Co-design is not new

Scandinavians have a reputation for good looking and functional design. But there is a gap in the story of an evolving design culture across society. Designers began involving users in their design processes in the 1970s. So co-design is not new and is not a fad, but it is absent from design history.

Maria Görandsdotter says there are two probable reasons why user-centred design has not been included. One is that history has favoured aesthetics, meanings and impact of design rather than the design process. The other is that little has been written about the way design methods have evolved. It’s all been about Scandinavian design and not designing.

A desk has highlighter pens in different colours, working papers and a smart phone.

… the design methods movement sought to understand and describe ‘the new design methods that have appeared in response to a worldwide dissatisfaction with traditional procedures’.

Görandsdotter traces different histories in her book chapter including collaboration with experts in other fields. The idea that only professional designers should design was challenged at an international conference on design participation in 1971. This is where the lines began to blur between designer and user.

There could be two reasons…

Görandsdotter presents two design histories to open up thinking about what design has been and what it might be in the future. Ergonomic user-centred design methods expanded the role of designers in relation to users. This was linked to Swedish disability legislation and research funding. Participatory design came about as a result of designers’ and users’ co-development of computer-based work tools. It expanded ideas of what design was, how how it happens, and with what kinds of materials. 

For anyone interested in design, and particularly collaborative design, this is an interesting read. It puts co-design into an historical context. In doing so, it shows it is not the latest fashion or fad in designing.

The title of the chapter is, Designing Together: On Histories of Scandinavian User-Centred Design. It is published in the open access book, Nordic Design Cultures in Transformation,1960-1980.


This chapter focuses on the emergence of user-centred and participatory Scandinavian design ideas and practices in 1970s Sweden. Many of the concepts and methods still highly present – supported as well as contested – in contemporary design stem from the turn towards collaborative designing through the late 1960s and early 1990s.

However, in Nordic design history, these radical changes in design practice have been more or less invisible. This chapter argues that a shift in perspective is needed in design history in order to address this design historical gap, while also highlighting the historicity embedded in contemporary practices of design.

The two examples of transitional design histories given here aim to open up conceptual spaces necessary for re-thinking what design’s histories could be, also in relation to what designing may be becoming.

The first example highlights how ergonomic user-centred design methods expanded the role of designers and designing in relation to ideas of use and users, linked to Swedish disability legislation and research funding.

The second example discusses how participatory design was called into being as challenges of designers’ and users’ co-development of computer-based work tools expanded ideas of what design was, how and with whom designing took place, and with what kinds of materials.

These transitional design histories aim to expand the views of what is discerned as relevant histories of design, while simultaneously calling attention to the historicity embedded in contemporary and emerging design methods and ideas. Following the traces and trajectories of changing design practices, histories of designing contribute to unpacking concepts central to expanding understandings of what design has been, as well as of what it could become.

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