Workshopping: the collaborative table

Yesterday I participated in my first full-day gravitytank workshop here at the office. I was struck by how distinctively different the experience was from what I’ve been part of in the past after 11 years inside design firms and agencies. In most cases, I’ve felt workshops to be wasted time for both clients and designers due to the failure to understand the roles for participants, the assumption that everyone has to be right, and the likelihood that the decisions meant to be made during the workshop have most likely been made by clients and/or design teams before the workshop even begins. No one seems to be authentically interested in learning from one another.

Because of this, clients and designers alike often talk about the need for truer collaboration in order to uncover the best new idea. At yesterday’s workshop, I saw three ways we are doing this well:


Redefining the meaning of “designer”
The role of the designer culminates and ignites through these workshop gatherings. As design professionals, we aren’t only made to make and design things and ideas, but we are also uniquely gifted to facilitate a conversation and integrate how new ideas can fit together. In Richard Buchanan’s keynote address at this year’s Service Design Global Conference in San Francisco, he stated, “The role of the designer is to be the facilitator not the center.”

This is counterintuitive to what I’ve been raised up in my design career to believe. I’ve been ascribing to the Paula Scher statement she made about the moment she designed the current Citibank logo: “How can it be done in a second? But it is done in a second. It’s done in a second and in 34 years, and every experience and every movie and every thing of my life that’s in my head.” This is true. It can happen in a second. She’s that good. But who’s to say a client couldn’t come up with that in seconds during a workshop? A designer can both identify good ideas and create them.


Becoming curious—together
I would argue it’s more efficient to create together in the same room rather than brainstorming to document needs and parting ways to carry on separate conversations. Leo Burnett said, “Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.” This way of workshopping values creative curiosities and life experiences that we can all bring to the conversation. And, it values time as a rare commodity and helps speed truer collaboration in thinking—building courage of conviction for all involved. Because everyone has buy-in to the ideas, our clients can more seamlessly sell new thinking inside their organization from top to bottom. And, workshop conversations live on because they are energizing. They become timeless.


Understanding it’s ok to fail
Yesterday there was a client in the room who had obviously been in unsuccessful workshops in the past. I could sense she had surrendered herself to say only what needed to be said and to sit and do what was expected of her by the VP. But by 2pm, she was different. She was brainstorming together with her VP, discussing what might have been a “crazy” idea if they had discussed it in their office the day before. They both felt safe. And because of that, we felt safe to dream big with them. All ideas aren’t good ones of course, but you never know what can happen when everyone in the room feels safe to voice their ideas.


Our workshops, in addition to all other work we do as an innovation practice, offer a unique opportunity for testing and trying ideas that can change people and organizations. The misperception that you need to be right is really just the old and very human fear of being wrong. For designers, the impulse to keep clients from peeking behind the curtain is a 100% fear-based activity. Here, the clients suddenly feel safe to participate. We are working together to help people (as clients, designers, researchers, strategists and mere mortal human beings) face and encounter fears. And that is a reward I’d like to feel again and again.

written by: Erin Huizenga