Enabling Codesign

The term co-design refers to a philosophical and political approach to design best applied throughout the design life cycle [1].  Codesign builds on the methods and principles of Participatory Design which assumes ‘users’ are the experts of their own domain and should be actively involved in the design process. This article explores some of the methodological tools we use to enable codesign. Specifically, we explore the rationale behind some common workshop techniques used early in the design process, which combine the activities of research and idea generation.

The premise of codesign

Involvement of ‘users’ early in the research and ideation phases of the design process is often equated to “asking users what they want”.  (A certain quote oft attributed to Ford comes to mind). Codesign however, goes well beyond this. The premise is that ‘users’ become partners. Rather than being viewed as a source of information to be input into the design process, those impacted by the design are invited to work actively with designers to shape the definition and direction of the project. Participation can include sharing personal experiences and perspectives, contributing to the generation of new design concepts, the evolution of those concepts, analysis, interpretation, decision making, evaluation and more.

When taking a codesign approach it is our role as designers to facilitate that participation. At the beginning of the design process we work with users to understand the design project in relation to their everyday lives including their habits, rituals, dreams, attitudes and experiences. These then become resources for inspiring design concepts and direction. In order for people to actively and effectively participate in the design process they must be able to imagine, access, and express their experiences and expectations. Simply asking people questions is not enough to facilitate this process. This is because people are not explicit sources of information. As humans we are limited in what we can express by our existing frames of reference, we can only talk in the language that we know.

In addition, much of our experience and knowledge is tacit, or embedded in the everyday. Our habits, rituals, dreams and attitudes are not (necessarily) things that we can gain immediate access to in order to describe them to design researchers, we may not even be aware of them ourselves.  Codesign methods (also known as generative methods (Sanders 2000)) create a platform for this to occur by making things that are normally unobservable available as resources for design. While methods such as interviews and observations give us access to the explicit and observable, generative methods allow us to access the tacit and implicit aspects of people’s lives (Sleeswijk Visser 2009). They also set up a collaborative, discursive space between designers and users where ideas can be generated, explored and documented.

Codesign activities

As with any workshop, the specific activities will differ depending on the topic being investigated and the nature of the participants. However there are several qualities or principles that underpin most codesign activities that help to make people’s everyday experiences available and create a platform for sharing and ideation.

They are visual, expressive and creative

Codesign workshops make heavy use of visual materials as a way to assist people to make and communicate associations and experiences. This is because images are more accessible and quick to use (compared to written word for example) and participants are able to attribute their own meaning to them.  Random images can remind people about significant things they might not have considered or can act as metaphors to represent complex concepts. Images are also evocative and help to provide multiple frames and ways of seeing and expressing. They can be ambiguous enough to allow creative and unusual connections to be made and leave space for people to explore their own interpretations.

creating a nudie

Building a “nudie” - a derivation of personas where participants create a visual version of a stakeholder to explore their perspective, needs and experiences. (Image care of Digital Eskimo)

The process of selecting images can also act to generate valuable discussion between participants. We often begin a workshop by asking participants to create a collage that describes their experiences about something related to the project topic (e.g., being a post graduate student, dealing with cancer, notions of giving etc). Visual storyboards can also be an effective way for participants to convey emotional experiences or journeys. In addition to what is created, it is the stories, memories and experiences that are shared when people communicate why particular images have been chosen or placed together that reveal significant insights.

selecting images for a visual scenario

Selecting images for a visual scenario that portrays the emotional aspect of an experience. (Image care of Inspire Foundation)

They are physical and tangible

The act of physically getting up, moving around and using our bodies and hands to make and do things, to select, create, stick, sort, gather, glue and compose, both individually and in groups, is a central part of creating space for discussion, sharing and idea generation. (Sanders in particular emphasises the ‘make’ aspect of generative methods). This can include three dimensional prototypes made out of playdoh or card for example, but it also applies to the building of collages, maps and story boards, or the process of acting out an interaction or experience. All of these activities can act as prompts that help participants to explore, remember, imagine and verbalise aspects of their everyday lives, feelings or experiences. The physical act of working in close proximity with other people and creating something together is also an important part of fostering collaboration, trust and sharing between participants.

participants categorise touchpoints

Touch-points are grouped and categorised

participant lifts image to show detail of city

A service described through the metaphor of a city

They support creativity through (appropriate) constraints


Part of enabling people to be creative and participate in the design process is in providing the right kind of constraints. Leaving things too open means participants struggle for direction or to get started, defining things too specifically leaves little room for participants to take ownership and create something that is meaningful to them. For example, when asking participants to generate or explore new campaign concepts or ideas, we will often have them incorporate a combination of words, images or concepts [2] or make use of physical props such as playdoh when developing their idea. These elements act as constraints that create boundaries within which participants need to work, but they also become inspirational start points that leave enough room for participants to apply their own creativity, strategy and ideas.


