Expose yourself-design workshops in the real world

By Tim Caynes @timcaynes

When I uploaded my slides from the recent IA Summit in Denver to SlideShare, I had particular problems with uploading the speaker notes, which, still now, are not available. I’m a great believer in using simple slides as a visual enhancement to a spoken narrative, and so when those slides are posted on their own, there can be some strange interpretations.

In particular, I have one slide in that presentation which simply says ‘Expose Yourself’. On its own, it could be read as something of a mid-life crisis admission in a magistrate’s court, but in my defence (pun intended), it’s actually part of a series of slides that try to explain the benefits of opening the black box of design, to encourage collaboration with clients and stakeholders to maximise brain power and increase efficiency.

I recently worked on a project that had a quite specific definition of the design deliverables that were likely to be required, before we’d even understood the problems and thought about solutions. This sounds bad, but really, it isn’t.

When we’re defining a statement of work that clients can agree to and sign off, especially for newer clients, we’re not yet in the position to sell them a period of time that’s largely undefined, that we’ll somehow magically fill with analysis and design. Pragmatically, we have to describe something tangible for delivery, based on our previous experience of similar projects, that is meaningful and understandable. Critically though, that ‘tangible something’ has scale - and that is where it gets interesting.

On the project in question, the design deliverable was pretty well-specified from the outset. But following the results of focus groups, it was clear that we needed to spend some serious thinking time trying to understand what the deliverable really needed to be – which was potentially quite different from what we’d anticipated.

The scale of our ‘tangible something’ was measured in days, and in order to set our new course, we had to agree on the best use of those days. In this case, we proposed that to understand that, we should get all the project stakeholders to bring their thoughts and ideas to the table and that we spend a day working together on defining our goals and objectives and thinking about how that looks when we talk about structures, clusters, boxes and arrows. Yes. A design workshop.

Design workshops can be super-effective for clarifying objectives, surfacing ideas, analysing research outcomes, using up flip charts and making swift progress through design challenges. But they are not for everyone. They’re not for all clients. They’re especially not for all designers. While more than one head is almost always better than just one head to solve a problem, there can be a reluctance on the part of professional problem-solvers to allow others to collaborate with them on that most cerebral of tasks.

That’s why I say you have to expose yourself. Let clients, stakeholders and anybody else who might have an opinion be part of your process and maximise the benefit of all those brains being in the room. When you’re steering a new course for your project ship, it should be all hands on deck. If you want to hit new project targets, you should have all your brain-wood behind one arrow. If you want to continue with ridiculous project metaphors, you should all, well, actually, forget that one. The point is, design workshops really work, and if you’re not doing them, especially when you need to corral project stakeholders and think about design direction, then I really think you’re missing a trick.

In this case, the workshop enabled us to clearly define the design requirements, scope out the next phase of work and turned on at least a hundred lightbulbs over people’s heads. In the end, just talking through design propositions in the workshop radically altered the client’s expectations for how their business could position themselves in the marketplace. We’re going to do another one soon, where I’ll expose myself some more, but better to be outed in the conference room of collaboration than stuck on my own in the black box of design.

Tim Caynes

I’m a Principal Designer at Foolproof which means I’m responsible for the integrity of the design thinking that shapes the work that we do.

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