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September 2012 Weekend Workout with Holstee

Twenty-one students last weekend were pushed to the max over two and a half days, all in the name of better understanding and, more importantly, executing on the design thinking process. Throw in a session with an improv teacher, real world clients, and all of a sudden this fun weekend has turned into a race going at full tilt. But the next thing out of people’s mouths is how worth it the weekend was. This is an account of how The Design Gym, in combination with Holstee and Improvulation, spent this past weekend solving some big, hairy problems.

Last Friday a diverse group of strangers ascended upon the Brooklyn Brainery, giving up their weekend with the common goal of figuring out what this “design thinking” thing is all about. The first hour was a quick overview of the weekend to come, as the Design Gym folks walked through the 5-phase process of design. But academics and powerpoints aren’t exactly how things roll at Weekend Workouts, so things took an unexpected twist as the class was prompted to see creativity through the lens of improvisation.

[Enter several cases of Brooklyn Lager and a whole lot of students suddenly questioning if they made the right weekend plans]

Luckily, Holly Mandel, owner of Improvolution, was on site to help ease everyone through those instinctual fears, and proceeded to set a tone that would last the rest of the weekend. She facilitated the room, teachers and all, through activities demonstrating some uncomfortable scenarios that were sure to crop-up during a fast-paced, group intensive weekend. By exercising principles like ‘Yes And’ and ‘I made a mistake’, the class loosened up within minutes.

“Although the “I Made a Mistake!” exercise often annoys people at the outset, at some point there’s a flip and you can feel the room has now accepted that making a mistake is ok – we all do it, it can often suck when we do…but it doesn’t have to.” – Holly Mandel

Saturday started early, but was greeted with an immaculate spread of food from Jump Kitchen. Fueled on vegetarian chili, finger lickin ribs, and lots of coffee, it was time to begin digging into the theory behind the 5-phase design process. The class broke into groups and were given a design challenge all New Yorkers can relate to – “How might we make the urban moving experience less burdensome?”

The class tackled the prompt throughout the entire day, using it as a foundation to better understand the design process. By the end of the day the students had conducted interviews, identified themes, ideated solutions, prototyped the solutions, and had even crafted a compelling story. Concepts were as diverse as platforms for introducing people to new neighborhoods to financial models for providing loans to those that need to spread out the lump cost of moving.

With a round of beers, the class retired for the day, equally as exhausted but much more confident than the night prior.

Sunday means action at The Weekend Workout. After breakfast, Ankit Shah from Holstee kicked off the day with a design brief for an initiative called #BlockFriday.  Holstee is first a mission driven company, which secondarily just happens to be in the form of an online retailer. This was illuminated to the class as Ankit recounted a story from the prior year.

For Holstee, Black Friday typically accounts for 10-15% of their annual revenue, but they began realizing the hustle around driving consumerism on that day was exactly the opposite of the mission they’d set out to achieve. As a reaction, Holstee shut down their on-line store for the day, blocking it with a note kindly reminding their customers of the real purpose of the holidays, and that they would always be there to supply them with high-quality goods. Thus, the concept of #BlockFriday was born. This year, Holstee, in partnership with a large number of other retailers, is transforming that single act into an entire movement, and the Design Gym students were there to help.

The class again walked through the 5-phase design process, but this time as owners, not students. They tackled questions like how to get retailers interested, how to make the biggest splash and how to make the deepest possible connection with their loyal customers. Often too focused for breaks, the students dove headfirst into better understanding people, the founding principle of good design. The day concluded with passionate, story driven presentations to none other than the founders of Holstee, who were delighted for a jumpstart to their new initiative. Oh, and of course a final round of beers to celebrate.

It’s exhausting to even read through the activities of the weekend, but to us it’s about much more than just providing a class to really rad students. It’s about learning through doing. It’s about connecting passionate learners with dynamic, local organizations like Holstee that are grateful for their input. It’s about getting out of our comfort zones with partners like Improvulation. It’s about joining a community who shares an interest in making big change in a people focused way.

