Design Studio

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What

A Design Studio is a visual, fast-paced and collaborative approach to Ideation. It takes a design challenge, ideally framed in the form of “How Might We?” Questions, and lets participants iterate repeatedly between sketching, presenting and critiquing solution ideas. By differentiating between these steps, it avoids drawn-out discussions and enables creative diversity, rapid improvement and team convergence.

Why

How

A Design Studio brings together participants from as many roles as possible – to maximise the number of perspectives brought into ideation, and to create wide engagement with and buy-in for design decisions. It forces people to iterate on their ideas multiple times, increasing their quality, and helps them converge on a shared path forward.

At its start, the participants, ideally 6–12 people, are briefed about the design challenge, framed in the form of “How Might We?” Questions and enriched by background material, e.g. Personas, Customer Journey Maps, initial Problem Statements, and Concept Mapping results.

After familiarising themselves with the material, participants are split into groups of 3–4 people. First in these groups, then between them, they follow a process of repeatedly sketching solution ideas, presenting and critiquing them in timeboxes enforced by a facilitator.

  1. Solo iteration
    1. Sketch: Every participant sketches 6–8 solution ideas, using pens and an A4 paper folded three times and thus divided into 8 boxes, one for each idea. This is not about creating pieces of art, but about visualising thoughts and ideas – everybody can do that. This also means no text (unless specific words are needed). The participants have 3–5 mins for sketching, in which no conversation between them is allowed.
    2. Pitch: All participants put up their sketches on a nearby wall. One participant presents their ideas, briefly describing the what, but also the how and why of each idea. Only they talk, everyone else listens. This is time-boxed to 1.5–2 mins.
    3. Critique: After their pitch, the participant listens to critiques from the other group members – ideally 2–3 remarks each on what works well and 1–2 remarks on what doesn’t work well. These remarks are documented (green for positives, red for negatives) on their sketches. This can take 2–3 mins in which the participant is not allowed to reply to the critiques – their answer will be another iteration of their ideas. After the critique, the next group member is pitching and listening to critiques, and so on until everyone has presented and listened.
    4. When all group members have presented their ideas and listened to the others’ critiques, they go back to sketching a second iteration of their ideas. They can work on their own ideas, incorporating feedback from the critiques, take ideas from others and improve them, or come up with new ones. After sketching, there is a second round of Pitch and Critique in the groups.
  2. Group iteration
    1. Sketch: Now the whole group discusses which ideas they think are the most promising ones and agrees on one or a few of them, consolidated into a larger whole, to go forward with. They then sketch this agreed upon idea on sheets of A4 paper, detailing steps or components as needed. This can take 15–30 mins, depending on group size and complexity of the challenge. Before the end of their time box, the group should decide who will present their idea.
    2. Pitch: All groups put their sketches up on a nearby wall. The first group presents their solution idea to the other group(s), taking about 1.5–2 mins in which the other group(s) just listen.
    3. Critique: After their pitch, the group listens to critiques from the other group(s), taking notes, but not replying. After the critique, the next group is pitching and listening to critiques, and so on until every group has presented and listened.
    4. When all groups have presented and listened, they go back to sketching a second iteration of their ideas. Again, they can refine their own ideas, take ideas from others and improve them, or come up with new ones. After sketching, there is a second round of Pitch and Critique.

After two groups iterations, the solutions are usually either quite similar or rather complementary to each other. Depending on how close their ideas are, the groups can – with the facilitator’s support – merge them, clarify their relationship, or decide between them, e.g. via Dot Voting or Note and Vote.

Tip

Time boxes and the “no reply” rule are important to keep participants iterating. Ideally you have one facilitator per group to help enforce them; if not, use a widely audible timer signal and impress upon the participants that it’s important for the success of the method to pay attention to the facilitator and follow their instructions.

Where

Caveats

Participants are sometimes new to or intimidated by sketching. If this is the case, you can prepare them by incorporating some warming up exercises that involve sketching, e.g. “Blind Portraits”.

While the format is internally iterative, its reference to the traditional design studio might suggest that it is part of larger design process that moves linearly from problem to solution, from input to blueprint. While there are industries in which such a linear approach still works best (think steel mills), in faster-moving organisational contexts or more fundamentally challenging situations problem definition and ideation need to be iterative as well.

A more radical alternative to linear Problem Solving is to facilitate the co-emergence of problem definition and solution idea, e.g. as described in Dorst (2015). This takes our radical uncertainty about the behaviour of Complex SystemsOn this, see Cilliers (2001)

more seriously than “nonlinearised” versions of linear processes.

Provenance

The Design Studio method introduces elements from the design studio culture found in traditional design disciplines like fashion and architecture into an Agile Product Development context.

It was originally developed by James Ungar and Jeffrey White in 2007/08Ungar & White (2008)

and further refined by William Evans and Todd Zaki Warfel, whose 2014 presentation is the canonical source for the process described here.A comprehensive documentation of the process is precious design studio (2014).

A similar, but simplified approach to collaborative ideation is the “Crazy 8’s” method from the Google Design Sprint.

Common to these approaches is the focus on UX design, which has been widened to overall product design/development challenges in our practice.

References