Danish Centre for Design Research

Inviting the Materials Into Co-Design Processes

Project landscape. As part of a course on service design, design students from Malmö University constructed a landscape with proposals for service concepts under the common headline ‘Sustainable personal transport’.Photo: Mette Agger Eriksen
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Materials are important actors in co-design processes. Therefore they should be invited in and delegated roles when co-designers organise projects, workshops or events, for example in the field of service design. That is one of the key conclusions in a PhD dissertation on the role of materials in co-design which Mette Agger Eriksen defended at Malmö University on 13 June 2012.

By Hans Emborg Bünemann

Co-design brings together diverse stakeholders with the aim of developing ideas, new relations and practices. But materials also play a key role in co-design processes. Designers – and others – planning a co-design process should view and include both people and materials as active participants. Materials are often simply viewed as part of a method and are rarely allowed to unfold their full potential, as both designers and other participants lack awareness about the importance and potential of these so-called non-human actors. That is one point argued by Mette Agger Eriksen in her PhD dissertation Material Matters in Co-Designing. Based on her own participation in co-design projects she analyses the role of materials as actors before, during, after and in between workshops in a co-design process.

Mette Agger Eriksen. In her PhD dissertation, Mette Agger Eriksen draws on her combined background of architecture and design to document how materials help stage collaboration in a co-design process.
Photo: Maria Foverskov

Materials Are Actors Too

By ‘materials’, Mette Agger Eriksen means all the physical, digital and verbal non-human participants that may be involved in workshops – or co-design events, as she calls them. This may include anything from writing and drawing utensils, disposable cups and buttons over questions, guidelines for cooperation and meeting agendas to the prototypes and installations that are created during these events.
“In order to underscore that physical materials are actors too in the dialogue and negotiations that are such a key part of the co-design process, I recommend that they be considered as being invited into an event – often with different delegated roles, Mette Agger Eriksen explains.

“Especially if the process involves people who do not meet very often, and who have different professional backgrounds, materials play a crucial role in maintaining a common focus and establishing situations of co-designing. This is something that has long been recognized within the participatory design community.”

Service Design Aimed at Sustainable Transportation

Mette Agger Eriksen explains that materials help create – or format and stage – the situations and settings that compose a co-design event. One example is a course that she and her colleagues at Malmö University held in 2009 under the headline Service Design – Sustainable Person Transport (in Malmö). The students were asked to construct a three-dimensional project landscape based on a variety of materials. In the students’ work with the topic, the materials, which were lined up in a material buffet, came to materialise various negotiated meanings: Metal buttons turned into cars, disposable cups became metro station entrances, etc. Thus, from the first day of the course the materials were assigned roles as active participants in what became a shared project landscape. By engaging in dialogue with the materials, the project landscape and each other, the four groups of students developed a number of service concepts, including payment systems, training programmes for bus drivers and special bicycle-related services such as assistance with locating and fixing stolen bicycles. In the process, the students used the landscape to see and connect the groups’ service concepts and enable them to benefit from each other.

Co-Design Changes the Designer’s Work Process

This course and other co-design research projects have demonstrated to Mette Agger Eriksen how crucial it is to incorporate materials as active participants and to stage the co-design process in a way that produces explorative and constructive dialogues and negotiations. In fact, this is an area where Mette Agger Eriksen sees a shift in the way designers use their visualisation skills and their ability to work with materials.
“In ‘classic’ design work, the designer has to shape, visualise and develop solution proposals for others. But the co-design approach is gaining ground. It typically deals with complex challenges involving many actors and stakeholders, sites and activities, which engage in varying interactions over time. At the same time, there is a need to ensure commitment and ownership of the project focus, ideas and solutions. In this regard, the designer is increasingly the one who stages the processes,” says Mette Agger Eriksen. 

Formatting an Event

She speaks of formatting co-design events. By this she means that co-design organisers plan, stage and prepare – or design – the framework for the course of an event. That is an essential aspect of the co-designer’s work, and one where the visualisation and materialisation skills from classic design training remain important. To a high degree, the amount of time allocated to the various activities during the day reflects the organiser’s priorities. Is the emphasis, for example, on the collective start-up phase, idea development, explorative group activities, presentations, hands-on work with proposed solutions or the collective wrap-up? 