But most importantly, it’s about getting excited to learn again. Getting excited to do what we’ve done for years, but with a new approach and therefore energy. It’s about creatively solving the world’s biggest problems.

Sounds like this is an event you would like to attend? You can learn more about our upcoming workshops and classes here.

Sketching through the Design Process

This blog post could also be titled “don’t bother taking our class on sketching”.

Some great resources on the value of doodling and sketching can be found here, in an Ignite talk given by Sunni Brown. It’s only five minutes and totally awesome.

If you want to know the basics, the DNA of drawing, take a gander at Sunni’s Visual Alphabet, here.

Another take is here, from Sunni’s collaborator Dave Gray. It’s really visual AND conceptual…and kinematic! So it’s awesome, basically. At 6:55, Dave discusses some of the finer points of perspective, including why axonometric perspective is awesome.

It’s all worth watching! if you want to put it into practice in real time, and understand how sketching evolves as your ideas evolve…well, come by and spend an evening sketching with us!

All the resources above came from our co-teacher, Ray De LaPena. For an earlier post on sketching and some other resources, go here.

Multiple Independent Discovery

Last month, one group at our Design Gym Weekend workout came up with a system to help bicyclists and car drivers know when the other is around…so they can be extra careful and avoid accidents.

The next week, a friend who had been on hand to take photos of the event, sent me the article, GM working on Wi-Fi Direct-equipped cars to detect pedestrians and cyclists.

At first I was just proud that my Design Gymmers had come up with a world class idea…just maybe a little too late! It’s common knowledge that being first to market doesn’t equal being best in market…or even the most profitable. The iPod was not the first MP3 player, after all.

But there is something deeper going on that bears noticing. Steven Johnson’s excellent book, Where good ideas come from, references the idea of multiple discovery in the first chapter. In the early 1920s, Ogburn and Thomas, two Columbia scientists, tabulated as many instances of multiple discovery as they could and found some 148 times in human history when more than one person came up with the same thing, around the same time.

Johnson goes on to tell us that the nature of good ideas is that they are often made up of bits and pieces of other ideas – ideas on your desk, ideas in the air and in conversations. Ideas are not invented out of whole cloth, but from spare parts. (do read the book, it’s awesome.)

What’s the take home here? Have more spare parts. Don’t just have one idea, have lots of ideas. And borrow liberally from the ideas around you. GE and my group of students had nearly the same set of spare parts with regards to understanding human needs and availably technology. When pressed with the same problems, they came to similar conclusions. Just as Newton and Leibniz came up with calculus at the same time, just as Darwin and Wallace came up with evolution around the same time, so GE and my students both thought it was high time cars and bikes know when they are in each other’s presence. The pieces are all there…they just had to put the pieces together!

Service Design Prototyping

For another perspective on Prototyping and where, when and how to do it, check out this summary post from Engine Service design.


Prototypes provide insight on various service aspects – from desirability and usability, to viability. They can generate deeper understanding than written descriptions or visual depictions, which don’t deal as well with the time-related and intangible aspects of services.

Service prototypes can be rudimentary, comprising of acted-out scenarios with hand-sketched screens or improvised props. Conversely, they can be detailed mock-ups of systems, props, environments, and “trained staff” – to provide more realistic and convincing experiences.


Prototypes of varying fidelity can and should be made at any and all stages of design. During the Understand and Ideate phases, simple scenarios and storyboards can help flesh out ideas and hunches as we move forward.

Service Design Blueprint


Often, we need to describe a great deal of information in a simple and easy to understand way – the forest and trees, all at once.

When designing a service with multiple touchpoints, multiple user types and an expectation that the service may change or grow over time it can be hard to encapsulate all of this information at once.

Take a look at Service Design Tools and their post on Service Design Blueprints, which has some helpful examples. They can be a helpful lens for taking many types of information and making it comprehensible. A more abstract (and very clear) explanation of this tool can be found here.

