During summer 2018/19 Samuel interned for Innovation Unit unraveling the value of co-design. The first step in that process was to define what exactly co-design is. This proved somewhat problematic because co-design is ambiguous. Its process and strategy changes in relation to the context which it is implemented within. However, five defining themes were recurring and Samuel discovered where co-design sits in relation to other practices.

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Co-Design is an innovation strategy which, for the entirety of the design process, seeks partnership from people who do not think like you. Why? Because diverse stakeholders have complimentary knowledge and skills.

“At its heart, co-design is about working together. It’s about recognising that when we address complex problems that involve multiple actors and motivations across government, the private sector and the broader population, it’s incredibly unlikely that any one person or single viewpoint, will have the answer.”

Co-Design can be distinguished from consultation and its design strategy counterparts by five defining themes,

The Unconventional.

Co-Design is not easy. It’s hard and unfamiliar, requiring participation and curiosity from every stakeholder. There is no codified practice to co-design - it changes to meet the requirements of the complex problems and situations which it is implemented within - therefore, it will often look and feel like a squiggle.  To overcome its unconventionality Co-Design requires comfort with the prospect of being in the grey.

Diverse Embedded Stakeholders.

The design process can be categorised into three stages; explore, innovate and evaluate. Commonly users are involved as subjects in the ‘explore’ and ‘evaluate’ stages of design, to develop insights on preconceived concepts and hypothesis, or sometimes as tokenistic requirements. Something that differentiates Co-design is the way the user is involved in all three stages. Treated as a collaborator and partner in the creation of new concepts, strategies, services and products.


Co-Designers will observe, listen and make together, iterating again and again. They become more comfortable with failure by learning and understanding that experimentation and iteration are central to creating long lasting, informed outcomes.  

The Navigator

Co-design brings the voices of stakeholders together. The voice of intent from the organisation, the voice of expertise from specialists in the field, the voice of experience from the people living the realities of the service or product. These voices must work together to solve the complexities of the problems they are emerged in, but this can be hard with such a diverse range of people. The designer is the fourth voice. They play the part of the navigator, conducting these voices through this grey area, so that they can compliment, connect and contrast in the right ways to develop irresistible offers together. A competent navigator is an essential part of the Co-Design process. During the design squiggle they maintain stakeholder equality by fostering creative divergence, then recognising when concept convergence is needed.

Power Dissipation

Co-design supports the notion that everyone has the capability to be creative. Unlocking stakeholder creativity requires people to work together and acknowledge each others value. This may mean deconstructing power hierarchies so that it is easier for all ideas and perspectives to be heard and understood. However, the adoption of the Co-Designer title does not mean that the original roles of each stakeholder ‘change’. Organization decision makers remain decision makers, field experts remain experts, users remain the experts in their own lived experience. The difference is, the value of the unique perspectives and experience of each stakeholder are dissipated laterally, collaboratively contributing direct and indirect influence over decisions made by the Co-Designing organization.

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This “Map of user interactions within design processes” is a simplified adaption of a design thinking strategies map. Relative to ethnography, Human Centred Design, and consultation, Co-Design sits in the upper right hand quadrant where users are enlisted as partners, not subjects, and actively participate in the design opposed to only discussion and feedback.

“ If people with local knowledge and lived experience are not actively involved in the design process, but emphasis is put on their views and experiences, the process could be described as user-centred or human-centred design. It is only co-design if people who are affected by the issue are active participants in the design process.”

The end result of upper right-hand quadrant Co-Design, enacted with the five defining themes? Irresistible outcomes.