Materials Play Key Roles

The organisers of a co-design event also have to consider a number of questions concerning the use of materials: What materials should be available during the process? And what role should they be assigned? In the co-design course at Malmö University, the teachers gave a large white foam board the role of framework or physical format for the students’ work on the project landscape, combined, for example, with a series of open questions related to the topic of the course. Using materials from the buffet, the students were asked to materialise different modes of transportation, potential interaction situations, actors etc. on the white foam board.
“The students delegated roles to the materials during the process, and the physical landscape that emerged became, in a sense, co-organiser of the cooperation both among and within the groups. The landscape helped the students generate new ideas and enabled them to combine the service concepts they created during the process,” Mette Agger Eriksen explains.

Cups and buttons, construction paper and pipe cleaners. In the process of co-designing the landscape, disposable cups were assigned the role as metro station entrances, small metal buttons became cars etc. During the process, the roles of the materials were renegotiated. This illustrates the role of materials as key participants in the co-design process.
Photo: Mette Agger Eriksen

Finally, the organisers have to consider how the results or insights from an event can feed into the aftermath of the event and, not least, into the next event in the continual co-design process.
“Here too, the materials play a crucial role,” says Mette Agger Eriksen. “Traditional notes or minutes from a meeting or a workshop can preserve key points. But do participants with different professional approaches and terminologies agree about the meaning of words and phrases? And do the words capture all the important points? In this respect, the project landscape serves as a collective memory for the participants in between the scheduled events.”

Collective Memory Made Tangible

Additional visual materials such as photographs and video clips are also often used to ensure continuity in between co-design events.
“The material from an event serves as data to help the participants remember developments and decisions. The content of the material that is brought along from an event has a substantial impact on the subsequent co-design process. That’s why it’s important to co-design this material too during the event. I call this practice reflective collaborative rematerialising,” says Mette Agger Eriksen.

In her future research at Malmö University, connected to the Interreg-project ‘Urban Transition’, Mette Agger Eriksen aims to explore and reflect upon practices of co-designing formats for rematerialising in open-ended co-design projects. Formats that match the specific project and group of stakeholders; in this case collaboration among municipalities, citizens and researchers concerned with sustainable urban development. 

PhD Defence 

Mette Agger Eriksen defended her PhD dissertation Material Matters in Co-Designing. Formatting & Staging with Participating Materials in Co-Design Projects, Events and Situations on 13 June 2012 at Malmö University, Sweden.

Read the full text of the PhD.

Evaluation Committee 

  • Professor Ellen Christiansen, Aalborg University, Denmark
  • Professor Bo Westerlund, Konstfack, Stockholm, Sweden 
  • Professor Jonas Löwgren, Malmö University, Sweden

Faculty Examiner

  • Senior Researcher Tuuli Mattelmäki, University of Art and Design, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland


  • Professor Pelle Ehn, Malmö University, Sweden (chief supervisor) 
  • Associate Professor Thomas Binder, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design, Copenhagen, Denmark

Additional Information


Mette Agger Eriksen bases the points in her PhD dissertation on six specific examples of co-design events within a variety of areas. These exemplars are described and illustrated in the PhD dissertation.

Drawing Material Matters Together 

Extending on what is described above, the insights from Mette Agger Eriksen’s work are condensed and drawn together in Part D, of her thesis, entitled ‘Drawing Materials Matters Together’. This section includes a visualized and commented ‘Emerging Landscape of Co-designing’, A ‘Guided Tour through the Emerging Landscape of Co-designing’ and ’11 Challenges with Material Matters in Co-designing’.

See Mette Agger Eriksen’s research profile.

Read more about the concept of co-design in the article What Is Co-Design? in Mind Design #46, February 2012.

See also this article about Mette Agger Eriksen’s PhD dissertation: Arbetsmaterial spelar olika roller i designprocesser (in Swedish only) on the Malmö University website.

Mind Design #51, 2012

Edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research

Reproduction allowed and encouraged with indication of source