ARTICLE NO. 735    September 29, 2011

The Design of Design Studio

This article is part two of the series that began with Introduction to Design Studio Methodology. While part one explained the why and what of Design Studio, this article deals with the logistics and mechanics. I highly recommend you read the articles in order.

When good designers talk about innovation, they mean… “the successful exploitation of new ideas.” They don’t stop with the invention. They turn their inspirations into reality.
     - How Good Designers Think, Simon Rucker (HBR)

Materials for Success

You will need the following materials to conduct a Design Studio:

  • Post-its: multiple colors, multiple sizes
  • Index cards: multiple colors, large size
  • Drafting dots
  • Sharpies: multiple colors
  • Pencils
  • Sketchboards: 1-up (PDF | Illustrator) and 8-up (PDF | Illustrator)

You will also need:

  • A quick 15-minute Introductory PowerPoint presentation explaining what Design Studio is (sample PPT | PDF)
  • Persona(s) (sample PDF | Illustrator)
  • Inspiration: artifacts from other contexts that help people think about the problem space
  • Research: any video, audio, interviews, contextual inquiry, or design ethnography to better understand the people for whom the designed solution should work
  • Overhead projector
  • Audio: to play music during sketching
  • Caffeine

A bin of pens and supplies

For the introductory PowerPoint, sample personas, and sketchboard templates in Illustrator or PDF, you can download the files using the links above. You’ll have to select your own music, preferably something without words. I’ve been using dubstep and ambient techno.

Designing the Teams

Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.
     - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Most Design Studios require a minimum of 15 people. I have run them successfully with groups as large as 75. Participants are broken into teams of 4-6, but no larger. Teams should be designed to have some balance representing various disciplines. Mix up key stakeholders representing various functions within the company. I have found that it’s crucial to include participants from sales and customer support. They bring a unique vision of the customer and the market to a process. Ideally, Design Studio should cut across executives, sales, customer support, product management, development, marketing, and experience design.

Why? Glad you asked! In his book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson encourages innovators to “live in the Intersection” where different ideas, concepts, and cultures meet. “The Intersection represents a place that drastically increases the chances for unusual combinations to occur.” This is why Design Studio works best with interdisciplinary teams.

Introduce Design Studio

The first requirement at the beginning of a Design Studio is to adequately frame the problem space or the design challenge. Actually, the first part of Design Studio is informing all participants to return their laptops to their desks and turn off their cell phones. This must be a shared exercise and everyone’s complete attention is required. In all the years I have run this, not one participant has missed the birth or death of a loved one, so phones and computers can be done without.

Once those rules are set, participants are introduced to the research and output from any brainstorms, which are taped up on the walls so that everyone has a shared understanding of the boundaries of their work for the day. One way, advocated by Adaptive Path in their article Sketchboards: Discover Better and Faster UX Solutions is:

On this large sheet of paper we roughly organize our problems and constraints. We might paste up personas that we’re designing; stages of a user process; functional requirements; research findings, or screenshots of relevant real-life examples. This brings whatever elements which should be driving or inspiring us onto the same playing field.
The point of the introduction is of course “for the team to gain a shared understanding the business context, customer, challenges and market opportunities.” The problem space should be distilled into one sheet of paper with no more than a few paragraphs called the Design Challenge. This prevents the problem of when all the teams are supposed to be solving for a sustainable hydration problem, and one or two rogue teams go off and design a “mobile Groupon for hookers application.”

Iteration One: Solitary Design, Team Critique

Time: 50 Minutes

After introducing Design Studio to participants and allowing them to familiarize themselves with the background and research (which should never take more than 30 minutes), the first iteration begins. It’s important to print out any background materials so that all people have sketchboards as well as copies of the design challenge, personas, and hardcopies of important research findings. Although all the participants are broken up into teams, they will be sketching on their own the first part of the day.

Participants are told they will be working on their own, and informed that they have exactly eight minutes to sketch as many design concepts that solve for the problem space as they can on the sketchboard with eight boxes. The notion to embrace is that quantity is better than quality, but that all designs will be critiqued for their ability to articulate an argument that meets the customer’s needs. I turn on music and start the clock.

During the eight minutes, it’s important to walk around and remind people not get hung up filling out one box with perfect detail. It’s also important to make sure people who are uncomfortable with sketching don’t start writing bulleted lists of requirements; it happens, so nip this in the bud early. At the four and seven-minute marks, I announce how much time is left, and at then end participants are required to place their pencils or sharpies down.

Now participants are instructed to present their concepts to teammates. All team members place their concepts up on the wall using drafting dots, and team members stand around it so they can understand what is presented. A designer should have no more than three minutes to present his core ideas. After a participant presents, his team members critique.

Critique should follow the pattern of: “Here are two concepts that are really interesting—interesting enough to steal. Here are two concepts that could be interesting, but there are issues that need to be further fleshed out.” The team has no more than four minutes to critique, meaning the entire cycle for a team is no more than 35 minutes.

Teams should use the inspiration board as well as personas to interrogate the design with questions like, “How does your solution meet Persona A’s needs?” Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But this is a reminder that the ideas articulated should solve for the audience reified by the persona, and for no one else. Issues of feasibility and meeting stakeholder/business needs come later when potential solutions are prototyped and validated.

