A learn-by-doing community for creative professionals.


November, 2014

Solving The World’s Biggest Problems Takes Ensembles, Not Soloists

Band together

Being a soloist is fun…you get to flex your skills and shine. But music isn’t made by soloists alone…and it’s not enough to be great at your instrument. To make it with a band and make a big, rich sound, you have to listen to others, and know when to mesh and harmonize and when to give others the freedom to shine. A great band beats a great soloist, pushing past the capabilities of one person.

Innovation is a team sport

The same holds true for innovation. We read about the greats: Jobs, Gates, Edison…but no one makes it on their own very far. Each and every great was backed by a band…and sometimes a band of equals. So how do we form “Innovation Bands”? What’s the glue for creative collaboration?

The Studio Project

At The Design Gym, we believe that people and companies have to reach outside their boundaries to solve their biggest challenges. The Studio Project creates pop-up innovation labs where people and companies can work together to solve sticky challenges. Collaboration is a mindset, embodies core values and takes certain skills. Read on for 5 values and 5 skills to make your next collaboration soar.

The Five Core Collaboration Skills

1. Yes, AND

If you know about “Not invented Here Syndrome”, The attitude of “Yes, And” can help avoid it. Sometimes collaborations are hard because we want to be right…but helping magnify, develop and deepen the ideas of others is  a core skill of successful collaborations. Instead of finding the holes, flaws and shortcomings of ideas, take a second to try out “Yes, And” and see if the idea has some legs after all.

2. Open vs. Close

Are we trying to start or finish? What’s our goal for the team, right now? If someone is trying to launch and someone else is trying to build a new launching pad, we’re not collaborating. It’s SO essential to close: to finish a project on time and on budget….but only after we’re all aligned on the project goals. A good OPEN helps make sure all the ideas are on the table and everyone is heard, and allows us to start aligning on how we want to CLOSE.

3. Keep it Visual

It’s easy to forget this one. If we just talk and never capture our conversation on the wall, it’s hard to know what happened at the end of a meeting. Assign someone to be the chief scribe…but make it everyone’s responsibility to write ideas down! As we say, a drawing is worth Thousands of words. So get better at that!

4. Needs over Solutions

Solutions are easy to get wrong….The aisles of Walmart and Best Buy  are littered with products that fall short. But needs are based on people and are never wrong, because they’re real. Focus on the needs you’re meeting, refine and distil them down. You might still launch a solution that fails to meet the need you defined…but if you define the need incorrectly, there’s little hope for success!

5. Testing over Talking

There comes a point (and it’s always earlier than people think) when it’s time to try out your ideas rather than  talk about them. There are many, many ways to make ideas more real…acting them out, making a video or a mocked Press Release. Check out our Experiment Category in the blog for some perspectives on how to prototype and when.


The Five Core Collaboration Values

One essential fact of collaboration is that we don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, stealing the answers isn’t stealing at all…it’s more like sharing. So the five core values of collaboration below, in the spirit of collaboration, are taken from the MDG Health Alliance. In the last seven years, a global collective was set up by Ray Chambers, the U.N. Special Envoy to the Secretary General for Health Finance and Malaria  which   focused on malaria. This group reduced the number of deaths per year from 900,000 to 400,000—and the goal of zero deaths is now within sight. The collaboration also birthed the MDG Health Alliance, which has helped form collaborations around programs focused on preventing mother-child transmission of AIDS, improving child and maternal health, and other initiatives.

The office defined a core set of values to unify and guide its activities. These values, as stated by the members of the MDG Health Alliance, include:

Use trust as a basis for change. 

Honesty and integrity drive our relationships, always.

Empower partners.

Collaboration is the most important way to achieve the scale and impact we seek. We minimize our “need to be right” and remain adaptable and flexible.

Focus on game-changing opportunities.

We only pursue levers for bold, catalytic change. We work toward measurable results with a sense of urgency.

Uphold purity of our purpose.

We remain independent and keep everyone’s right to a healthy life at the center of our work. We have empathy and compassion for those we serve.

Inspire and actively support one another

We treat each other with care, form strong bonds and find joy in the day to day.


These are big ideals…and there is some overlap between the MDG values and our collaboration skills…but big ideals are needed to solve big problems. Your next project might not be solving malaria, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think big and shoot for the stars!


