Co-creation: Design Perspective

Co-creation: Design Perspective

Reading time: 15 min

1. Background

Co-creation as participatory design concept has been a discussed topic in several fields (such as marketing and research) over the last decades, but past social context has left it in a numb position. As Robert Jungk said in a Conference called “Design Participation”, in Manchester, 1971, people needs to suffer first “from the lack of foresight of our fathers and forefathers”, and then the collaboration can happen. “But it won’t come on its own: it has to be prepared” (Cross, 1972, p.122).

But the terms co-design and co-creation came into our vocabulary in the beginning of this century, they are still even missing from the Oxford Dictionary. Both words are related to collaboration, but Sanders and Stappers are presenting them distinctly: co-creation is referring to an act of collective creation since co-design is more how this act is applied during the design process. “Thus, co-design is a specific instance of co-creation.” (Sanders and Stappers, 2008, p.2).

2. Reading Experience

Having the design perspective in mind, I am writing this text based on two papers. The first one is an article from 2008, “Co-creation and the new landscapes of design” written by Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers, and the second one is a book that I recently read, from Tenny Pinheiro, “The Service Startup. Design Thinking Gets Lean” (2014).

Sanders and Stappers’ article (2008) presents an overview of design as a collective process, and its implications in the history. They are also showing key elements that these new ways of collaboration and co-creation require in order to rich a future sustainable way of living.

Pinheiro’s book (2014) is divided in two parts. In the first one he is writing about the importance of changing the focus from products to services, and he is very specific on how people are experiencing everything that we are making: “To design a service is to design a journey, and this means, ultimately, the design of moments in life”. In the second part, the author is giving a new model (MSV) that each new startup can follow as a guideline in creating their own new “minimum valuable services”.

I consider both texts to be part of my references library. And I would say that, even though they are focusing on different phases of collaboration, they are completing each other, because both consider the user centric design from a holistic perspective. The article is a theory overview since the book is a work guide.

I truly recommend both of them as reading texts. And beside the valuable knowledge that you will get out of them, it is a enjoyable moment to actually read them, by the reason of having a pleasant writing tone. The authors are aware of their own position and they explain from their point of view with a reasonable critique approach, in the same time keeping the discussion open, letting the reader to develop his/hers own interpretations.

3. Lessons Regarding Co-Production

Co-design and co-creation are approaches that will aid sifting nowadays peoples way of living towards a sustainable ecosystem. But still so, it is important to know what are the reasons why it took so long for them to come across and be implemented in the way that organisations work.

In the article presented above, four important aspects of co-creation that generated the slow movement are described, which I consider to be extremely relevant for us as students in this stage:

  1. To consider co-creativity it means the belief that all people are creative, which is in contradiction with today’s “expert” mindset

  2. To have a participatory way of thinking is not working hand in hand with consumerism conception

  3. To conduct research regarding co-creation is considered being part of the academic field, not an obvious step in the industries’ process development

  4. To develop new products required technology-driven approaches, until now when the technology push has stagnated and companies survive by paying attention to the “user experience” part

From my perspective, these four factors are a clear evidence between the traditional design and the new design thinking path. And also I see that everything is conducted towards people experiences, or how Pinheiro (2014) is saying, “learn, use and remember” concept. So, in order to switch the paradigm from designing stand alone products to being involved in the development of new environment and living systems, we need to invite more people to participate in the creation process. This does not mean that professional designers will not lose their jobs just by giving the possibility to the users to co-design, “Designers in the future will make the tools for non-designers to use to express themselves creatively.” (Sanders and Stappers, 2008, p.12). And does not mean either that all the users are capable to be co-designers. According to Sanders and Stappers (2008), users have four different levels of involvement: creating, making, adapting and doing. We as researchers and professional designers have the responsibility to adapt the tools that allow the users to participate according to their personal abilities.

Four levels of user involvement (Sanders and Stappers, 2008)

Four levels of user involvement (Sanders and Stappers, 2008)

4. Reflections

Both texts are important for my knowledge building experience. As an example, the article made me understand how the I&D Master’s Programme was created and why we, as students, are having such a wide study curriculum. Until now, I was also wondering when it will come the design part in our courses, since all them are mostly related to innovation and research. But I see that nowadays is so hard to make distinction between designers and researchers, thus there is a hybrid domain and this programme is trying to educate us according to it. Somehow I feel that we, as practitioners, are already in this age, where co-design is the most used practice in organisations. But it might be also because I have been studying this domain for the past 8 months, and each lecture, article or presentation built inside me a very positive mindset. If I am thinking about how the current situation occurs in the majority of big corporations, the traditional approach is still in charge. To implement it on large scale, Sanders and Stappers are writing about the need of new skills and a new domain merge. Today, this hybrid profession is happening only in very innovative companies, where people know already the importance of involving the users in a closer way. The survival law will speak in the end, so everybody should adapt their tactics in order to handle the new changes.

Going back to I&D Master’s Programme that guides us towards a collaborative and co-creative mindset, in the article, the authors raised a relevant question: “Is it best for students to learn the traditional design process first and then move to co- designing? Or is it better to start with co-designing? For many people, the mindset for co-designing, i.e, the belief that all people are creative, is difficult to embrace. If we start the education of designers with co-designing, the mindset is less likely to be a problem to overcome”. Let me tell you about a co-productive experience that I recently had, when I was working in a mixed team with exchange students. For me, it was a confusing process to work together, and now I understand the “why” behind. We are educated in this new manner, while they are coming with other ways of thinking (I would say more traditional oriented), which are in contradiction with most of what we are studying here. From my point of view, I see the building of a common background as a necessity, before we can form mixed teams. I am not saying that we are a type of students that needs to be protected, and neither that all the exchange students are the same (some of them might be already educated in this new sense, some might have natively a high level of creativity), but still some workshops, lectures or other methods can be conducted in order to create a common knowledge regarding this design way of thinking. Otherwise, the master’s students will spend a lot of energy educating or adapting to the old traditions, something that in my opinion is not aiding the learning outcomes, nor is necessary. I believe in collaboration, but do not make it a matter of luck. Thus, we need proper tools in order to succeed.  

5. Important Quotes

“Future co-designing will be a close collaboration between all the stakeholders in the design development process together with a variety of professionals having hybrid design/research skills.“ (Sanders and Stappers, 2008, p.13)


“From the blur will come new types of designers and researchers with specialties based more on the purpose of designing as opposed to the products of designing.” (Sanders and Stappers, 2008, p.13)
A snapshot of traditional and emerging design practices (Sanders and Stappers, 2008)

A snapshot of traditional and emerging design practices (Sanders and Stappers, 2008)

These two quotes are actually combining a single one, in which the essence represents the new design skills that needs to be developed (the process started already). They are a mixture between all design and research fields, but with the focus on people’s life experiences. New departments are in the process of development, and instead of naming the specialities such as: visual communication designer, interior space designer, product designer, information designer, and architecture, they are designed for their purpose, for instance: design for experiencing, design for emotion, design for interacting, design for sustainability and design for transforming.

I am glad to be part of this change towards “how to live harmoniously in a healthy and sustainable ecosphere”. (Institute of Noetic Sciences, 2007)


Sanders, E.B.-N. and Stappers P.J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design,   CoDesign, Vol. 4, Iss.1, pp. 5-18.

Pinheiro, T. (2014). The service startup. 4th ed., Createspace.

Institute of Noetic Sciences, The 2007 Shift Report: Evidence of a World Transforming, 2007.

Cross, N. (1972). Design Participation: Proceedings of the Design Research Society’s

Conference 1971, Academy Editions, London, UK.


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