Sketches of potential workshop activities

Planning out possible workshop activities and the props required

Activities such as building personas or scenarios also provide participants with a particular structure or format through which to think about, approach, explore and communicate aspects of the design. For example having participants build visual personas (e.g., nudies) or Facebook profiles can be a way to enable participants to explore and contribute to interpreting and connecting with that data. The concept and format of the ‘persona’ acts as a constraint that allows people to make sense of, and structure, information but allows them to do so through their own words and images. The scenario format, with specific actors and a beginning, middle and end also becomes a simple framework through which participants can create, communicate and evaluate new design ideas in context. In addition to the story itself the process of negotiating and considering the sequences of action involved and what should be included and represented and why, brings to light a range of details, experiences, needs and dependencies.

example of a visual storyboard format

Exploring a concept through a visual storyboard or scenario

They are playful, fun and rewarding for participants

Fun is a deeply important aspect of participation. It is central to facilitating sharing, trust and confidence building and helping people open up. It is also part of keeping people’s energy levels up. If people are tired and the activities too serious, it is hard for participants to maintain interest or contribute in meaningful ways. This is particularly true if the topic of the workshop is sombre or serious. It is our role as designers to find a sensitive way of exploring such topics, but also one that allows people to open up and be creative. It can be very rewarding for participants to discover aspects about themselves they had not been aware of, or to think in new ways about a topic they had not stopped to consider before.  Participants often also value the opportunity to gain an understanding of other people’s experiences and perspectives. Ensuring the workshop is interesting and rewarding for participants is also critical when seeking participation and input to important topics that have a significant impact on people, yet can be perceived as potentially ‘boring’, unappealing or stigmatising e.g,. skin cancer, mental health, financial or social issues. Codesign workshops are key relationship building activities and sessions should always be enjoyable and energising (though also often exhausting) as well as ‘productive’.

pictorial scenario

A persona comes alive in this crime fighting scenario acted out through visuals and playdoh props

The outcomes

As part of enabling participation in the design process codesign activities aim to:

  • Create a shared understanding and shared language between participants and designers
  • Support a sense of immersion, dialogue and empathy for the perspective of those who will use and experience the design
  • Generate rich personal, visual, and tangible material that is both subjective and designerly [3]
  • Act as a source of inspiration and information for both designers and participants to work with in visioning future designs.

For these reasons the outputs from codesign activities differ significantly from interviews, surveys or observations. The subjective nature of what is produced through such workshops is important to supporting empathy and immersion into the design space whilst its designerly nature makes it a natural design resource, quite different to that of a written report. As designers we benefit from working with concrete things we can see and feel and imagery for example can be quickly scanned and absorbed (Mattelmäki & Battarbee, 2002). For designers, as well as clients and participants, material generated through such activities can be more accessible than traditional research outputs. They can also go beyond research feeding into idea generation and concepting.

In taking such an approach to design we, as designers, move from being experts to being facilitators. Our skills shift away from a focus on idea generation, to being able to facilitate design through collaboration. An important aspect of this is knowing what activities are appropriate, how to frame the activity (e.g., what are the right questions to ask) and what props and tools to provide as constraints.

To do true codesign, where participants become partners in the design process, requires a lot from us as designers, but also from our clients. There is a shift in (or relinquishing of) power that needs to take place to really allow participants to help shape and direct the design process. While this has not been the traditional approach to design, an increasing move towards co-creation and open innovation in mainstream businesses and local government environments will, we hope, create new and more opportunities for such an approach.


Many thanks to our clients and participants, in particular the Inspire Foundation and Digital Eskimo.


