what they are made of or how they look is not even remotely as important in what they can make. And, what they make isn’t as important as the reflection behind it and conversation over the top. It takes a lot of work to create a simple MakeTool. Something that feels easy and allows for honesty and reflection. Using these tools results in artefacts that are collages, maps, stories, plans, or memories.

MakeTools were coined by Liz Sanders a practitioner active in the generative and co-creative space since the early 1990’s. She co-authored Convivial Toolbox with Pieter Jan Stappers, a practical how-to guide for anyone interested in generative design research and co-design.

Key concepts, tools and techniques: Collective creativity, ‘Say, Do and MakeTools’, paths of expression, sensitising or priming participants, toolkits and cultural probes, design of trigger sets, service design, photo-elicitation, collage, montage, props, black boxes, scenario-making in the space models, participatory envisioning and enactment, improv, stories and storyboarding , diaries and daily logs, self observation,writing, drawing, blogs, wikis, photos,

That’s my summary, it’s a bit ambiguous, but that is pretty common for co-design. Why shouldn’t the backstory be any different?

If you still want more of an overview of terms or a map, here’s a quick read about co-design’s many names.

Other than that, add any other suggestions in the comments. Consider this a first draft.

What you would have noticed here is this is a very white, academic and European view I have shared. I have no doubt that co-design existed well before it was labeled by Indigenous communities and peoples and places. Can’t wait to learn more.