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Growing Up in 2016

One of our peer advisors told us once that the early years of childhood can often be used as a good metaphor for a new business or startup. An age when every year brings new experiences, unlike any you’ve had before. The years when you start to understand very clearly what family looks like—who around you most contributes to your well being, happiness and safety. The years when your instincts are put to the test, becoming acutely aware of the sustenance that keeps you moving, and the shelter that keeps you safe. They say that in these first few years of life, your brain is firing more synapses and capturing more information than you’ll capture in the rest of your life. This metaphor has never felt more accurate.

Next year, we’ll be celebrating our 5-year anniversary since running our very first design thinking workshop in Brooklyn. Our first 2.5 years, we felt as if we were simply born into the world. We started to develop a personality, we made people laugh, we learned what felt good and what to avoid. We captured every piece of data we could find, soaking in the world around us with the widest eyes we could muster, because we could—because the world was so interesting we couldn’t bear not to taste it all. Then we hit 3, when we learned to walk—rolling our fun side project into an actual business. We learned how to feed ourselves, how to ask for what we wanted and how to make friends on our own. These years can feel hard in the moment, but you realize it’s just because you’re trying so many new things for the very first time. In the grand scheme, most of it feels trivial in retrospect, but it’s very clear how much stronger you are for having faced them. This period is all about building a foundation that will last you for years to come.

And that brings us to present day—nearly 5 years old. We could not feel more ready, or more excited, to be hitting what feels like a very new stage of life. A stage where we no longer marvel at having a voice, but spend our time exploring where we might use that voice to make the biggest impact. A stage of life where we no longer just have playdates with friends, but come together with those we admire to build something meaningful—the grand scale equivalents of ambitious lemonade ventures and audacious tree houses. And finally, a stage where we don’t just accept family as a support system, but we actively work to cultivate, develop and give back to that family—the people at the center of what we do and define who we are.

Yes, we are excited for 2017. Excited for bold risks. Excited for playful adventure. Excited for deepening existing relationships and building new ones. Excited for diverse collaboration. Excited for what’s to come.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being with us every step of the way and for helping us grow up. You’re the reason we get up each and every day, and there’s no other place we’d rather be.

Here’s to a New Year,
The Design Gym Team


Our Favorite Moments from 2016

1,116 change makers getting their hands dirty in 64 public classes.



3 amazing panels, 1 Industry Night dinner and 1 Collective Conscious event for peer listening around the election.



26 client projects across 20 amazing organization (including our first car client for you Mad Men fans, and our first 800+ person audience).



3 new team members (welcome Jason Cha, Erin, and Jane!), 15 Lead Trainers, 3 new TDG babies and a brand new 30-person home for us all to play in.



4 surfing trips, 1 skateboarding lesson, a virtual reality roller-coaster and an unknown quantity of tacos during ‘Field Trip Friday’ team days (focused on learning, bonding and overeating).



And, a candy cane in a pine tree (we couldn’t get the partridge or the pear tree).



What Color is Your Pen?

Black, Yellow, Red Pen People: Which one are you?


In his book, The Back of the Napkin: How to Solve Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, Dan Roam uses different colored pens to symbolize or represent an individual’s comfort level with sketching. “Black Pen People” are take-charge types who can take a marker and jump right in sketching on a whiteboard or flipchart. “Yellow Pen or Highlighter People” are adept at looking at other people’s sketches and finding insights and connections that make ideas come to life. If you often say “I can’t draw BUT…” you’re probably a Yellow Pen person. Lastly, “Red Pen People” are deathly afraid of having to step up and scribble ideas in public.


So which pen are you?

We use the “Which Pen Are You?” question at the start of sketching workshops to help gauge comfort levels in the room and set expectations for the night.