[1] The term codesign is now widely used within product, UX and Service design fields. The interpretation of codesign applied here is based on the principles of Participatory Design and is best represented by the extensive work of Liz Sanders. Check out Sanders’ extensive selection of papers on her website for more about the different types of generative design activities she’s been developing and evolving for the last 20 years www.maketools.com

[2] See for example work by Kim Halskov and Peter Dalsgård on Inspiration Cards. Depending on the context there are also a range of pre-existing packs of images and concept cards that can be used such as the Iniva “What do you feel cards” or AT-ONES Touch-point cards. We often make our own and it is possible to design the workshop activities so that concepts or words that are used in idea generation activities come from earlier activities with participants, allowing ideas to be built upon over the course of the workshop. This approach means that the concepts are meangingful to participants and that they have a direct connection and sense of ownership over them.

[3] Sanders map of design research methods demonstrates the significance of designerly methods. (See Sanders, Design Research in 2006 (pdf). Design Research Quarterly, 1. and 
Sanders, L. An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research, Interactions (November – December 2008). 
In these articles Sanders talks about how older more established styles of research which rely on systematic data analysis whilst newer, design driven forms of research focus on tools for expression, reflection and sharing which embrace subjectivity and blur the boundaries between research and design. For further discussions on “designerly” approaches see also the recent Johnny Holland article by  Jonas LöwgrenDesignerly ways of working in UX and Erick Stolterman et al’s paper Designerly Tools (pdf) from DRS’08.

Further references that might be useful to those exploring the use of such techniques include:

Gaver, W., Beaver, J., & Benford, S. (2003). ‘Ambiguity as a Resource for Design’. CHI, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA. ACM.
Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). ‘Design: Cultural Probes’. Interactions, pp. 21-29.
Mattelmäki, T. (2008). ‘Probing for co-exploring’. CoDesign, 4(1), pp. 65 – 78.
Mattelmäki, T., & Battarbee, K. (2002). ‘Empathy Probes’.  PDC’02. Malmö, Sweden, CPSR.
Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009). Bringing the everyday life of people into design. PhD Thesis Technische Universiteit Delft, Delft.
Visser, F., Stappers, P. J., Lugt, R. V. D., & Sanders, E. B.-N. (2005). Contextmapping: experiences from practice. CoDesign, 1(2), pp. 119-140. (See Sleeswijk Visser’s publications page for access to her papers)

Penny Hagen

Penny is a Design Strategist with over 10 years experience in interactive technologies having designed or produced a range of online and interactive community projects in Australia and New Zealand. She specialises in social change projects and recently completed her PhD in participatory design methods for social technologies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Natalie Rowland

Natalie is an independent qualitative researcher who partners with individuals, agencies and clients to provide market, social and design research. She helps teams discover and share rich insights about the ever-changing landscape in which people, brands and society operate.

9 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: » Enabling Codesign Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive | UXWeb.info

  2. Pingback: Insights into co-design « Zumio

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  4. Thank you Penny and Natalie. I wonder if you have found any types of projects that particularly suit (or not) the use of codesign methods?

  5. penny on

    Excellent question thanks Kimberley (and apologies for the slow response, got a bit lost in the cross over to the new design). We’d be interested in the thoughts and experiences of others to this question as well.

    I am not sure that I have yet come across a design context where co-design has not been suitable, but there would be some situations where it can be easier or harder in terms of resources and access. Recruitment is often a challenge, you need to be able to access the right participants and find ways to encourage participation.

    Particular kinds of topics require a lot of sensitive planning and care if they are, for example, very personal, stigmatised or perceived as boring. We need to think about how to make topics relevant and interesting as well as safe and engaging for participants. A real diversity of participants (e.g., in terms of different experiences and views) also requires careful planning to ensure the group is able to build a rapport together. Finding ways for remote participants to also play a role is another consideration.

    Confidentiality and sharing of commercial concerns (e.g., IP developed or shared in the workshops or through the codesign process) also needs to be considered – though in most cases there are ways around these challenges if there is a sufficient commitment to the philosophy of codesign.

  6. Emer on

    thanks Penny for this article, and definition of codesign. we have been using a method we call codesign for some years in educational projects in developing countries and the way you describe the process really fits with our process.

  7. penny on

    Thanks Emer, glad it was useful and reasonated with your work. I would love to hear more about your projects, are you able to share any links/ further info?

  8. Mal on

    I’d be really interested in attending and sending some colleagues to workshops to learn about techniques like this in Sydney. Does anyone know of anything like this?
    I realise Penny is now presenting a workshop on codesign in Auckland NZ in June 2012.

  9. Pingback: Design Assembly » Blog Archive » Co-design workshop: methods and techniques for designing with users with Penny Hagen. Thursday 21 June, 1pm – 5pm, Auckland City