Many thanks to Jeff Walker, whose article inspired this one

A Drawing is worth Thousands of Words

Sometimes people say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But drawing is worth Thousands of words.


Because there is simply no better (or faster) way to communicate what you mean to your team. Often in meetings there’s a lot of handwaving and conversation…and at the end what is remembered? Being active about capturing your ideas visually can make it possible at the end of the day to look around the room and see where you’ve gotten to.

If you ask a group of 6 year olds to raise their hands if they’re an artist, you’ll see a room full of raised hands. Ask a room full of adults and you’ll see very few.

All it takes to communicate your ideas is to be able to draw like a six-year-old!

At The Design Gym we’re passionate about giving people to tools to create change, so here’s five ways you can use drawing to transform your day.


1. One idea per Sticky Note

When you capture all your ideas in a list on one sticky, all you can do is stick your ideas on the wall! When you and your team *all* write ideas on stickies, you can move them around, put like with like, draw connections. When you capture ideas on stickies, they become objects to be manipulated. The organization on the board becomes new information.

2. Write in Capital letters

man, oh man…We tell people this all the time. If you just take an extra second or two to write in capital letters OTHER PEOPLE can read your ideas. On email (and blogs) capitals can look like shouting (sorry for shouting there…) but on drawings and stickies, caps just means legibility.

Download (and use) The Visual Workpack

or Order The Physical Cards Here!

3. Uses words AND pictures together

Without the words, this is just a sketch of some people. It’s actually *hard* to draw people that are badass. But once you write “we are badass” under those people…we know what’s what. Words are not a cheat…they turn drawings into comics!


4. Idea Boards

We’re a big fan of templates at The Design Gym for lots of reasons. When we ask people to generate ideas, we often generate a template first. That way, when we scan a wall full of ideas, we can compare apples to apples. Decide ahead of time what 3-4 components you want each idea to cover, mock up the section headers in powerpoint and print out a bunch…or ask people to make their own on the fly. Either way, you’ll help people think through their concepts better and be able to facilitate a better discussion.


5. Thinking, Sharing, Showing

This one is courtesy of our pal @ayraydel…there isn’t one type of drawing…there are at least three types. There’s Thinking drawings and sketches, where you’re working things out for yourself, developing ideas. Then there’s Sharing drawings…where maybe you combine and incorporate a few ideas…and expect that someone else will mark up and collaborate with you on your drawing. It’s when you expose your ideas and let go a bit. Showing Sketches are all about making something a bit bigger and better to be able to share with more people. These sorts of drawings can take a bit more time, but are worth the effort! Below is a final drawing board from the last session of the Studio project.  It took some time and effort, but it really communicates!

2014-08-13 20.08.50


Drawing isn’t just something to use on yourself and your team…using it in your research with stakeholders and users can be transformative, too. This is from a great article on LinkedIn from Tim Brown

Here’s an example of how drawing helped us refine a business strategy for a client: Many years ago, when online banking was still in its infancy, a start-up called Juniper Financial asked IDEO if we thought banks still needed buildings, vaults, and tellers. The team wanted to understand how people thought about money. But that’s harder than it sounds. You can observe customers paying bills or withdrawing cash, but it’s tough to scan their brains while they’re at it.

Instead, the team asked people to draw their money. One woman penned little Monopoly-style houses that represented her family, 401(k), and rental properties. The team dubbed her “The Pathfinder” since she was focused on long-term security.

Another woman drew a pile of money and a pile of things. “I get money and I buy stuff,” she told the team. She became “The Onlooker” who focused on day-to-day finances instead of long-term goals.

6. Just Draw more

This is a bonus…and an easy one. The more you draw the easier it gets. So buy a notebook and get cracking…and check out our Visual Thinking Workpack!

The Studio Project

The Studio Project is a place to practice, a safe environment, a real case study, one-on-one coaching, and accelerated insights.

More about The Studio Project

Research, Synthesis, Insights, Strategy and Great Ideas. It’s something we’re all asked to do nearly every day at our jobs. At The Design Gym, we’ve been teaching the design thinking process to companies and individuals for more than 2 years…and we’ve found that 2-hour workshops and one-day bootcamps are fun, inspirational and transformative…but that people still can struggle with taking this way of working back to their daily job. We’ve been experimenting for the last year and a half with various formats and ways of engaging people with this empathic and dynamic way of innovating. The Studio project is our best way of getting people to work through the design thinking process in real time with a real challenge. Over the course of 5-8 sessions, we take a cohort of professionals from research to insights and from insights to solutions.


