I was introduced to the concepts and practice of co-design by Joanna Levitt Cea in our work together on the Buen Vivir Fund.  This post was co-conceived, co-written, and co-edited by myself, my sister Licia Sahagun and June Holley.



Co-design is a process that guides a group of people through various iterations of coming together to create something. This something might be a product, an activity, a project or a service. In fact, networks can be extremely supportive of collaborative invention rather than traditional decision-making.  Decision-making in networks can be done through collaborative projects as they experiment and create something new.

Co-design is

  • POWERFUL. Co-design is a way of working together that assumes we all have something to contribute.  The process distributes power to participants, utilizing each individual’s unique perspectives, expertise, and skills to create something new.
  • COLLABORATIVE. Co-design employs  processes that bring together many perspectives and capacity levels of participants. The processes are flexible, encourage collaboration, and incorporate reflection, and can change over time as the group’s goals change and adapt.
  • TRANSFORMATIVE. Co-design and the culture it requires can help us toward our bigger goals of social transformation, as we create new ways of engaging with each other and our own communities.



To get a deeper sense of what co-design is, here are three definitions:

The co-design approach enables a wide range of people to make a creative contribution in the formulation and solution of a problem. … Facilitators provide ways for people to engage with each other as well as providing ways to communicate, be creative, share insights and test out new ideas. — John Chisholm

Participatory Design (PD) refers to the activity of designers and people not trained in design working together in the design and development process. In the practice of PD, the people who are being served by design are no longer seen simply as users, consumers or customers. Instead, they are seen as the experts in understanding their own ways of living and working. — Elizabeth B–N. Sanders  

Our definition:

Co-design is a participatory, reflective, and adaptive process used to design and create. By centering participants as experts, it decentralizes decision-making and power, facilitating the transformative power of small groups.



When utilizing co-design as a process, we are guided by the following principles as distinguished from conventional design processes:

Guiding principles
Conventional design Co-design
Decision-making power
One person or a small group makes the majority of strategic decisions Many people are engaged at many levels of a hierarchy (or across a network) in strategic decision-making
Leadership and experts
A top-down, expert-led approach is utilized offering limited opportunities for collaboration Co-design honors participants as true experts in their fields, creating many opportunities for collaboration throughout the design process
Rigid structures are used that lock the work and/or process in place after a decision is made Co-design utilizes flexible formations that allow both the content of the work and the process to change over time
Flexible engagement
Creates systems that maintain individuals at consistent levels of engagement with the work; individuals tend to be highly involved in design or not at all Allows for individuals to participate at varying levels that may change over time; for example an individual may participate in the design group weekly, join monthly steering committee calls, or give feedback once in awhile
Reflection, learning, and adaptation
Lacks reflection points or reflection is not used to inform growth and adaptation of the work Reflection is a built-in, frequent process used to adapt strategies and priorities over the lifespan of the project.  The project experiences differences in expectations and outcomes.
Cultural shift
Promotes a dominant culture that disregards or actively excludes some voices and perspectives Co-design opens us to new ways of working together by establishing a process that allows multiple people to take ownership and step into leadership roles
Product versus process
Focuses on the end product and how individuals might interact with it Co-design centers process (rather than end product) as a way to engage and continue engaging



Conventional design, decision-making, and creation processes focus power in one individual or a small group, creating a system that is less conducive to innovation, hindering the emergence of new leaders. We believe the process of co-design shifts these power dynamics, empowering participants to have ownership over the process and product. Because of this, we believe co-design can help networks respond to emergence, become more innovative, and foster transformation at both the individual and network level.


Related and Additional Resources