Introduction to Design Studio Methodology | Semantic Foundry, LLC

Categorized | Design Thinking, User Experience

Introduction to Design Studio Methodology

Posted on 30 April 2011 by semanticwill

(I first learned the Design Studio methodology from Todd Zaki Warfel, founder of Message First, and perhaps one of the best designers I’ve been fortunately enough to learn from. While originating in architecture and industrial design schools, I believe he was the first to apply it to collaborative design of complex software systems.)

Updated: Here are the photos from May 2, 2011 Design Studio that I facilitated.

Soundtrack: Butterfly Crash, Minus Zero (Dubstep Charts 2010/11)

Introduction to Design Studio

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”
~ John Stewart Mill (1806-73)


The early stages of product innovation can crucially influence the success and direction of any product. Yet these stages tend to be fuzzy, highly politicized and under-documented. This brief article is to give you a high-level overview of how teams can use Design Studio to explore opportunities and innovate products to better serve customers needs.

Design Studio is conducted in a highly interactive, fast-paced team setting following a methodology, commonly used in architecture and industrial design, with some important twists. It has been called the “Iron Chef,” of ideation. It can be intense, focused, and chaotic at times; but for those lucky enough to have participated, they understand the power and effectiveness of this tool.

Getting Started

Coming on the heels of market and customer research, contextual inquiry, as well as open brainstorming sessions to fully explore the “problem space,” teams use the Design Studio methodology to achieve a few key goals:

  1. Collaboratively work to understand the nature, opportunities, and constraints of some articulated problem space. If you imagine your current state, and then some positive future state – the problem space, sometimes called the Design Gap, is the place between those.
  2. Allow ideas from various perspectives and insights to percolate up between team members.
  3. Turn “ideas” and especially unstated assumptions from tacit or verbal states into cognitive artifacts that can be shared, evaluated, and iterated upon.
  4. Create a culture of shared ownership around future product vision.
  5. Generate a lot of ideas in a very fast time frame – usually no less than 3 hours, and sometimes as long as 10 hours.
  6. Allow open and honest critique of various concepts.
  7. Force participants to defend their concepts and negotiate with other team members.

Why Collaborative Design?

There are no rockstars in collaborative design. Stephen Klocek in “Better together, the practice of successful creative collaboration,” states the problem:

Ninja. Rockstar. Gifted genius. Many of the ways we talk about creative work (whether it’s design or development) only capture the brilliance of a single individual.”

Having spent time in some larger digital agencies, it is often the case that the Account Planner, Strategist, and Creative Director spend time around a conference room with the client trying to suss-out requirements. The process then moves to the ivory tower (or black box, if you will) at the agency’s office where a few select people lock themselves away until they generate “The Insight,” often followed by “The Solution,” which is then communicated to the art directors and technology teams responsible for execution. I could, and will, write an entire article about how fucked up that is, but not today. Needless to say, those days of the black box Rockstar/Ninja/Douchebag Creative Director are quickly coming to an end. Thank God!

The reality of designing modern digital solutions is that no one individual can possibly capture all the complexity of creating a truly vibrant social ecosystem with various customer engagement points, different usage patterns and behaviors based on different needs, goals, and customer backgrounds all interwoven into an emergent ubiquitous engagement tapestry. This is why innovation really is, and should be, a team sport.

How It Works

The Design Studio methodology provides a collaborative, pragmatic process of illumination, sketching, presentation, critique, and iteration leading to a shared vision and hopefully more coherent and elegant solution – but this is not “design by committee,” by any stretch. The Design Studio guides participations through an evolution in experience ideation. Just like business school, it uses a case study approach to solve a unique and clearly defined problem which the assembled team has agreed upon and which also aligns with the business’s strategic roadmap as articulated by the executive team. This ensures that teams don’t wander off the reservation and create the next great snack delivery platform.


The goal of the design studio is to arrive at some solid design solutions in a collaborative setting. Using the following process of illuminate, sketch, present, critique, and iterate, multiple cycles at first individually, and eventually as teams, which allows us to arrive at some solid concepts by the end of the day. Along the way, the process helps develop greater trust amongst participants, and surfaces unknown requirements from key stakeholders.

