Last updated Sep 16, 2019


Co-design is a well-established approach to creative practice, particularly within the public sector. It has its roots in the participatory design techniques developed in Scandinavia in the 1970s. Co-design is often used as an umbrella term for participatory, co-creation and open design processes.


The idea of co- design is becoming increasingly popular, in Australia as well as internationally (Bradwell & Marr, 2008)

Co- design is a term that is becoming increasingly central to health and community service provision,and it is given significant weight in both funding and discourse. However, there remains a lot of ambiguity around what co- design actually is. Is it a philosophy or a specific methodology is it even just another buzzword, or another checklist required for funding? This paper attempts to give service providers, practitioners and community members a concrete and practical explanation of what co-design is and is not: where it comes from, what it looks like and how it can be implemented.

This paper examines the history and present of co-design, as well as providing practical information and case studies.It seeks to build up a picture of what “co-design” means, and how all those involved in the co-design process can achieve its ultimate promise: more inclusive and more effective strategies to tackle“wicked problems” (Victorian Council of Social Service, 2015, p. 2).

We encourage readers to hone in specifically on the information relevant to them, taking what they need and then incorporating it back into service provision, practice or engagement with service providers.

Although “what co-design is” is a complex question, and one that is answered over multiple sections, “what makes co-design work” is simpler: an attitude of respect and humility, and a willingness to learn. In that spirit, this paper is not intended as a prescriptive document, but as a tool to assist in the process of learning and creating dialogue, and that serves as a precursor to the imaginative and creative process of co-designing that occurs through dialogue between participants.


This section is designed to assist readers in understanding the sometimes-subtle distinctions between the various terms that form the general terminology as used in academic and wider discourse; as well as specific terminology used in this paper.

General Terminology test

Co-design: Is a participatory design approach characterised by a robust and tenacious commitment to a genuine and empowering partnership between all participants; and an open, democratic and creative approach to solving community wants and needs.

In its most basic, and most important, form, co-design is a robust and tenacious commitment to a genuine and empowering partnership between all participants; and an open, democratic and creative approach to responding to community wants and needs. Where co-design methodology is implemented only as a checklist, and where this commitment is lacking, co-design is little more than another buzzword. But wherever this commitment exists, regardless of specific methodology or terminology used, co-design can be a powerful tool, not just in addressing community needs and wants, but in strengthening communities, and empowering all participants.

Co-design and traditional design are not a binary, but are the starting and ending points on a continuum. Service providers should not feel discouraged from implementing the principles and strategic objectives of co-design wherever they can, even if a project or service cannot be entirely co-designed from start to finish.

Community Development: Like co-design itself, community development as a discipline has a history of having been difficult to define in precise terms. Writing now more than twenty years ago, Bhattacharyya (1995) has discussed community development’s then-forty (now-sixty) year history, describing it as having been “buried under various euphemisms” and noting that “the concept lacks specificity” and, quoting Denise and Harris (1990), that its definitions are “as varied ... as those who profess to precise it” (p. 60).

Bhattacharyya (1995) establishes community development as “the pursuit of solidarity and agency” (p. 61). He goes on to note its “affinity with the mainstream intellectual concerns of today in the humanities as well as in the social sciences” (p. 66) . It is this foundational philosophy that is mostly closely linked to the practice of co-design.

Community-centred design: Is a process of design which critically engages with the question of “how to make it possible for people to be involved in shaping and managing their environment” (Sanoff, 2008). It is “a subfield of the design sciences ... whose distinctive features are: (a) direct user and provider participation in a face-to-face collaborative venture to co-design services, and (b) a focus on designing experiences as opposed to systems or processes” (Robert, 2013).

Community-centred design began in the 1960s, and was a response to the social and political developments of that period. It is a participatory approach to design, especially designing public spaces and public planning, in which the experience of citizens, in particular poor citizens, is prioritised (Sanoff, 2008).“Community-centred design”, within the context of the design sciences, is often also called just “co-design” or “participatory design”. In a broader context, it is also called:

  • User-centred design or
  • Community design

Experience -based co-design: According to Tsianakas et al. (2012), “EBCD is a form of participatory action research that seeks to capture and understand how people actually experience a process or service. EBCD improves users’ experience by deliberately drawing out the subjective, personal feelings of service users, carers and staff to identify touchpoints—key moments that shape a person’s overall experience” (p. 2640).

What distinguishes EBCD from other participatory approaches is its context. Experience-based co-design is contextualised firstly within healthcare, and secondly, within participation for “experience-making” rather than “decision-making” (Bate & Robert, 2007, p. 30). While there is a long participatory tradition across many disciplines, EBCD is tightly-focused on developing an understanding of how patients experience health services, and then using that understanding to improve patient experiences.