What is co-design exactly?

Jo Szczepanska
4 min readSep 1, 2019

Yup. I’m doing this folks it’s a definition.

Co-design is a group of people with different backgrounds, knowledge and skills cooperatively and creatively working together.

It works by having people

  • jointly explore and envision ideas
  • make and discuss stories (past, present, future)
  • tinker with mock-ups or prototypes.

What makes co-design tricky to define is that it is adaptable. It can be used for just about anything at any time. Co-design is performed differently depending on who you want to engage and the topic you need to discuss. Believe me this is not one size fits all.

There is no “wrong time” to co-design but there are better moments

To bring most value it’s great to start co-creating with community groups at the beginning of a project rather than the end. That way people get maximum input and influence on the direction you take. It’s much more authentic than a validation workshop once all the concepts have been defined.

Like a relationship co-design takes time and effort

Co-design relies on teams of people creating relationships, skills and trust with one another. If you are working on complex topic this can take significant time and effort. If your co-creators haven’t worked together in the past. If there is a shared history of disagreement or distrust in the group. You’ll really need to put the effort in to frame the objectives and hold the space. Otherwise you may be putting people in a position where they are not psychologically safe enough to contribute fully.

What you’ve been doing might not be co-design. That is fine too!

We need for more co-design in the world. We can’t solve complex issues working the same way we always have. Sadly, I feel like it’s all at risk because of the rise of ‘faux-design’. Some intentional ($$$) and some by mistake. It is flavour of the month in social innovation circles and the ‘impact space’. Everyone who can run a workshop is labelling that engagement co-design.

I don’t want to have to say this, but just because you call something co-designed, doesn’t make it so. In many cases these workshops are not collaborative, inclusive or impactful. A lot of the time it’s the usual cohort of participants, playing with pipe cleaners and post-it notes with no real purpose. To make matters worse the results of the session are already predefined. Nothing changes. It’s just another way to enforce the same paradigm.

It’s a checkbox, Co-design ☑️

We need to keep each other honest. There’s nothing wrong with just hosting a great workshop or interview. It’s not co-design though.

In summary, co-design is just another way of working together

From my own attempts I know that many elements need to come together for it to happen. Any type of collaboration already has challenges, just think back to pretty much any group project with a new team. Language, communication, bias, inequity, power dynamics, accessibility and politics all contribute to how the team works and the ideas the team decides to pursue. So just like any other skill or activity you might want to succeed in, becoming an expert in co-design is iterative and experience-driven.

What to learn more?

A great video to explain the big idea. http://bit.ly/whatiscodesign by PROUD Europe.

Two flags side by side: Aboriginal flag and Torres Strait Islander flag

Acknowledgement of country

This article was written on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri people.
I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. I support their right to self-determination. I recognize the privilege I have as an Australian is at the cost of first nations people. I hope to witness what co-design practice will learn as is decolonialises and listens deeply.



Jo Szczepanska

Jo wants to live in a fair and healthy world, where services are co-designed with communities. She's multidisciplinary designer with a background in research.