15 minute break

Design Studio small team critique

Iteration Two: Solitary Design, Team Critique

Time: 50 Minutes

After a brief 15-minute break, everyone returns to their respective tables for the second iteration. Participants are encouraged in the second iteration to take the feedback from critique, as well as concepts presented by others, and remix and reinterpret ideas to arrive at a more solid argument. Concepts should be extracted, stolen, recombined, and transformed on another sketchboard with the same eight boxes. This time they should focus not just on discrete ideas, but how those ideas fit into a larger picture and flow.

I think it’s important to remind participants that they should explore what happens throughout the lifecycle of the customer’s engagement with the product or solution and have a clearly articulated vision of the solution’s narrative. The second iteration ends with another round of presentation and critique. Each presenter now has five minutes to present the more refined ideas. Critique should take no more than five minutes, but at this point you will start to see some convergence of ideas.

I’ve found it very valuable for team members to use colored sharpies, post-its, or colored drafting dots to indicate winning ideas that will be preserved in the group sketch portion of the Design Studio.

The total amount time for the second iteration is no more than 50 minutes, and each cycle should be timed with a stopwatch. If possible, project the countdown timer on a wall. Time-boxing and the requirement to physically manifest concepts as sketches keep teams focused on generating and refining ideas. This is the heart of Design Studio. Try to keep discussions and idle chatter to a minimum. Discussions can happen over lunch.

Iteration two individual sketching


60-Minute Break

Participants should all eat together in the same room, exploring the walls to see what other people have come up with. Breaks are also the time people can use cell phones or laptops to check back in with work. Lunch should be approximately an hour.

#Protip: Turkey sandwiches aren’t the best lunch food to order-in. It contains Tryptophan, which induces sleepiness.

Iteration Three: Team Design

Time: 90 minutes

Each of the teams will now collaborate to produce one unified design that captures the best concepts from the individual sketching sessions in the morning. There are a number of ways I have seen this happen, sometimes with individuals producing single, one-box sketchboards and then working to integrate them. Other teams may choose a large-scale post-it to design a single concept, and then iterate with multiple large post-its until time is called. Teams get only 40 minutes to produce a single design, which a spokesperson will need to pitch to the other teams as their shared solution. All team members, however, must stand up with the spokesperson since this is a shared design.

It’s important that the moderator walk around to the various teams to prevent a few things from happening. Collaborative design can sometimes be difficult. Try to encourage group participation to ensure one loud participant doesn’t take over the team. It’s also important to provide reminders to teams that the designs should meet the original goals of the design challenge.

Team design session

Another risk is that a team can spend too much time discussing alternatives and integration of various concepts, and leave only the last 10 minutes to sketch. This tends to not produce the best results. Encourage teams to get sketching as quickly as possible and discuss while doing.

After the 40-minute group sketch, each team places their large post-it sketch on the wall and presents. They have only five minutes to tell a compelling story of how they attacked the problem and how their concept solves for the needs of the target persona. Each team then critiques the other teams, highlighting the best two concepts and the two concepts that require further elaboration. Only 7-10 minutes is allotted for group critique per team. This iteration should take no more than 90 minutes.

During this critique session, other teams can ask pointed questions to challenge the assumptions and possible flaws in the team’s design. It’s appropriate to use colored drafting dots or post-its to indicate great concepts and concepts that clearly miss the mark.

Presentation of team sketches

15-Minute Break

Iteration Four: Team Design

Team design session

After returning from break, teams are again encouraged to steal ideas from other teams. I have also found it useful to remix the teams to introduce discontinuity, and to increase cross-fertili

zation of ideas. Remixing teams also helps shake up any power dynamics that may have formed in the previous iteration.

Following the same format as the first session, teams have 40 minutes to sketch another complete solution. They are informed that they won’t just be presenting to each other, but to executive stakeholders as well. Often teams will choose the strongest designer/sketcher of the group and guide her through a few iterations until the team can produce a single, unified design. At the end of the session, teams again place their designs on the wall and present in only five minutes, and then critique each other, as well as receive critique from executive stakeholders.

Presentation of fourth iteration designs

Post Mortem

At the end, all participants are guided through a retrospective of the day’s activities. A whiteboard is divided into columns of “Great,” “Bad,” and “Try,” and participants are encouraged to talk about anything having to do with the concepts and solutions, or even the Design Studio itself, and make a plan as to how they might prioritize turning at least two teams’ solutions into a prototype for market testing in a rapid fashion.

Find a shared space where all the designs from the first iteration to the final designs can live for at least a month so people within the organization who didn’t participate in the Design Studio gain a shared understanding of the problem space and possible solutions the teams will be creating.

If you have any comments, questions, or criticisms, I would love to hear from you.




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Hi Krzyztof, we are currently using Design Studio in groups with at least 6 people (2 groups of 3 people). This is the minimal configuration, that is doable in my experience. You can borrow some techniques to support collaborative design in smaller groups, but it's no longer design studio, just moderated iterative design sessions.
I'm wonder how this methodology can be applied in digital agencies reality, where it's very hard to find three people that can spend with us 1 max 2 hours in a day on a meeting. Do you have any experience in smaller groups? I'm willing to try doing this on next project, but also I know that there is no way I can find more than 3-4 people. 15 - it's impossible :(
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