Sharing the principles of co-design

Emma Blomkamp
5 min readJul 30, 2018


There’s lots of interest in co-design at the moment, coming from all sorts of different places. Since joining Paper Giant a few months ago, I’ve had the privilege of facilitating introductory workshops on co-design to service designers in Melbourne, policy workers in Auckland, public servants in Canberra, and most recently to health informaticians in Sydney.

Workshop participants at SDNow 2018

This has given me the chance to reflect on and iterate how I convey my enthusiasm (sometimes with a dose of healthy skepticism) and some practical tips on the transformative potential of co-design to professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds. The common question these workshops aims to address is:

How do you get started with co-design?

There are three key ways you can think about co-design if you want to begin to understand what makes it unique. It is a process, set of practical tools, and a set of principles.

Co-design as process

The UK Design Council’s ‘Double Diamond

One way to start is by learning about the process of design (thinking). Visual models like the double diamond (pictured above) are useful for illustrating the common practice of divergence (going wide) and convergence (getting focused) throughout a design or innovation process. These stage-based models also usefully reinforce the importance of starting by exploring a problem before you get too fixated on a solution.

But, as many of us know, in practice, the design process usually looks less like a diamond and more like a squiggle. And focusing on process models can make co-design seem completely unattainable for people who are not working in contexts where they can follow, let alone lead, a full design process from start to finish.

A ‘big daddy’ design squiggle by Stefanie Di Russo

Co-design as practical tools

Another way to introduce co-design practice is through sharing the practical tools that can be used to enable participation, collaboration and creative thinking. An empathy map, for instance, is a tangible way to show how to distill data from a user/customer/stakeholder interview or observation in a way that focuses on what the research participant might be thinking or feeling.

Empathy map by dgray_xplane.

However, as the folks over at Social Labs say: “much like frying or baking doesn’t necessarily make a great meal”, methods don’t make a lab — or any other approach to innovation. Similarly, the OECD team dedicated to promoting public sector innovation has recently reflected that the world probably doesn’t need more design toolkits. Many other practitioners and researchers have noticed that we may need to focus on mindsets rather than toolkits.

Toolkits have definitely been important — but they have not been sufficient.

Co-design as principles

This brings us to the last of the three key elements of co-design for public or social innovation: principles.

The principles of co-design canvas printed on A3, on a table at a workshop

We have identified a set of fundamental principles for co-design, inspired by the principles developed by the NSW Council of Social Services and informed by our own experience researching and leading co-design approaches.

  1. Outcomes-focused

Co-design is about achieving change and improving results or having a positive impact. While the outputs matter, the outcomes are more important.

2. Inclusive

Different types of participants with different kinds of knowledge (lived experience, professional and specialist expertise) are involved in the process.

3. Participative

People are involved as active participants with meaningful input throughout the process. Co-design is not about tokenistic consultation.

4. Respectful

All participants are seen as experts and their input (time, knowledge and other contributions) is valued and has equal standing.

5. Adaptive

Co-design is an experimental process aiming at innovation. It should be full of feedback loops, learning, iteration, and trial and error.

The co-design canvas

We have developed a canvas for people to consider these five key principles of co-design. The resource linked to here (and pictured above) also includes a case study showing how these principles have been applied in practice.

We have found that sharing the principles of co-design is a great way to introduce the fundamentals of this practice. By focusing on the principles of co-design, we can draw on the philosophical underpinnings of participatory design without preaching an overly prescriptive or rigid approach that is difficult to achieve in practice.

Intentions to apply the principles of co-design from participants at the HIC2018 UX workshop

By introducing the principles of co-design in a workshop setting, we have encouraged participants to think about how these principles can be applied in a context-specific way that is relevant to them and their work. The photo above captures some examples of how participants in one of our recent workshops intend to apply the principles of co-design in their work.

There’s a lot more work to do to create conditions and build capabilities for co-design. We hope that our canvas and workshops at least offer an easy way for people to start asking the right questions as they endeavour to improve outcomes in their field and more meaningfully involve a diverse range of participants and stakeholders in their work.