It was great to sit down with Michael Lim and Tania Ivanka to chat co-designing with young people as part of Raine & Makin’s collective conversations. We spoke at length about how we define co-design, the benefits of co-design, but also the challenges. Here are some of my reflections on co-design. 


I’ve gone through a long journey with co-design, especially in the past two years (during my PhD), of seeing it as the best thing since sliced bread, to now being a bit cynical about its potential. The whole point of co-design is to include end-users in the design product/service. Co-design should be about including users early in the design process. I am talking really early when we are still conceptualising the issue and context. Users should then be included through the whole design process as equal participants. Co-design is part of a broader tradition of participatory design which looks to include end-users (and other important stakeholders) in the design process. 

Co-Design Uniqueness 

Expertise and empathy set co-design apart from other types of participatory design.

In co-design, users are included because of their expertise in being users of a product or service. If we think of the design of a healthcare service, we would include users because of their expertise in having a lived expereince of a condition. By establishing the expertise of users as equally valid as the other stakeholders, we can also address power imbalances. 

Second is the concept of empathy. Empathy is tricky to pin down and is easily confused with sympathy. For me, empathy is understanding someone’s feelings, emotions and experience in the context of their lives rather than yours.  By including users as experts in the design process, we are legitimising their stories as data that is essential for the design process. By doing so, we create more opportunities for empathy-building, which allow us to understand better how someone might feel when using our product or service. 

Co-Design with Young People 

Once upon a time, I was a young person. Or…am I still a young person, even though I recently turned 26. In Australia, most people consider anyone between around 14-25 a young person. But internationally this ranges, and I’ve seen some people include 30 and 40-year-olds in their definition of young people. I like to think more in terms of generations (e.g. generation y & Z) and in terms of context (e.g. Generation Z in Australia). I do this because I think it gives us more of a sense about what these people we are trying to define as young value, and why they might participate in co-design. 

Paying people for their time is now (I hope) widely accepted. However, I think this needs to be critically assessed in each example of co-design. If we want to involve a diversity of people in our co-design projects, we need to consider the actual cost (not just monetary, but also emotional) of being involved. We sometimes can hide behind the concept of empowerment – that somehow everyone being involved will lead to a sense of empowerment. If we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if people don’t have food or a roof over their head, that fuzzy feeling of empowerment through participation may mean very little. Co-design projects must have the power to create change, both long-term and immediate change. If we are to involve people, we can’t just sell it on the feeling of empowerment and payment for their time.

We also should consider people who might not be able to participate even if they were to be paid. I think about carers who might not be able to participate due to having to be at home to provide care and support. Are there other methods which we can use to involve them. We can’t just rely on co-design. 

I hear a lot about the need for co-design to be authentic and not just tokenistic. I don’t have an answer to how we be authentic, but I think the easiest way is to talk to end-users about what co-design means to them. Transparency is key, I believe. Part of this is including end-users in the successes and failures of the journey. We don’t want users to feel like the ‘other’ compared to staff. 

A way of working but also a tool in the toolbox. 

I think that we need to think about participation as a way of working, with empathy and the sharing of power at its core. Co-design is one methodology to support participation; however, it will not work for every group. There are many ways of doing participation, but I think what is most important is the intent. If your intent is to include people to tick-a-box or to be eligible for grant money than your work is not participatory. If your intent is to legitimise the expertise of users and share power over decisions with users, then you are doing participatory work.