While getting people to admit to a certain comfort (or discomfort) level is one way to breakdown the barriers to sketching. Here are a few other things to keep in mind to help yourself, your teammates and your entire organization embrace sketching as a practice:

1. Close enough is good enough in sketching.

Sketching is about creating new ideas, capturing other people’s thoughts, solving problems and communicating ideas more effectively with others. It’s not about art. You don’t need an art degree to be proficient at working at a flipchart or whiteboard. Most of the time you’ll be drawing boxes, circles, lines and arrows anyway to get your point across. So it’s not important that your sketch of a building or giraffe look EXACTLY like a building or a giraffe. Close enough is definitely good enough.


2. Fast and loose wins the day.

Two basic skills in sketching you need to hone are active listening and quick sketching. #HearSomethingDrawSomething. Once you develop an understanding of the basic sketching vocabulary (i.e. circles, squares, triangles, arrows and simple icons), you can work quickly and with greater confidence and ease. Getting an idea down is what you’re after. And, as with most things, with plenty of practice you’ll become better and better at this.


3. Generate a variety of ideas quickly.

When you’re not trying to be perfect, you’re free to generate lots of ideas rapidly. Rather than spending too much time finessing an early idea, sketching enables your team to explore different territories, push past surface ideas and allows you to get deeper concepts out of your head faster. There’s no better way than sketching to get the ideas in the back of your brain to the front of the room.


4. Weed out the weak ideas or non-ideas.

Sketching is a great early detection system for ideas. It’s easier to tell how “doable” a potential idea is once you’ve sketched out its basic framework and uncovered its components. Sketching out an idea makes it more tangible and real for people, and therefore makes it easy to qualify the idea or identify if it’s worth pursuing. Doing this early in the process helps your team avoid wasting valuable time working on a “non-idea.”  Many times in our brand design sprints, we eliminate ideas that people love initially but realize there “isn’t a there there” once we had a chance to see it on paper.


5. Sketches invite discussion.

When a “fully baked” idea is shared, it is often with the intention of selling in order to get buy-in to move it forward. But when an idea is shared early and in sketch form, feedback is not only more useful at that phase in the project, but the rest of the team feels that they contributed to the idea and are more likely to be champions in bringing it to life. We often say that design thinking is a team sport, and sketching is a great way to get everyone on the same page (literally) and collaborating together.


6. Sketching is the oil in the design thinking engine.

When everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas and be a part of the design process, people tend to be more collaborative and productive when sketching is a central activity. When you make paper and markers a part of the discussion, people are more engaged, big ideas materialize more rapidly and participants spend less time “selling their ideas” which can sap a group’s energy and patience.

Sketching also helps democratize the ideation process. It’s a great equalizer. When you have multiple roles and experience levels collaborating together, getting everyone to draw an idea and put it on the wall gives everyone a voice in the conversation.


7. There’s data behind those doodles.

There’s compelling data going around that supports the growing popularity of visual thinking and sketching. According to IBM, 90% of all data in the world was created in the last two years. 90% of all data on the internet is visual, this according to Cisco. Lastly, Entertainment Weekly claims that seven out of the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon recently were coloring books for adults—its fastest growing segment.

So there it is. A few things to consider about using visuals and why building a sketching mentality within an organization is a good idea. From a culture standpoint, sketching is a great way to engage people, bridge language or expertise barriers, and enable teams to turn meetings into visual conversations. Getting better at sketching is also a great way to make sure that you’re a part of those conversations.

Interested in learning more? Join us for an upcoming sketching workshop.

Gary Kopervas is VP Brand Strategy and Innovation at 20nine, a creative branding agency, and a TDG Lead Trainer. You can contact Gary at Gary@20nine.com or tweet him at @GaryKope.

Facilitation Skills: They’re Not Just for the Boardroom

By: Molly Sonsteng

I spend a lot of time in groups of all different sizes—from as small as three or as big as 1,000. When you’re running the show for any sized group, you need to have the right tools to keep the show going. I know a few, but was on the hunt for more.

Enter The Design Gym’s Facilitation Bootcamp.

After taking a few workshops with The Design Gym in the past, I knew I’d walk away armed with the kind of skills I’d been looking for. I was especially curious to learn how to employ facilitation techniques outside of a traditional work environment.