“Co-creation needs externalized material. Sharing the fuzzy, early, raw concept gives your partner material to work with, to respond to and evolve. Externalizing ideas allows for closer collaboration, earlier input, and deeper thought partnership. This is true when generating and proposing ideas, and equally important for synthesizing and evolving concepts.”
– Klocek,  “Better together, the practice of successful creative collaboration

Importance of Sketching


Illumination in Design Studio

The key to the illumination phase, sometimes less than 45 minutes, is for the team to gain a shared understanding the business context, customer, challenges and market opportunities. What is important is that this helps enframe the articulation and exploration of the problem space, but shouldn’t be the only thing. Too much emphasis should not be placed on the so-called “voice of the customer,” since this is rarely a good source of insight. Simon Rucker articulates this very well in his article “How Good Designers Think,” in the Harvard Business Review when he writes:

Good designers aim to move beyond what you get from simply asking consumers what they need and want. First of all because they understand that most people when asked don’t say what they mean or mean what they say, but also because people often don’t know. Good designers want to unearth what consumers can’t tell them: latent & emerging needs and motivations; actual behaviors and attitudes; and, crucially, barriers to as well as drivers of change — or simply put, what your competitors don’t also already know.

Simply put – your competitors are talking to the same customers you are – do you really think disruptive and differentiated ideas will come from listening to your customers in focus groups? Another important consideration is that potential solutions should never be brought to design studio, and most certainly not introduced during the illumination phase.


Through rapid sketch-boarding activities the teams focus on getting as many ideas (good & bad) down on paper as quickly as possible. I have often thought that the activities such as sketching can best be described as modalities of decision analysis. This is the essence of abductive thinking – a generative exercise of exploring what could be, as opposed to what is. With each new design decision explored, new constraints are introduced as new opportunities arise. Sketching, by its nature is fast, transient, and has a tempo which allows us to not become to attached to a particular solution.

Generating sketches in Design Studio

Why Sketching?

Importance of Sketching

But why is sketching such a fundamental part of design studio? Externalizations of different kinds (sketches, wireframes, paper or code prototypes) are most useful for communication & reflection where we want to present ideas to our design team, to the client, or to a customer – sketches are rhetoric instantiated, because every sketch is an argument, and every design argument must have a form. For a complete exegesis on the importance of sketching, read my article “Shades of Grey: Thoughts on Sketching,” published in UX Magazine.


Participants learn to sell their ideas, accept change, negotiate positions to arrive at the strongest set of potential solutions worthy of further exploration and iteration. Cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon says “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

It is through the articulation of design concepts in the Presentation phase that participants argue for what the preferred state is, and potentially how to get there. As Richard Buchanan says, “products are vivid arguments about how we as humans, situated in social context, should lead our lives,” and taken another step, sketches in design studio serve the same purpose – to make a clear argument for solving the problem space being explored.

Presentation in Design Studio


Critique in Design Studio is a formal but flexible framework used to highlight strong ideas worthy of further expansion while discarding weaker ideas in a safe, friendly environment. The aim of critique is to provide actionable and positive counter-arguments to those being made in the sketches presented. A simple framework for design critique Who, How, What, and Why.

Starting from the problem space and goals articulated at the beginning of the design studio, the critique should focus on the 2 or 3 strongest or most compelling concepts in each sketch addressing these questions:

Who:  Does the sketch solve a problem for the intended audience? Does the solution speak to the customer or does it speak to the designer’s ego?

How: How does the concept solve for the problem and more importantly, how can that solution be simplified?

What: What is the argument being made by the solution and is it effective in achieving it’s goal – is it an compelling argument? And finally,

Why: When sketching potential solutions, each participant will choose different angles of attack based on their own stance (or prejudices); understanding that stance, the focus of attention – in essence, the Why, is as important as the What.

The specific insights from critique will provide the participants with an increased understanding of the assumptions and biases of fellow participants. The criticism will feed back into design in the Iteration Phase, specifically by pointing to inconsistencies between the solution and its surroundings, context of customer use and business constraints. Finally, the criticism will give the designer feedback for concepts that, while brilliant, may not be fully fleshed out.

Iteration in Design Studio


Concepts from each round of the design studio are then extracted, stolen, re-combined and transformed within teams and across teams. Participants are encouraged to take the feedback from critique, as well as concepts presented by others, and engage in another round of sketching – remixing and reinterpreting concepts to arrive at a more solid argument. Refined ideas will be honed, with the strongest ideas chosen by each team gathered and distilled into a unified group solution. It is at this point that the teams pitch (Present) their solutions to other teams, and the process of Present, Critique, Iterate, starts all over again until only 1 or 2 solid concepts survive.


Next Up

In Part 2, I will explore the logistics of designing a Design Studio including how to select participants, design their respect teams, provide just enough background information for the illumination phase, as well as the the most important element – the timing of each phase and setting the guardrails and ground rules.




How Good Designers Think, Simon Rucker, Harvard Business Review

Criticism as an Approach to Interface Aesthetics (PDF)

Better together; the practice of successful creative collaboration (Cooper)

Playing well with others: How to create effective design teams (Cooper)

Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Richard Buchanan (PDF)

Shades of Grey: Thoughts on Sketching (UXMag)

Shades of Grey: Wireframes as Thinking Device (UXMag)

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Muy interesante proceso, parecido al que seguimos en innovación


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