Sketching across the process

CartoonistSketching is a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. And just like any skill, it’s highly personal and individual. Getting good at a few basic shapes and items can go a long way to helping you express your ideas quickly to others…and yourself! Remember, if you don’t write your ideas down, it’s like it never happened!









Take a look at this video from Luxr, about rapid sketching…and clothespin man!


Also note: Dan Roam is a great source for these skills. Buy his book! And see for yourself (here) how simple pictures can tell a great story.

Practice Noticing

The truth of the matter is that the Examine and Understand Phases are going on all the time for creative people…and it starts with Noticing. Noticing a problem that no one has solved, noticing a solution for one type of problem that might be great in another situation. Noticing something unusual.

You can practice noticing. Take a look at this article by Steve Portigal & Dan Soltzberg:


This process of noticing once and then noticing again is how you start finding patterns and uncovering themes. For example, in the throbbing Shibuya skyline we noticed enormous video billboards for a new album by Ayumi Hamasaki (who we’d obviously never heard of). Then we saw trucks driving through the streets with billboards on the side promoting the same album. A few days later we passed the stadium and there was a huge crowd going to see her in concert. And along the street were dozens of vans that Ayumi Hamasaki fans had customized with pictures of her face. It’s not that we wouldn’t have walked past all these things, but that the activity of noticing the first one, and documenting it, meant that I was ready to notice and document the second, and beyond. So when we saw the concert crowd and the vans, we were able to connect it: “Oh, this is the performer that we’ve been seeing all the ads for.” This process of trying to figure out what’s going on in a new place, of finding and understanding patterns and themes, is exactly what we do in our user research.

In Design Gym language, you’re iteratively doing an Examine and Understand Phase, as you refine your “buckets” of information and experience. What you’ve seen before becomes a lens for what you see next…in fact, can *enable* you to see what is next. To go a bit deeper, take a look at this summary post from Steve Portigal. Once your noticing muscles are strong,you never know what you’ll start noticing.

Measuring Well-Being

I just saw this bubble up on twitter! If you want to know more about how to dig into more intangible emotions and human physiological states, take a read through Measuring Well-being. It’s a free PDF download and has some helpful tricks and guideposts.

according to their site, the handbook provides:

  • Tools for thinking about well-being and its measurement. These will help to ensure that when you measure people’s well-being, you do so from an informed position. Part I of this handbook is Understanding Well-being.
  • Part II describes our recommended practical tools for measuring well-being: this will help you to get measuring!

The Power of Bad Ideas

If you hang around me for more than a few hours, you’ll discover that I’m into Steve Portigal. Google him, read lots of his stuff, go to his talks.

This article in Core77 is a great snippet of how ideation shouldn’t be hedged in by constraints TOO early. constraints can be a filter later on, but in a first pass at least, you should “go there” wherever “there” is – where the ideas take you. Decide later if they’re good or bad.

A teacher of mine in school liked to tell a story about Noguchi. He had a cabinet filled with tiny sketches of sculptures. When a client would come to him for a commission, he would often reach behind his desk, go into the cabinet, and show them the sketch. That is what they would get…but 20 feet tall. The ideas were there, waiting for the right time. So don’t stop the flow too early…you never know when that bad idea will find it’s right time.


Remember: I’m not bad I’m just drawn that way – Jessica Rabbit

What do Prototypes Prototype?

Read this article about prototypes. I found that it gave me a great framework to view my own prototyping through. What I love about the concepts laid out in this article is that even sketches, story flows and user journeys become prototypes. When what you’re designing is an experience, anything that helps you get resolution on that experience is a prototyping tool.

Using the diagrams and examples in this article, your team should be able to get resolution on what types of prototypes you want to make…and when you communicate the type of prototype when getting feedback, it can help you get more accurate responses – responses appropriate to your prototypes intent.