ARTICLE NO. 720    August 24, 2011

Introduction to Design Studio Methodology

I first learned the Design Studio methodology from Todd Zaki Warfel, founder of Message First and perhaps one of the best designers I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from. The concept originated in architecture and industrial design schools, and I believe Todd was the first to apply it to collaborative design of complex software systems.

It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.
     - John Stewart Mill (1806-73)

The early stages of product innovation can crucially influence the success and direction of any product. Yet these stages tend to be fuzzy, highly politicized, and under-documented. This article is a high-level overview of how teams can use Design Studio to explore opportunities and innovate products to better serve customers needs.

Design Studio is conducted in a highly interactive, fast-paced team setting following a methodology commonly used in architecture and industrial design, but with some important twists. It has been called the “Iron Chef,” of ideation. It can be intense, focused, and chaotic at times, but those lucky enough to have participated understand the power and effectiveness of this tool.

Coming on the heels of market research, customer research, contextual inquiries, and open brainstorming sessions to fully explore the problem space, teams use the Design Studio methodology to achieve several key goals:

  1. Collaborate to understand the nature, opportunities, and constraints of some articulated problem space. If you imagine your current state, and then some positive future state, the problem space (sometimes called the design gap) is the distance between those.
  2. Allow ideas from various perspectives and insights to percolate within the team.
  3. Solidify ideas and, especially, unstated assumptions from tacit or verbal states into cognitive artifacts that can be shared, evaluated, and iterated upon.
  4. Create a culture of shared ownership around future product vision.
  5. Generate a lot of ideas very quickly—usually no faster than three hours, and sometimes as long as ten hours.
  6. Allow open and honest critique of various concepts.
  7. Force participants to defend their concepts and negotiate with other team members.

Why Collaborative Design?

There are no rock stars in collaborative design. Stefan Klocek, in his Cooper Journal article Better together; the practice of successful creative collaboration, states the problem well:

Ninja. Rockstar. Gifted genius. Many of the ways we talk about creative work (whether it’s design or development) only capture the brilliance of a single individual.

Having spent time in some larger digital agencies, I’ve noticed that often the account planner, strategist, and creative director spend time in a conference room with the client trying to suss out requirements. The process then moves to the agency’s ivory tower (or black box), where a few select people lock themselves away until they generate “The Insight,” often followed by “The Solution,” which are then communicated to the art directors and technology teams responsible for execution. I could, and will, write an entire article about how fucked up that is, but not today. Needless to say, the days of the black box rockstar/ninja/douchebag creative director are quickly coming to an end. Thank God!

The reality of designing modern digital solutions is that no individual can solely capture all the complexity of creating a truly vibrant product with various customer engagement points, different usage patterns, and behaviors based on complex needs, goals, and customer backgrounds, all interwoven into an emergent, ubiquitous engagement tapestry. This is why innovation really is, and should be, a team sport.

How Design Studio Works

The Design Studio methodology provides a collaborative, pragmatic process of illumination, sketching, presentation, critique, and iteration, leading to a shared vision and hopefully a more coherent and elegant solution. But this is not “design by committee,” by any stretch. Design Studio guides participations through an evolution in experience ideation. Just like business school, it uses a case study approach to solve a unique and clearly defined problem that the team has chosen and that aligns with the business’ strategic roadmap. This ensures that teams don’t wander off the reservation and create the next great snack delivery platform.


The goal of the design studio is to arrive at solid design solutions in a collaborative setting using the process, which will be explained in this article, of illuminate, sketch, present, critique, and iterate. Multiple cycles of this process are run individually at first, then eventually run as teams, which allows us to arrive at some solid concepts by the end of the day. Along the way, the process helps develop greater trust amongst participants, and surfaces unknown requirements from key stakeholders.

Co-creation needs externalized material. Sharing the fuzzy, early, raw concept gives your partner material to work with, to respond to and evolve. Externalizing ideas allows for closer collaboration, earlier input, and deeper thought partnership. This is true when generating and proposing ideas, and equally important for synthesizing and evolving concepts.
     - Stefan Klocek, Better together, the practice of successful creative collaboration

Sketching requirements


The illumination phase, which can take as little as 45 minutes, is where the team gains a shared understanding the business context, customer, challenges, and market opportunities. This helps enframe the articulation and exploration of the problem space, but shouldn’t be the only source of constraints. Limited emphasis should be placed on the so-called “voice of the customer,” since this is rarely a good source of insight. Simon Rucker articulates this very well in his article How Good Designers Think in the Harvard Business Review, where he writes:

Good designers aim to move beyond what you get from simply asking consumers what they need and want. First of all because they understand that most people when asked don’t say what they mean or mean what they say, but also because people often don’t know. Good designers want to unearth what consumers can’t tell them: latent & emerging needs and motivations; actual behaviors and attitudes; and, crucially, barriers to as well as drivers of change—or simply put, what your competitors don’t also already know.

Illumination stage

Your competitors are talking to the same customers you are, so do you really think disruptive and differentiated ideas will come from listening to customers in focus groups?


