Regulars / Review of the Year 2018

Hato’s Ken Kirton on why co-creation really mattered in 2018


Ken Kirton



We founded Hato nine years ago as a close-knit design practice with a global outlook. With offices in London and Hong Kong, our purpose is to connect, enable and engage people and communities to create the world they want to live in, together.

We use design, craft and technology to give people both the inspiration and, most importantly, the tools to connect with their inherent creativity and senses, to express their ideas and collaborate with each other, and to feel the world around them. Ultimately, we believe the world can be a better place if people strive to explore, play and create more, to be better informed, connected, resilient and responsible citizens. As a print studio, workshop facilitator, publisher, and digital and design agency we naturally have the resources to facilitate our local and global community. Engaging with communities is in our DNA.

After nearly a decade in design, we’ve witnessed community engagement move from an activity mainly led by cultural organisations to one that property developers engage with, and now beginning to be incorporated by brands and organisations all over the world. As a design agency that has specialised in the cultural sector for nearly a decade, we have seen a shift in the last year in the kinds of clients that are approaching us. It is broadening to brands and global organisations wanting to reach out to their communities after seeing how effective and beneficial collaborative design and co-creation can be.

A highlight for me this year was The Conference in Malmö, a society-driven festival bringing together the likes of neuroscientists, psychologists, directors of big organisations from flat-pack empires, everyone from product developers to toy manufacturers. The reaction to our design process and experience in co-creation was overwhelming and we’ve since been in conversation with a number of the organisations, most of which are looking at ways of incorporating co-creation into their existing models. This led us to act as strategists and consultants, helping each brand recognise where and how they could evolve.

The shift from local galleries engaging with their communities to global business leaders making change through engagement is happening now. People are realising that you can’t just make and then market to an uninformed consumer. Design and conception needs to integrate engagement as much as possible. In turn this increases efficiency, decreases waste and empowers communities to realise their dreams. However, increasingly we are noticing businesses apply co-creation as a buzzword, using their audiences to deliver ideas or content rather than working together, creating a fair value exchange.

So what’s it going to take for engagement to be applied properly and move forward? At Hato we work in a number of fields from consultation workshops through to Risograph printing. It can be confusing – especially to people who haven’t worked with us before. It is often something I have battled with, especially as we call ourselves a “design” agency – but this to me doesn’t quite represent the whole image. However, over the past few years we’ve realised it is not what we do that matters but it is why and how we do it.

Our working process is innately Hato. At the beginning, as with many young businesses starting up, we followed what other studios were doing, which in 2009 was predominately a five-stage design process. Although that was how we presented ourselves, this certainly wasn’t how we worked. We noticed that our clients quickly became collaborators and our collaborators our friends. We didn’t work in this five-step linear method but in fact we worked in a continuous circular development of Learn, Make, Play.


Hato: Liverpool Biennale Space Bus


Hato: Liverpool Biennale Space Bus


Hato: Liverpool Biennale Space Bus


Hato: Liverpool Biennale Space Bus

The act of learning informs our ideas and concepts; it also means that what is presented by the team is new and innovative. Through the act of play, our concepts are worked on and developed with our clients and stakeholders, building trust and unveiling fascinating stories and perspectives rarely uncovered by a normal design process. We see it like a kind of transformative machine: something goes into the process and comes out totally changed and new. This is then taken away from our workshops and meetings or “Play” sessions and the process either starts over or is ready to be moulded and made into designs, digital tools and products all intended to engage and empower the user. This process is what we call Playtotyping.

The process of co-creation fits all provided it is executed genuinely, engages staff and/or the audience and consumer at a meaningful level, and it is imperative that it always offers a value exchange. A reminder of the importance of this is the tragic “Boaty McBoatface” project. Unlike that project, a value exchange ensures the output will be well-informed and whole. Thinking back to people using it as a buzzword, it’s all too easy to call a project “co-created” when really you have crowdsourced the content as a novelty and not left anything of use to the people you sourced it from.


Hato: Tai Kwun Contemporary


Hato: Tai Kwun Contemporary


Hato: Tai Kwun Contemporary

2018 for us has been about re-thinking and living our principles. Beginning to put our beliefs into action. We opened our office in Hong Kong affirming our commitment to Asia and building roots there; founded Copyshop to empower and equip people who have agency with designers as well as print and digital production; and launched a Hato consultation programme to allow people to easily book in and speak with us on all matters around community engagement. 2019 will mark our ten-year anniversary and we want to spend it empowering as many people and organisations as we can, with the hope that we can spend the next ten years creating a positive impact on society, with society.

Supported by Google

At Google, we believe that design is critical to product excellence. That’s why we’re proud to support It’s Nice That in its effort to champion a broad and inclusive community of creative makers and thinkers with the annual Review of the Year.

We also believe in fostering design through Material Design, a unified system combining theory, resources, and tools to help designers and engineers craft digital experiences, and through Google Design, a cooperative effort whose mission is to support design and engineering excellence by producing original articles, videos, events, as well as creative and educational partnerships. Sign up for the Google Design Newsletter.