A Studio Project is a chance to work over a longer period of time with a team, under creative direction. Each week will build on the next and the work will be highly collaborative. It’s the closest we can get to simulating working in an innovation lab and will help you bring these techniques into your own work.

Over the course of Five Sessions , you’ll dig into a real challenge alongside a client team, getting a real time, real life opportunity to learn design thinking in practice. You’ll build a research and insights plan collaboratively, and get feedback and insights as you go. At the end of the class, you’ll have your own case study on bringing a concept from research through insights and strategy.

Between classes, you and your team will work together to execute on your research plan, and do real-world customer and stakeholder research. Each week we’ll move through the phases of design – at the end, developing a series of insights, concepts and pitches to your client.


Each session will be held on Wednesday nights from 6:00pm – 9:15pm. These will be a mixture of group learning sessions, private coaching ‘office hour’ sessions, and client check-in sessions (see outline below).


The real work, experience, and fun will be achieved outside of the classroom. You should plan on meeting with your team a few times in between each class. Set aside a weekend afternoon, maybe! These might range in doing a 45 minute interview to spending a half-day doing store visits to spending a full day frameworking and developing insights. It’s up to you and your team to find a schedule that works for you. We find that teams spend an additional 10-12 hours a week meeting and working together.


In this class, participants will get a deeper understanding of how each phase of design works and how to navigate them, in practice.


Meet other participants
Review the project plan
Get background on the client and brief


Different types of design research
Knowing what types of research to use when
Research planning: who to talk to, when to talk, where to talk, how many to talk to, what to talk about.


Coaching on research methods and execution
Outputs, Definition and outcomes


How to turn research into useful strategies and insights
How to collaboratively build alignment on project scope and direction
How to move from insights to Ideas
Ideation tools and techniques
Rapid prototyping


Final Presentation to the Client
Discuss the best ways to apply this experience and learning back to your individual work or job

We are committed to enrolling unique and fascinating companies for these projects. We’ve had the pleasure of working with some pretty diverse challenges – from rethinking lunch with Applegate to rethinking social networks with Mozilla! The results, both from the company perspective and the student perspective, have been really exciting!


Student Perspectives: Real world practice and experience


jessica“I’m excited about applying the [design thinking] process to a real project. It’s tough to get that sort of practice when you’re not doing it in your daily job”

Jessica Martin, Innovation associate






“I was always really craving to do it, as opposed to just learn about it… a 2-hour class where we just have some fun with sticky notes!

I love that we’re really working with a client and we get to try to really solve a real-world problem”

Sally Hall, Development Officer



Client Perspectives: Real Time Open Innovation

From the perspective of our clients, The Studio Project looks and feels like real-time, open innovation.


Applegate is constantly looking for ways to connect with consumers, to both learn and to educate. The opportunity to access a diverse, unbiased group of motivated thinkers was irresistible.  The result of our partnership with The Design Gym was clear and unexpected insights from real people that were thoughtfully distilled into concise ideas and actions.

As our consumers continue to inspire us, innovation will remain a primary goal at Applegate and we look forward to collaborating with The Design Gym again.

Tiffany Gale, Digital and Social Media Manager

Applegate, Studio Project Client, Winter 2014

Download the Applegate Studio Project Case Study Here

The Design Gym process allowed us to better understand our problem and users, while leading us to many awesome ideas and solutions. Besides being a fun and extremely valuable workshop, I met a wonderful group of enthusiastic and smart people. I definitely recommend a collaboration with The Design Gym and their team of “solvers” on your next project!

Holly Habstritt, UX Lead

Mozilla, Studio Project Client, Winter 2012

Download the Mozilla Studio Project Case Study Here


If you spend more time with your staff than you do with your customers, if you enjoy feeling naked (Watch at minute 2!) in front of people…you’ll enjoy being the company challenge at the center of The Studio Project.

Register Now

Refund Policy

If you come to the first workshop and feel that this class isn’t right for you, we’ll refund your entire fee. Likewise, if after the first workshop session we don’t think you’re a good match for the sessions, we’ll refund your fee and recommend next steps for you on your learning journey