I’m an event producer who designs highly unique experiences. I host and produce events that encourage grown-ups to seek their own individual way of play and creativity. An average week consists of producing a variety show, hosting inconspicuous games played in high traffic landmarks like the Met or Grand Central, producing early morning sober dance parties, or designing one-on-one immersive dates for couples. In each of these organized events, I work with clients or party-goers in ways that require me to maintain group alignment and happiness so that we’re able to reach the project’s objective. I signed up for The Design Gym’s Facilitation Bootcamp not only to gain a better understanding of the basics, but to also fish out the key pieces that would be most beneficial to my own work. As expected, much of what I learned can be applied to many areas of life…not just the boardroom.

The Facilitation Journey

facilitationbootcamp001As with any TDG workshop, the day was wonderfully executed. Two talented trainers (Hannah & Kiely) led us on a journey filled with conversation, practice activities and self-reflection. We covered many basics and best practices for great facilitation, including facilitator roles, different modes of thinking, planning and preparation, and how to intervene when a group is off track.

What set this workshop apart, though, was how the trainers presented the information in various ways to accommodate diverse learning styles. While I benefit from visual presentations, another might prefer to learn through metaphor. Each new topic was taught in unique and engaging ways allowing every member of the group to fully digest the information.

The most productive moments of the day had us putting the work into action. For example, after we learned about the ORID Discussion Method—a tool that helps facilitators lead focused and structured conversations—we then practiced using it. Towards the end of the bootcamp, we were able to leverage all the tools we had learned—including ORID—to successfully lead simulation conversations in a variety of group settings.

Those Moments that Make You Go Ah-ha

While the majority of the material was valuable to me in my role as a producer, there were, of course, a few significant ah-ha moments.

Beware of your tendencies

According to TDG, facilitators tend to fall into one of three main tendencies, each of which leaves out one of the 3 necessary elements of successful group facilitation:

  • The Mercenary focuses on outcome & facilitator, leaving out the group
  • The Fun Guy focuses on group & facilitator, leaving out the outcome
  • The Pleaser focuses on group & outcome, leaving out the facilitator

I immediately resonated with The Fun Guy. As a trained entertainer, I tend to operate with lighthearted humor and charm when working with new groups: get them laughing, set the group at ease, make friends with the participants. I often forget to consider, however, the outcome. I’ve long been aware of my tendency to entertain, but I hadn’t fully put it into context that I was missing a crucial component of facilitation. Without planning for the outcome, what really then is the point of playing the role of facilitator?

“Think, Pair, Share.”

One of most meaningful moments from the bootcamp was the simple concept called Think, Pair, Share. As a facilitator, it’s crucial to observe the contribution styles of the group: introverts, extroverts, solo thinkers, over-sharers, etc.

Think, Pair, Share allows all participants in the group to contribute in a purposeful way. It’s a simple concept, really. When presenting the group with a challenge or discussion topic, first offer the participants the opportunity to think on the topic alone. Next, ask participants to discuss their notes in pairs. After a few points have been established among the pair, the larger group reunites and each pair can then share their discoveries. This activity caters to a variety of people by offering three ways to contribute. It gives a voice to those who might be more internally driven and allows for those who like the spotlight to share on behalf of their smaller group. It’s a tool that any facilitator can quickly and easily have in their back pocket and pull out when needed.


This is a huge one for me. I’ve long suffered from the notion that I need to do it all. Many of my projects have lost momentum due to my needing to “figure it all out.” I’m finally able to accept the fact that I absolutely should not be an expert at all things. I am not a designer. Delegate. I am not a developer. Delegate. I am not a chef. Delegate.

Since taking on this attitude, my projects are finally thriving and I can focus on doing what I do best. The same is true in facilitation. A facilitator doesn’t have to do it all! Do you struggle writing legibly for large groups to see? Empower a participant to write for you. Find yourself running out of time at the end of the meeting? Ask someone to be the official time keeper. There are countless ways in which to delegate while facilitating. Not only does it make your job easier, it also engages a deeper sense of participation from the group.

