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Why You Should Start Focusing on your Most Extreme Customers


When it comes to listening to our customers, users and employees, it’s easiest to focus on the people right in front of you. The ones you see the most often, the noisiest ones, or the ones you just plain like the most. The fact that you’re doing research at all is a step in the right direction, but now it’s time to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

When planning your research, the trick is to look towards the extremes of your potential user base—the fringes of the bell curve. This includes the hyper users—the early adopters and forward thinkers—but also the laggards who are barely adopting your offering, or perhaps aren’t at all.

There are two main reasons to focus research on these two groups of folks:

  1. Your most extreme users are most in tune with their needs, emotions, and behaviors. The same way we like to hang out with friends who tell great stories, we want to talk to the customers who can give us the best insights. Those folks are the ones at the fringes of our market, with the most defined behaviors and points of view on using (or not using) our product on a regular basis.
  2. If you can solve for your most extreme users, you can solve for most of them. (TWEET THIS). You will never be able to appease all of your extreme users, but the inspiration and insights you get from those folks will apply to the majority of your general user base. Think of your extreme users like the canaries in the coal mine – they’re experiencing pain points and needs that most of your customers will inevitably hit down the road.

Let’s check out a few concrete examples. If you’re doing research on boosting financial literacy in low income neighborhoods, you would want to seek out the people who are fully in control of their finances—perhaps small business owners, or people who are actively saving for their future goals. On the other end, you might look for people who may not use any financial tools or basic banking services, ‘money under the mattress’ style. You might also talk with children—a group that is just at the fringe of starting to learn about the importance of finances. If you were doing research on the adoption of a new piece of wearable technology, you’d want to shoot for the folks who waited 12 hours in line to grab the new Apple Watch, as well as the people who are just finally starting to carry a flip phone (love ya mom and dad!).

The worst part of your org’s bureaucracy might be…you?



Bureaucracy: A system of administration distinguished by its (1) clear hierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships. Once instituted, bureaucracies are difficult to dislodge or change.

And most of us are pretty certain it is the single thing standing between us and our ability to change our world, our organizations, and ourselves. In many cases it does add complexity, but we’ve also realized that it can be wrongly blamed for the lack of some very basic planning and storytelling.

The ironic part about human centered design is that many people don’t take a human centered approach in bringing it to their organizations. Take for example a leader who has the opportunity to attend a several day design thinking bootcamp for executives, and upon returning is eager to share their excitement by replicating many of the activities just as they saw them. What they’ve failed to realize is the difference between their bootcamp learning environment, and the everyday environment of their workplace. One is designed for safety, comfort, and retention of new concepts. The other is designed for management of diverse teams and skill sets, strategic decisions making, and execution of complex product rollouts. Expecting people to be as excited to adapt this new tool and mindset is simply a failure to pause and understand your personal users in this situation – your coworkers and peers. We’ve heard similar stories from new hires, managers, and senior executives from some of the biggest companies in the world.

Remember: Don’t focus on the story of design thinking, but rather the impact design thinking can have for your organization (tweet this).

Here are a few tools that will help you avoid bureaucratic tendencies while maintaining your sanity:

1. Find isolated parts of the organization where you can test in low-barrier ways. This might be a small team of people who are a little more flexible than the company at large, or it could be a short term project that is a little lower profile. Build the success stories and make those the focal point of what you share with the larger organization.

2. Start using it yourself in disguise. Allow people to see you demonstrating it and ask you how you’re doing it different. This changes the conversation from you pushing it on people, to them pulling the knowledge out of you. We had a student attend a multi-week studio project who works for a huge, highly structured media company in NYC. She went back to work and used the design thinking process on her next project without telling a soul. At the end of the 4-5 weeks, she called a lunch with her team and filled them in on her experiment, sharing what worked, the value that came out of it, and the things she would change next time. Then she finished the meeting asking if people would be interested in trying it again with the whole team on board. Not a single person said no.

