Design Studios, When Done Well, Change Organizations For The Better

by Jared M. Spool

Design studios don’t get the appreciation they deserve. It’s easy to classify them as yet another technique in the designer’s toolbox, to be pulled out when we have a hard challenge to work through.

Yet, it can be a game-changing event when designers use the technique. By assembling a multi-disciplinary team to work through the design studio’s structured process, the team quickly generates solid design solutions to complex customer problems. These ideas go beyond what any single designer could’ve come up with themselves.

Design Studios Are More Than Sketches And Ideas

Yet, beyond producing great design solutions, design studios also have the power to change organizations. They bring an appreciation for design that’s beyond make it pretty. They engage people who never thought of themselves as designers, now directly exposing them to thoughtful design process. Organization leaders suddenly realize what real design is about.

When design studios are well-facilitated, we’ve seen big benefits seep into the organization. The exposure to a design process changes how people think about solving problems. They get just as excited about it as the designers do.

Take sketching. In almost every design studio session, there are invited attendees who are convinced they can’t sketch. With every bone in their body, they believe they can’t draw a thing.

A skilled design studio facilitator can quickly overturn that belief. Design studio sessions start immediately with a round of rapidly sketching ideas. This puts non-believers in a safe, friendly space to put their pen to paper. Suddenly, they see results.

Within a few minutes, they’ve created a handful of ideas. Some are pretty good. All of them are sloppily sketched on the paper.

They hold their sketches up next to everyone else’s sketches. Nobody’s an artist. Nobody’s sketches are well drawn. The speed of that initial round blows away any desire for perfection. The sketches aren’t important—the ideas are.

These former non-sketchers now have a way to get their ideas out. They’re showing, not telling. They’re no longer having endless discussions around conference room tables. They’re sketching ideas and others see their intentions.

Well-facilitated design studios also focus more on the problem, less on solutions. Stakeholders, product managers, and developers, who were rarely exposed to the workings of a design process, now see how idea generation explores the depths and subtleties of a complex problem.

The process of generating possibilities followed by converging on the better ideas creates discussion around the problem we’re trying to solve. A skilled design studio leader uses these proposed solutions to map out the problem space, poking at the nooks and crannies that would normally be hard to get to. Colleagues emerge from studio sessions with a better language to talk about the problem and a clearer understanding of problem’s dimensions and qualities.

Skilled studio leaders guide the participants to see design as an iterative process. The participants no longer think designers produce every brilliant idea on the first try in some magical haze-induced vision quest. Workshop participants witness first-hand the false starts, the stupid ideas, and the back-and-forth as multiple ideas start to converge to make something better than either original.

When colleagues emerge from the studio sessions, they’re not thinking of iteration as compromise. They now see it as growth and improvement toward a better whole.

These folks start using the same techniques for their other work. They use it for marketing campaigns and corporate policies, for employee benefits and strategy planning. Iteration becomes a commonly accepted way of making progress.

Design Studios, When Done Well, Change Organizations For The Better

We can see the day-to-day chaotic hustle-bustle of our projects. Yet, it’s hard to see the change we’re creating in our organizations. When we take a step back, we can see we’re growing our co-workers’ understanding of what UX design really is and how it helps our organization stay competitive.

Design studios (and their close sibling, design critiques) are a powerful tool in growing that understanding. They surface how smart design gets done, bury the make-it-pretty myths, and establish a common language for solving tough customer problems the competition isn’t addressing.

That’s the kind of change we can get behind.


About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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