a photo of a cityscape at night time
Image: city at night by @hellocolor

Co-design: Back To the Future

Collaborating with your stakeholders to clarify problems and develop solutions can be the difference between making something valuable and creating more problems.

Sarvnaz Taherian Ph.D
Propellerhead NZ
Published in
5 min readJul 7, 2020


The Birth of Co-design

During the 1970s, the introduction of computer technology to the Norwegian iron and metal working industry resulted in an unexpected outcome: a novel approach to improve the way we design systems and products. An approach founded on the idea that those who are most affected by systems and products should be involved throughout the development of them.

At the time it was referred to as ‘participatory design’, synonymous with what we now call ‘co-design’.

The emergence of co-design in developing new technology spurred out of legislative changes, which aimed to provide workers with more control over their workplaces.

The metalworkers weren’t just consulted prior to the design of the new systems — they were involved in every stage of the design process, achieving important changes in the systems themselves, and how workers were trained to operate them.

The UTOPIA Project

As the years went by, co-design gained more popularity, with several projects popping up around Scandinavia, to create ways for computer-systems designers to develop solutions that promoted quality of work life.

For example, the UTOPIA project was a collaboration between Swedish and Danish researchers and the Nordic Graphic Workers’ Union. Together, they developed a work-oriented approach to creating computer-based tools for skilled workers.

The project sought to support and augment their staff’s control over processes and methods, focusing on computer assistance for page makeup and image processing for newspapers.

They understood that exceptional systems can’t be built solely by design experts who create solutions with limited input from users.

There are aspects of the problem area that designers cannot begin to understand. In this example, there were many aspects of a work process, such as how a particular tool is held, or what it is for something to “look right”, that reside in complex contexts, which people from the outside won’t be able to embed in solutions.

Co-design offered researchers an ability to invent new methods for achieving mutual understanding, so that they could more fully understand the working world of graphics workers.

The UTOPIA project applied design methods, such as role-playing scenarios with low-fidelity mockups to provide staff a glimpse of what their work might be like with new technology. The result was a working system, called TIPS.

By involving stakeholders as partners throughout every aspect of the computer system being developed and deployed, the solution was guaranteed to be a success. TIPS was tested with several newspapers, and was so successful that it was eventually bought out by a company that developed image-processing systems.

Present-day approaches

Nowadays, co-design has infiltrated many different industries from healthcare, to education, to insurance. It remains an effective approach to ensuring we are designing with, not for, people.

It works most effectively where people with lived experience, communities and professionals come together to solve a problem they have a vested interest in.

The most important role of co-design is to elevate the voices and contributions of people with lived experience. It is as much about our mindsets and thinking, as it is about the methods that we employ to uncover problems and devise solutions.

Principles of co-design

The amazing Kelly-Ann Mckercher, who is a seasoned co-design facilitator and author, stipulates that for co-design to be successful, we need to adhere to these four key principles (access her chapter here for more details):

Share power: when we address power differentials, we ensure that those who may hold more power do not taint the decision making, delivery and evaluation of our solutions.

Prioritise relationships: without relationships, social connection and trust among all stakeholders, there is no co-design. Trust enables us to have difficult conversations that are essential for deeply understanding problem areas that need to be brought to the surface before creating our solutions.

Use participatory means: co-design should provide multiple ways for people to take part and express themselves. Be it through visual, kinaesthetic and oral approaches, instead of relying solely on writing, and long reports. Participatory approaches are about self-discovery and shifting people from participants to active design partners.

Build capability: in co-design, designers and developers transform from ‘experts’ to coaches. This acknowledges that everyone has something to teach and something to learn — design capabilities and insights live within all participants.

Not a one-size fits all approach

We can use these principles to guide us when using the co-design methodology. However, there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to co-design. The methods and approaches that are used will change based on the problem, the people, and the context.

The consistent aspects revolve around relationships between people which build trust, open and active communication and mutual learning. The beauty of co-design is that it can enable people to see themselves and each other differently, leading to novel ways of thinking and doing.

Co-design will only be successful if the process and outputs create real-world value. This places importance on validation — we can assess this by involving people with lived experience in the process of monitoring and evaluation of the outputs.

Collaboration is king for solving complex problems

In a world of increasingly complex problems, collaboration is king. The drive to work together to create innovative ideas in software development is more pressing and exciting than ever.

Collaboration goes beyond tapping into the individual knowledge that internal and external stakeholders hold. It is about discovering our unique, and collective perspectives on the systems in which we live — this aspect makes it imperative that we create together. We can never design a holistic solution with one lens and one perspective.

Co-design enables us to orient any project we’re involved in to solve real-world problems, and empower the communities of interest, giving them control over the solutions which are designed to benefit them.

Thank you for reading! If you’re interested in finding out more about how we practice UX and software development at Propellerhead, you can reach out here.

You can take a look at our other stories here.