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What is Co-Design?

At the core of Huddle's approach is a process called co-design. In this overview we delve into its history, methods, and principles, and offer some practical tips on which projects are best suited to co-design.

We live in a world that that is more connected than ever. As the interdependent nature today’s problems becomes recognized, public and private sector organizations are increasingly turning to co-design for structured collaboration.

Intragovernmental 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. 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, they just need the tools
•    Any design process should be inclusive and respectful

Co-Design / Action Research / 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 is CoDesign Appropriate?

When engaging in a social innovation project, and particularly when addressing issues of equity or access, co-design can be a useful approach. In general, co-design works best when:

•    Your problem isn’t yet clearly defined
•    Your solution or approach isn’t working and you don’t know why
•    You have evidence, but implementation remains unclear
•    Many stakeholders are involved
•    There are competing definitions of value

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. 

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 & 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, 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? Contact us.