What is a co-design session?

// Definition

As we can read in the research essay The Dynamics of Collaborative Design (written by specialists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New England Complex Systems Institute):

Collaborative design is performed by multiple participants (representing individuals, teams or even entire organizations), each potentially capable of proposing values for design issues and/or evaluating these choices from their own particular perspective.


Therefore we understand that in this participatory act all the different actors try to move through an innovation process. Every person has the potential and the capability of exploring and defining problems, as well as focusing on solutions and evaluations.

The design process can be defined collaborative when the closed and hierarchical mechanism is replaced by an open and flat one, taking distance from the exclusivity of designers, researchers and developers, in order to involve some or all the people that the research is directly or indirectly concerning.

// Characteristics

A complete collaborative process, however, is characterized by an alternation of moments, which can be close/open and hierarchical/flat. Even though participative activities are meant to be open and extended, the core and substantial decisions have to been taken by the research/design/development team since they may require tighter control in order to meet the project deliverable.

Therefore we will have different steps (referred to a standardized co-design process):

  • Discover (closed and flat): a chosen group shares ideas and contributes together;
  • Define (closed and hierarchical): an authority decides which idea will be further developed;
  • Develop (open and flat): anyone can contribute to the innovation process;
  • Deliver (open and hierarchical): anyone can contribute but the final decision about the project to deliver is in the hands of the person/company/organization in charge.

We can state that a phase of a project can be:

  • Open, when the subject area is not well defined;
  • Closed, when the subject area is well defined and it is possible to determine the most appropriate contributors for the project.

In addition, the governance of collaboration, in order to be successful, requires the participants to agree on same goals (flat), or have their own goals within the hierarchy (hierarchical).


// Typologies/approaches

Generally speaking, we can distinguish two different types of approach, which are characterized by different levels of innovation and exploration:

A “passive” approach

Co-design is often used by trained designers who recognize the difficulty in properly understanding the cultural, societal, or usage scenarios encountered by their user.


This is more similar to the “classic” design thinking approach: the designer approaches the user trying to understand better the issues and to observe the user to gain more insights about the user environment. It follows a rework of the notes by the designer, a brainstorm for solutions, and only then proposing possible solutions to the user. After this phase the iterative process comes into play feeding back the idea with test results, coming to the best possible deliverable (for the user and the designer as well).

An “active” approach

[...] the key attribute of participatory design, a process which allows multiple voices to be heard and involved in the design, resulting in outcomes which suite a wider range of users. As planning affects everyone it is believed that ‘those whose livelihoods, environments and lives are at stake should be involved in the decisions which affect them.


This approach is probably harder to implement when compared to the “classic” design thinking approach. It involves a concentrated activity where any of the involved actors can share and discuss their problems (and solution in some cases) and understand the other participants’ point of view. A moderated collective discussion will follow trying to shape the stream of thoughts into deliverables for the start of the prototyping session. The participants will be involved in the user testing session(s) and possibly in the prototyping phase as well.

These two approaches are trying to cluster a number of shades that, unfortunately, it is impossible to explode and analyze here one by one. You may want to commit yourself to participatory activities because you want to differentiate your product from competitors’ invention; or because you want to develop new solutions, drastically different and powerfully innovated; or still because you want to implement a project; or just because you want to experiment, learn or stimulate creativity.

Whatever your reason is going to be, always keep in mind that collaborative design has 4 main potentials:

  • Participation (it empowers the user to create innovation);
  • Inspiration (it manages to stimulate creativity of designers);
  • Information (it is useful to frame challenges);
  • Dialogue (it is a powerful way to create a conversation among organizations and not only).

Keep in mind: there is no one-size-fits-all rule regarding collaborative design: every characteristic may change according to different aspects, such as aim, motivation, problem, context, exc. Even though following subchapters will regard the specific situation of opencare, we will try to provide some general tips that will help you shaping your sessions accordingly.

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