Co-design is an old idea, but it belongs to the 21st Century like never before

A group of people share ideas around a tableAs with so many apparently new ideas that resonate in a contemporary context, co-design has a long history. Originally referred to as cooperative or participatory design, it was first applied in Scandinavia in the 1960s and 70s, especially as a way of engaging stakeholders in the public sector in the design and development of IT projects, healthcare and workplaces. Arguably, our modern understanding of the idea was first set out by C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramaswamy in a 2000 Harvard Business Review article called Co-opting Customer Competence and a subsequent book by the authors on the subject. They argue that there is a growing trend for firms to actively seek the insight and competence of customers to offer them better solutions, tailored to their own needs.

“Customers are fundamentally changing the dynamics of the marketplace. The market has become a forum in which consumers play an active role in creating and competing for value. The distinguishing feature of this new marketplace is that consumers become a new source of competence for the corporation. The competence that customers bring is a function of the knowledge and skills they possess, their willingness to learn and experiment, and their ability to engage in an active dialogue.”


A new mindset

The upshot of this for those of us in the workplace sector, is that co-design represents a fundamental change in the traditional relationship between suppliers, designers and occupiers. Perhaps the reason it is gaining such traction right now is that the principle allows a wide range of people with different perspectives to make a contribution to the creation of solutions to the many challenges associated with work in the 21st Century.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This is not about consulting with clients, but about collaborating with them[/perfectpullquote]

This is not about consulting with clients (we’ve always done that), but about collaborating with them. Nor is it about introducing them to the many new processes, finishes and materials we can offer them to increase their options and tailor existing ranges within defined parameters (we’ve always done that too). The central tenet of co-design is that we acknowledge the expertise and experience of all those engaged in the design process to move towards a shared goal.

Ideas must be facilitated through dialogue and the sharing of ideas. They must be tested and prototyped. They must draw not only on the insights of participants but also consider ideas and best practice from other sources. They must meet a wide range of objectives.



Two colleagues talking at a standing meeting tableThe benefits of a co-design approach are set out in a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Design.

  • Generation of better ideas with a high degree of originality and user value
  • Improved knowledge of customer or user needs
  • Immediate validation of ideas or concepts
  • Higher quality, better differentiated products or services
  • More efficient decision making
  • Lower development costs and reduced development time
  • Better cooperation between different people or organisations, and across disciplines
  • The longer-term benefits include:
  • Higher degrees of satisfaction of, and loyalty from, customers and users
  • Increased levels of support and enthusiasm for innovation and change
  • Better relationships between the product or service provider and their customers


Why now?

The principles behind co-design may date back to the 20th Century but they clearly resonate with 21st Century attitudes to the workplace. Occupiers are no longer content with homogeneous spaces as they may once have been, but are now looking to create choices for the people who work in them as well as meeting a wide range of other strategic objectives, including the reduction of costs, talent management, greater flexibility and the expression of identity.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The principles behind co-design may date back to the 20th Century but they clearly resonate with 21st Century attitudes to the workplace[/perfectpullquote]

This is driving a functional and aesthetic change in workplace forms, characterised by the creation of agile working environments and coworking space in which people move to the space most suited to their needs. Some of these spaces no longer resemble traditional offices so much as hotel lobbies, cafes, homes and reception spaces, which sit alongside more easily recognised open plan zones, meeting and conference rooms and so on.

As the pioneers of co-design understood, the application of its principles is dependent on the context in which they are applied. It is not just individuals who are looking for greater choices in the places they work but organisations themselves and that is changing everything.

At the same time, designers and manufacturers are able to offer the products, technology and materials that allow ideas to come to life more easily. There is no longer the rigmarole that once surrounded requests for ‘bespoke’ products, and the term is acquiring something of an archaic meaning as the idea of co-design offers more scope for a tailored solution based on a range of insights.

So, all of the factors are there to drive the current surge of interest in co-design. But as with so many ideas of this kind, their implementation depends on the mindset of those involved. In the workplace this means an awareness of the collaborative process and challenges involved and the drive to make ideas a reality. It may not be as new an idea as we might suppose, but it is one whose time has come.

Images: KI


2eda2f6Jonathan Hindle is Group Managing Director at KI EMEA and Chair of the British Furniture Confederation.