Design Studio in Practice

By Kelani Nichole

This week I brought together our client partners and internal team for a day of collaborative thinking focused around two of the main design challenges for the client’s product. People from a myriad of disciplines – marketing, design, technology, product management and strategy – gathered around the table in teams to deep-dive into the problem space of the product.


Through quick iteration of sketch, present, critique and refine, we arrived at a diverse set of possible solutions, all the while working through assumptions, user needs, feasibility and execution. Invigorated and exhausted, the participants came out of the session with a shared understanding about the best way forward to build a flushed-out feature set.

How Design Studio Works:

1. Research informs a well-defined design challenge – including a persona to be targeted when designing a solution. Background is presented at the beginning of the studio to define the problem space.
2. Participants break into teams of 4 or 5 for rapid rounds of sketching (we’re talking short bursts, eight minutes to generate eight solutions in the first round)
3. After each sketching session the participants present, critique and then refine ideas.
4. Take a break. Rinse. Repeat.
5. The whole group gathers together after the third round for a regroup and consensus building.

Some Background

Design studio is a methodology I learned from two dapper gentleman, Todd Zaki Warfel and Will Evans – thanks to their open sharing and mentorship I was presented with its benefits early and often. I saw the artifacts of immersive sessions strewn about their workspaces, and practiced their methods of presentation and critique through participation in collaborative community events such as UX Show And Tell and PhillyCHI Design Slams. It is this hands-on learning that enabled me to internalize the techniques into my own practice, especially:

  • Sketching
  • Open critique to share work
  • Making a habit of getting eyes, opinions and new ideas on WIP challenges from people of diverse disciplines.

When faced with a new design challenge last week I was happy to hear from google that this practice has been canonized through a series of articles on UX Magazine. I recommend you read through these resources to discover the depth of the method, its design, and application.

Introduction to Design Studio Methodology
The Design of Design Studio
Design Studio and Agile UX Pitfalls


Rather than blowing out the method I will keep it brief and share my top three takeaways from the day below. But first a public service message – if you are developing a UX practice find a mentor! Join a community! It will pay off in ways you never imagine possible when the juicy design challenges come across your desk.

#1 Critique is HARD

Two big hurdles in running a design studio are comfort level with sketching and experience of participants in giving critique.  I was lucky to find my participants were willing to illustrate their thoughts and showed an amazing bit of resilience to the rapid ideation and pressure to produce sketches.  However, I found the rounds of presentation/critique to be more about show-n-tell and shared ideation rather than focused  critique.

These are both great things, but a key ingredient to the studio is strong critique – producing a thoughtful challenge to a collaborator’s design is a skill that I for one am still developing. It requires close attention, an unbiased look at the problem space and an ability to channel the persona to provide new insight into the challenge. A few great insights did come out of strong moments of critique, but this is certainly the place where I will focus my efforts before the next studio.

#2 The setup makes or breaks it

Big Spaceship’s master warroom/studio served as a most delightful environment for the studio, sunny and spacious, quiet and focused. I realized late that I had to setup an extra table to give all participants enough room to sketch, but resources were well at hand. Materials are key – a fat stack of 8-up and 1-up pads (you can find them here) tons of markers, pens, stickies, scrap paper, backboards, and perhaps the most important tool for the moderator – a stopwatch.


To add ambiance we topped it off with some spotify music specially selected by a colleague for the sketching rounds (MUSIC TO WORK TO: Chill & Ambient Instrumental Mix) and a stocked set of fuel for the participants – coffee, water, a healthy lunch and all-natural candy bars. The setup facilitated strong work, and a delightful bit of sunshine and fresh air made for a productive day.

#3 The work has just begun

I knew that the output of the design studio would be robust, but hadn’t explicitly thought through the process of synthesizing the work until the dust had settled. The depth and breadth of solutions we arrived at has given the team a huge head-start in building the end-product, but there is still much to be blown-out and implemented.

One huge advantage that came came out of the day is the client’s willingness to look at sketches as ‘deliverables’ as we continue on the way towards finished product. Since they have been introduced to the visual language and output, all agreed that the best way forward is to refine and define requirements through more detailed sketching.  Infact, they are so bought-in, the client is excited to sell our sketchy solutions up the food chain earlier in the process. Hooray for efficiency!


What's Next?

Web Font Viewer

Conventional Approach to Unconventional…