3. Start with bite size best practices. Even the most forward thinking companies aren’t always quick to jump on the collaborative and exploratory track, so work your way into it. Start with small things like prepping better prompts for the next ideation session, or planning a half day field trip out of the office for your team to get some inspiration. Very few people are excited to adopt an entirely new way of thinking, but people are generally excited to break out of their norm in bite size ways.

4. Get a few key influencers on board. I wish I could say that you can change a culture of an organization entirely at a grass roots level, but it’s very difficult. When we’re working with an organization, whether it’s a public middle school in the Bronx, or a Fortune 50 bank, we make sure we’ve got a few influential leaders on board who are willing to not just advocate for change, but who are also the first to step up to a whiteboard when needed.

5. Figure out how to tell the story. In bureaucratic organizations, it’s easy to assume that your leadership team is not going to want to start sorting sticky notes or conducting interviews with customers. And in many cases, that’s probably true. But very few leaders would say they aren’t interested in understanding the customer needs, behaviors, emotions, and market trends that are going to dictate the future of their business. Very few leaders are going to say they don’t think innovation or evolving their offerings is important to growth. Bringing anything new to a culture requires some thoughtful storytelling, and building empathy around why your organization should care is the first step.

Play: An Essential Piece of Every Good Culture


For all of our friends on the northern hemisphere, summer has arrived. The weather is great, the cities are buzzing, and the energy is in the air. But unfortunately, many work cultures don’t take advantage of this opportunity to get outside and fill our heads with the blossoming inspiration.

Play can show up in a lot of ways—monthly happy hours to connect with colleagues, kicking off the company’s morning with a few improv games, a weekly lunch for the whole company to connect, dressing up in hot dog costumes and sledding down a mountain—all real examples we’ve been inspired by from our own clients. What we’ve learned is, it doesn’t matter how you do it – figure out what play means for your team, your organization, or your friends and find a way to create a regular ritual around it.

If you’re stuck, here are a few things to remember:

  • Don’t force it – find something that feels organic, and that your colleagues will be excited about.
  • It’s a habit, not an event – don’t overemphasize one instance, but rather find ways to make it a part of everyday life. (CLICK TO TWEET)
  • Find the bigger picture – it doesn’t always have to tie back, but when you can draw a parallel to the work you’re doing, selling it internally will be a whole lot easier.

The picture above is from our fishing trip, a play day we’ve run in the summer with loyal members of our public and organizational client community. We do it to connect and be inspired from our most passionate peers, but we also do it to refill our own mental tanks and take a break. It’s an essential part of creative thinking, and summer is a great time to build it in.

Hope to see you and your team on a future fishing trip. Until then, find a way to inspire your team in the next week, and share it with us @thedesigngym on Twitter.



Design Taco Private 2 Hour Sessions w/ Tacos

We’re really excited about all of the fun events going on during the Design Taco pop-up May 12-18th in NYC, but we’re also offering something really special that we’ve never done before.

Each day of the pop-up we will be running a limited number of private 2-hour classes for up to 10 people from a team. In celebration of the event, we’ve priced the classes at a deep discount compared to our usual rates. Each session costs $750 and includes 2 tacos and a Brooklyn Brewery beer or glass of Uproot wine for each participant.

There has never been a better time to enroll some of your colleagues in creative thinking, or just get an afternoon out of the office for some learning and development that’s actually fun.

They’re going fast, so sign-up soon to not miss out.

Download the Design Taco Menu here.

Sign-up for a private 2-hour class here.


Design Taco Menu

Design Taco


Design Taco is an idea accelerator and innovation lab that’s disguised as an incredibly delicious taco shop in New York’s Lower East Side on May 12th -18th, 2014.

For one week, an unassuming LES storefront will be transformed into a taco shop meets creative hotspot, hosting panels of radically diverse people and companies, private classes on design and innovation, and coaching for walk-in patrons looking to launch the next big thing. The event is the brainchild of The Design Gym, an NYC community of creative thinkers and problem solvers from across industries and roles who are redefining how we work.

