Reprinted with the permission of A List Apart and the author. Originally published August, 2010.

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The design studio is a traditional approach to ideation in industrial design and architecture. It involves iterating repeatedly through four phases towards a design goal: Sketching, evaluation, modeling, and testing. In his book Prototyping, Todd Zaki Warfel adapts this methodology to website and application design by modifying a few phases in the process, ending up with sketching, critique, prototyping, and testing. For a kickoff meeting, the prototyping and testing phases may be entirely too ambitious; time is limited and it's probably too early for any usability testing. For those reasons, my team has modified this approach by eliminating the second two phases, and creating an exercise that cycles between ideation/sketching and critique. Depending on the size of the group, it can be done in as little as a few hours. It can be executed with groups sized 10 to 60, and it always gets great discussion going, surfacing key challenges from every perspective. All it takes is a few pencils, some pre-printed grids, a good facilitator, and a basic meeting interaction pattern.

A design studio kickoff activity works like this:

  1. Find a space that can accommodate half the number of attendees having a one-on-one conversation simultaneously. For groups of 10, a traditional meeting room is fine, but for larger groups you may need more space. Plan on at least 90 minutes—more for larger groups.

  2. Give everyone a pencil and a sketchboard with eight pre-printed small grids (provided by Mr. Zaki Warfel).

  3. Instruct everyone that, to begin with, they will be sketching ideas on their own. Some will complain about their drawing ability. Suggest that they describe their ideas in text. If that doesn't work, tell them to suck it up. No one ever died from sketching.

  4. Frame a specific design problem. You can take a general approach, such as "design the home page," but in practice I've found this works better with some constraints. It helps start the neurons firing if you set boundaries: For example, you might say, "design a sub page that focuses on the key product line we offer, but also provides three examples of how our audiences already use it." Or even as specific as "build a category listing page that encourages people to apply their own tags, but still provides more traditional navigation paths to information, and somehow gets them to create a user account." Remember, this is early in the work, so even if the constraints aren't 100% accurate to the real world, you are only exploring and learning.

  5. Provide a time limit, and a minimum number of concepts to create: Six to eight concepts in 10 minutes is what we do. The time limit forces participants to focus on quantity and iterate quickly, rather than sketching out the Mona Lisa.

  6. Play some music to kill that awkward silence! I recommend the theme from a classic game show, or the battle music from the original series Star Trek episode Amok Time.

  7. Form groups of two, and (this next part is important) have them pair up with someone who they've never worked with before. If you are an agency working with a client, pair up agency employee to client representative. If you are working on an internal team, then go cross department.

  8. Instruct all the two person teams to take turns presenting and critiquing their ideas. Again, keep a strict time limit. Have the first person present for three minutes, then other person critique for two, and vice versa. While they are presenting/critiquing, give each person a single grid sketchboard.

  9. Instruct all the groups they have 10 minutes to sketch a single concept based on the best of all of their ideas.

  10. Repeat steps six through 11, increasing the size of each group by a factor of two each time. Two people become four people, four become eight, etc. You may need to increase the amount of time people have to sketch based on the size of the groups.

  11. When you've got it down to two or three large groups, have the groups present to each other. At larger kickoffs, provide them with larger sheets of paper, sharpies, or even sticky notes to help them be more creative during that final concepting phase. Make sure you have the ability to project the final sketches for discussion and critique, such as a document projector (if you're fancy, Nancy) or a digital camera and the right cable to get its contents onto a laptop/projector (if you're like the rest of us).

There are many benefits to incorporating a design studio activity into a kickoff meeting. You are kicking off the project by beginning to tackle many of the problems at hand. You are getting to know your client or coworkers better, building your understanding of their communication styles, personal priorities, and work dynamic. You might even come across a usable idea, and you've done it in a collaborative context rather than an adversarial one.

This may seem like design by committee, but your expertise has been part of the process, and whether or not the ideas you generate are finished-product quality or completely useless, you've engendered shared ownership of the intended end result. This collaborative experience lays the foundation for a professional bond that will sustain the group through the many challenges that lay ahead.


There's no reason to limit your kickoff meeting to a single activity. In fact, you can combine multiple activities at a kickoff, with each activity appropriately tailored to a specific problem, and with the appropriate attendees (which prevents a vice president from having to learn about complex server architecture goals in gory detail).

Here's just a few examples of other activities you can use:

I've assembled a repository of some the activities we've tried at, and I want to keep adding to that list. Let me know what variations and new activities you come up with, and how they create value for your project down the line!

But what about me? I'm virtual!

Perhaps you only work remotely with clients, because you either can't afford the travel or don't feel the need to meet with them face-to-face. Keep in mind that the spirit of these approaches is about building relationships early in a process, and in-person human interaction is a tried and true method for doing that. That said, as long as you are following the guiding principles I've outlined below, you should find some ideas and approaches using other means (Skype, Campfire, or sharing ideas via a magical application) that will inspire your process for getting a project off on the right foot.

Those guiding principles

Now kick that ball across the field, sending your project flying into conceptual glory and web design infamy!

Or, just have a much more engaging, relevant, and productive meeting.

Share your comments

What do you do to jump-start the kickoff meetings and prevent them from being a ho-hum meetings? Share your thoughts with us on the the UIE Brain Sparks blog.

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