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Co-design and Informal-Mutual Learning: A Context-Based Study Demystified Using Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date15/09/2019
Number of pages300
Awarding Institution
  • Glasgow School of Art
  • Sclater, Madeleine, Supervisor, External person
  • Smith, Paul , Supervisor, External person
Award date24/08/2020
Place of PublicationGlasgow
  • The Glasgow School of Art Press
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This practice-led research explored participant learning within the context of community-based co-design practice, with focus on uncovering the designerly conditions whereby such learning could be ignited/supported. As environmental and sociocultural challenges progressively threaten and constrain our present and future qualities of life, we are pressed to re-design ways of living and working together. Design is a key feature in meeting all these challenges, and transforming our environment. Such transformation leads to the emergence of new socially shared meanings, and the rethinking of a society that will be increasingly designed. These pressing sociocultural challenges require interdisciplinary expertise, and I argue that the practice of co-design is an approach that provides such expertise. Co-design is collaborative, and also responds to the cultural demands of a society eager to participate. I argue that these demands require significant research to be undertaken on co-design practice. Informal-mutual learning is central to the emergence of co-design practice capabilities and competences that participants (‘designers’ included) need. Participant learning is central to co-design. Yet participant learning in co-design has not been investigated holistically in previous studies, which have largely assumed it was just ‘embedded’ in practice.

The aim, then, was to visually unfold the relationship between informal-mutual learning and co-design practice. The implications of the study lie in its deepening of our understanding on how co-design practice can benefit from such learning, and how this can support societal transformation. In this process people’s perceptions are changed, and hence their behaviour, leading to cultural change.

My explorations led me to identify Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as a suitable theoretical framework. It supports a holistic approach to the study of participation and learning. Its strength is in the attention that it pays to multi-dimensional human interactions with the social environment. The unit of analysis, supporting holistic co-design activity, is the ‘activity system’. Using CHAT has enabled me to begin visualising the complexity in co-design practice.

The methodology adopted was a participatory action research (PAR) approach. This was informed by ethnographic and creative methods, developed following a reflective approach in a pilot study and two case studies. Each case study informed the refinement of a rigorous and transferable methodology. This proceeds through five steps: preparation for co-design, co-design situations, follow-up, systematising learning, and dissemination. I deployed my reflective drawing ability and co-design competences to enact an original research-path that enabled me to locate myself as a third-party participant-observer, gradually gaining trust, understanding the local sociocultural contexts and unpicking the generation of shared meanings. The participants’ motivations and emotions were revealed to be significant in setting the social environment, and also influencing learning.

The analysis of the data-gathering from the three cases assisted in the formulation of a modified theoretical framework. Using a 3D geometric drawing system to translate the CHAT unit of analysis, I added social and personal dimensions of participant learning. The diagrams illustrate the human-human and human-environment interactions, and represent steps for achieving/enacting genuine collaboration. The modified framework theorises on the relationships of interdependence through a three-phase process. This points to a symbiotic relationship between informal-mutual learning and co-design situations.