Imagine a place where you can go with your friends and finally bring that side project to life. Or a place where right alongside the napkins and hot sauce rests prototyping supplies or sketch pads. Or where the wait staff is trained and willing to help you learn more about your target customers or refine your start-up’s story. These are all elements you’ll find at Design Taco.

Design Taco is located at 37 East 1st Street in New York’s Lower East Side. It will run from Monday, May 12th through Sunday May 18th from 10:00am – 10:00pm daily. Please check the schedule below for open hours…some sessions are pre-ticketed!


Walk-in hours are available at select times during the week, and all day Saturday and Sunday. See the calendar below for the most updated schedule. This is a great time to come see the space, meet some others, get some ad-hoc coaching on a side project, or just grab some delicious tacos. Snag your tickets below.








Slide2Come solo. Bring your colleagues. Invite your whole team. We accept all for these dynamic workshops. We’ll be offering two separate classes – User Experience Essentials and and Intro to sketching class . You can sign up for each individually, or take advantage of discounted pricing if you sign-up for both. Each ticket includes 2 tacos from Los Perros Locos and a beer from Brooklyn Brewery or glass of wine.






– Daily Private Classes for organizations to bring up to 10 people for a private, 2-hour workshop on topics ranging from group facilitation to introduction to sketching to storytelling for businesses.

– Open Classes for All that offer 2-hour classes on specific topics such as UX, intro to sketching, ideation, and team facilitation.

– Nightly Panels and Events that curate topics and people like you’ve never seen them before, thinking across industries, roles, and sizes to start hitting topics from different contexts.

– Walk In Hours that allow the general public to stop in over lunch, after work, or during the weekend to crank on a side project, get coaching on developing an idea, meet some inspiring people, or just enjoy some tacos and drinks.



We’re offering an incredible opportunity to get your team out of the office for a fun learning session. For just $750, you pick the topic and bring a team of people, and we’ll  provide the 2 hours of teaching and tacos and a drinks for the whole team!











The programming is designed to feature radical mash-ups of companies and people from across roles and industries. These are people you wouldn’t normally find on stage together, but who offer immense perspective on a topic from very different contexts. Speakers include everyone from the President of OXO to the Director of Marketing at the Brooklyn Brewery to the head of customer experience at Bonobos.

Tickets for classes and events are priced at a steal of $35 to encourage a diverse crowd of creative professionals, and each ticket also includes 2 tacos from Los Perros Locos and a beer from Brooklyn Brewery or glass of wine.








This event wouldn’t be possible without our very talented group of professionals and community members who have put a lot of time and sweat into bringing it to life. They mapped customer experience journeys, moderated panels, master PR campaigns, and helped craft the vision.

Kenny Arnold, Founder, Happy Dinosaur

Christina Bullard, Design Thinking Workshop Facilitator

Nidhi Chaudhary, Social Enterprise Strategy & Communications Consultant

Morgan Evans, Software Engineering, NBC Universal

Alex Fiorillo, Principal, Grid Impact

Justine Lai, Project Manager at ICL / Wharton MBA Candidate

Erin Lamberty, Product Manager, General Assembly

Megan Nesbeth, Associate Admissions Producter, General Assembly

Cemi Ozel, Account Executive, SelectNY

Melissa Walden, Packaging Engineer, The Dannon Company

Robert Yu, Asst. Product Manager, DydaComp












3 Week Studio Project with Applegate

The Studio Project is an in-depth, 3-week project that brings the challenge of an aspirational company to the brains of a diverse set of whip-smart professionals. Ranging from advertising executives to Nickelodeon Product Managers to global non-profit innovation leaders, the participants brought diverse knowledge, skillsets, and networks to conduct research with. You can register for the next Studio Project, April 23rd-June 4th here.

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The client for this Studio Project was Applegate, a bold company with a mission to ‘Change the Way We Eat Meat’. They are in the midst of launching some new products and businesses, and decided to open their doors to get some fresh eyes, new perspectives, and passionate hustle applied to their challenge.