Through rapid sketching activities, the team focuses on getting as many ideas (good and bad) down on paper as quickly as possible. I have often thought that activities such as sketching can best be described as traversing down a decision tree. This is the essence of abductive thinking—a generative exercise of exploring what could be, as opposed to what is. With each new design decision explored, new constraints are introduced and new opportunities arise. Sketching by its nature is fast, transient, and has a tempo that prevents us from becoming too attached to a particular solution.

Generation / Sketching


Participants learn to sell their ideas, accept change, and negotiate positions to arrive at the strongest set of potential solutions worthy of further exploration and iteration. As cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon says, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

It is through the articulation of design concepts in the presentation phase that participants argue for what the preferred state is, and potentially how to get there. As Richard Buchanan says, “Products are vivid arguments about how we as humans, situated in social context, should lead our lives.” Sketches in Design Studio serve the same purpose, to make a clear argument for solving the problem space being explored.



Critique in Design Studio is a formal but flexible framework used to highlight strong ideas worthy of further expansion while discarding weaker ideas in a safe, friendly environment. The aim of critique is to provide actionable and positive counterarguments to those being made in the sketches. A simple framework for design critique is Who, How, What, and Why.

Starting from the problem space and goals articulated at the beginning of the Design Studio, the critique should focus on the two or three strongest, or the most compelling concepts in each sketch, addressing these questions:

Who: Does the sketch solve a problem for the intended audience? Does the solution speak to the customer or does it speak to the designer’s ego?

How: How does the concept solve for the problem and, more importantly, how can that solution be simplified?

What: What is the argument being made by the solution and is it effective in achieving its goal? In other words, is it a compelling argument?

Why: When sketching potential solutions, each participant will choose different angles of attack based on his own stance (or prejudices). Understanding that stance—the focus of attention or, in essence, the Why something is important to solve—is as important as the What.

The specific insights from critique will provide the participants with an increased understanding of the assumptions and biases of fellow participants. The criticism will feed back into design in the iteration phase, specifically by pointing to inconsistencies between the solution being presented and the context of customer use and business constraints. Finally, the criticism will give the participant feedback for concepts that may not be fully fleshed out.

Collaborative critique


Concepts from each round of the Design Studio are extracted, stolen, recombined, and transformed within teams and across teams. Participants are encouraged to take the feedback from critique, as well as concepts presented by others, and engage in another round of sketching to remix and reinterpret concepts to arrive at a more solid argument. Refined ideas will be honed, with the strongest ideas chosen by each team gathered and distilled into a unified group solution. It is at this point that the teams return to the presentation phase to pitch their solutions to other teams, and the process of Present, Critique, Iterate, starts all over again until only one or two solid concepts survive.

Next Up

In my next article on UX Magazine, I will explore the logistics of designing a Design Studio, including how to select participants, design teams, provide just enough background information for the illumination phase, and, most importantly, to arrange the timing of each phase and set the guardrails and ground rules.



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Well put article.And on an off subject note, I think I recognize some of those hands. Just kidding.
Thank you Will for a very nice article. I was intrigued by the quote so I looked up and Google immediately corrects the name to Stuart from Stewart.
Sounds a lot like a basic brainstorming session, but its interesting to see it applied specifically to UX design in this way.
@matt, design studio is both a place and a method. We refer to our firm as a design studio, because we use a collaborative design approach in pretty much everything we do. The location much of this work happens is in our design studio, the place. However, design studio, the method, we've practiced both in our space and in other spaces (e.g. client sites, conferences). Design studio as a method differs from a charrette in that a charrette is a single pitch/critique, where as the design studio method is built on several charrettes in a rapid iterative session. Further, design studio as a method, at least the way I practice it, is like a hybrid mashup of charrette and the RITE method.
Collaboration is key to creating great products, services or experiences, and as Stefan Klocek points out, "Good designers want to unearth what consumers can’t tell them: latent & emerging needs and motivations; actual behaviors and attitudes; and, crucially, barriers to as well as drivers of change..." The end user's point of view must be part of the collaboration. Ethnographic practices applied to research in the early, fuzzy stages can reveal latent and emerging needs and motivations and give the end user a voice in the design process. Then, as Leah Brady points out in her comment, user testing is needed once worthy designs solutions take shape.
As a current UX professional who was previously an industrial designer by degree and an architectural designer by default, I have followed this same methodology with a very important addition - user testing. In UX as in industrial design once we have one or more worthy designs flushed out we will put them through testing and based on those results will reiterate one or times. This step is of course not typically found in architecture due to the natural constraints of doing so although maybe some virtual reality tools would prove useful.
This is a great introduction to a method that's incredibly useful and has a rich history in design practice. However, I take issue with calling it Design Studio... a studio is a place in which we do work and comes form the same route as the word "study." It is a place of learning, exploration, and constant collaboration and critique. The method outlined in this article is traditionally called a charrette and has been used in industrial design and architecture for decades. For a little overview of the history of charrette Wikipedia has a decent page: We have a tendency to give new names to things and reinvent methods... ignoring the languages of historical formal design practice leads to a lot of misunderstanding and argument about meanings and definitions... If we're not all using the same language to describe what we do it leads to a lot of confusion. In the end it's great that people like WIll and Todd are bringing this method to a larger audience, it's something we should all use in our practice. I'd just like to see us be more careful about the language we use.
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