The results of the project are confidential as they relate to a new product launch, but here is how the process worked:


– Kickoff Meeting – The teams were given an overview of Applegate introduced to the process we would be following. They got to meet each other, and begin working on secondary research and recruiting friends and family for primary research.

– Work Session 1 (w/ client) – Several members of the Applegate team joined to present the brief. After getting some training on research planning, research methods, and best practices, the class split into two teams and got cranking. By the end of the night they had research plans in hand.

– Working Week 1 – The teams spent the next week in the field, conducting a ton of research, ranging from long-form interviews, short interviews, shadows, focus groups, surveys, and intercepts. The research took place in NYC, PA, VA, and even NC! They interviewed both parents and children, and participants covered both current Applegate consumers and not.

– Work Session 2 – The session kicked off with a final round of research, as we were joined by a full family. The family split up and the teams were able to conduct a final interview with them. Next the teams were trained on insight development through the use of frameworks to pull out the patterns in the data they found.

– Working Week 2 – The teams continued to cluster, sort, and organize their data in different ways to extract new learnings from their research. Both teams also participated in a facilitated office hours with the Design Gym team to really learn the ins and outs of insight development.

– Worksession 3 (w/ client) – The Applegate Team joined again for the final session, which kicked off right away with insight presentations from each of the teams. They shared out new learnings, top stories from their research, and visual frameworks to support their learnings. They also were able to start teasing out prompts, phrases that help turn unique insights into stimulus for creating ideas against. The teams got client feedback, then jumped into over an hour of ideation, generating hundreds of different ideas. They narrowed them down to the top ideas, then spent some time visualizing them and creating their final pitch before presenting to the client.




Protected: 3 Week Studio Project with Applegate (Outcomes)

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SketchUp and Tinkercad

These are two cool programs for anyone to do 3D modeling and design. The first is SketchUp which is a program created by Google that has attracted 30 million activations in the past year alone. The other is called Tinkercad and they offer people with no design experience the ability to design real things that come out of the 3D printer, into your life. Both allow you to share your designs with friends and explore things made by other makers.

I think there is going to be a big movement in the coming years of simplifying complex programs to a more accessible level for the masses (ie music production software, photoshop, website development, CAD, etc…). Take, for example, Tumblr and how easy it has made creating a well designed blog. I’m not sure these more mass designed programs will ever replace the full versions of programs because I believe a lot of progress is found in the expertise of the masters often using those programs. However, there is a big opportunity to create tools in, say in the music space, in between Garageband and Ableton or Reason.

The ability to solve ours and the world’s problems are increasingly right at our fingertips, it’s just a matter of picking up the right tools, finding the right partners, and getting our hands a little dirty. Consider these tools as you are working through the Experiment phase.

Unbounce landing page platform

When The Design Gym was getting up on its feet and starting to build a community, it was extremely important for us to get an MVP website (minimum viable product) up and running as quickly as possible. To do that we turned to Unbounce, a really powerful landing page platform. It operates on a ‘freemium model’, offering an awesome free service and various levels of paid versions with greater benefits. I’m most amazed at the tools and interface it gives you for designing your landing pages and customizing to make it something really special. There are unlimited ways you could use this tool from start-ups to weddings to events promotion. Keep it in mind as you are looking for ways to experiment and test ideas you’re coming up with.

Dieter Rams: 10 Principles for Good Design

Having come from a business background, it has been a wild journey to learn about design and all that exists around it. There is a whole lot to dip your toes into. It’s been really exciting to discover new brilliant things everyday. Dieter Rams: 10 Principles for Good Design is probably a staple in any trained designer’s repertoire, and I found it pretty awesome.

As the definition of ‘design’ continues to broaden, I think this still sums it up pretty well, despite having been written 30 years ago. Although Dieter is perhaps best known for his beautiful products, these principles are abstracted enough that you can apply them to whatever your own personal application of design is.