Respect time boundaries…within reason

I’m a stickler for time boundaries, occasionally to a fault. Start on time, end on time. I learned, though, that time boundaries can be flexible, if you consult the group. While start and end times are pretty crucial, the timing of individual sessions can be more fluid. If the group is still wonderfully engaged in a particular activity right before a break, for example, consult the group. Give the option of breaking in 10 minutes rather than ending the session abruptly. By simply offering 10 more minutes, you could be allowing for a meaningful breakthrough to occur. So yes, while time boundaries are incredibly important, it’s equally important to consider the flow of the session and practice flexibility.

Applying the Tools

facilitationbootcamp002The most significant takeaway was realizing how truly valuable facilitation skills are for everyday life. As a producer and artist, I rarely find myself in the conference room needing to facilitate formal meetings. That said, I now have a clear vision of how I can apply these skills to the unique work I do, whether that be in one-on-one client meetings, designing productions with new collaborators or engaging an audience.

One fairly straightforward action item combines two of my ah-ha moments: delegation and time boundaries. I host a variety show that must run on time in order to comply with the venue. Performers, however, often abuse the allotted time meaning the show runs over. This is no one’s fault but my own! A simple trick I learned from the bootcamp was to simply hold up a card displaying when one or two minutes remain. Yes, this is obvious, but I hadn’t been doing it. For all upcoming shows, I plan to enlist a trusted audience member to be the official time keeper so I can focus on supporting the acts and stop nervously watching the time tick away.

I snapped this image as the bootcamp wrapped up. I didn’t write the note, “willing to evolve,” but it stuck with me. I loved its simplicity. It’s a wonderful intention when entering into any kind of training or learning environment. I also could not get enough of the trinkets on every table! 😁


About Molly:

TDG community member, Molly Sonsteng recently took our Facilitation Bootcamp and, lucky for us, she agreed to share her experiences from the full-day workshop on our blog! Molly has a passion for advancing play in everyday life. She is the founder of Madcap Factory, a production house that designs experiences and products, encouraging adults to embrace the absurd. A few of her projects include a variety show for first time performers, inconspicuous field games played in popular landmarks, and alter ego coaching for couples. Additionally, she is an NYC Producer of Daybreaker, the early morning dance movement. You can find her winking or doing cartwheels down the street.



Design Thinking for the Next Generation

Design thinking is frequently leveraged as a tool for work—you learn the skills and apply them to your job, your projects and, ultimately, your organization. And it’s absolutely great for that! But what if building the skills and mindsets of design thinking could be used for a greater purpose than just creatively solving problems at work?

Working with the Jeannette K. Watson Fellows from the Watson Foundation provided just that opportunity.

Getting to Know the Watson Foundation


So what is the Watson Foundation? It’s one of those organizations that helps boost your faith in humanity’s future. Created by the family of former IBM CEO Thomas Watson, the Watson Foundation has spent nearly half a century helping develop the next generation of humane and effective leaders—and they’re awfully good at it. Among the ranks of Watson Fellows are Oscar-nominated and Tony- and Emmy-winning director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, Frida, Across the Universe, and more), US Ambassador to Uganda and Burkina Faso and Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Jimmy J. Kolker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist Kai Bird, and… you get the idea. The Watson Foundation turns out folks that change the world for the better.

They offer two fellowship programs: The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. For this project, we specifically worked with the latter. The Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship is a 3-year program for undergraduate students in New York City that offers internships, cultural events and seminars to help students develop their personal and professional potential and expand their vision.

Fresh Ideas For The Freshman 15

So where exactly did we fit in? Well, during their second year, the fellows are tasked with identifying a need in their community and creating and testing solutions—just the kind of project that can use a little creativity! And we got to help them work through their project by teaching them some methods, mindsets and skills of design thinking.

We did that by walking the fellows’ through a shared challenge brief: how can we create a culture of optimal health and wellness on university campuses. As many of us know, college is not necessarily the most healthy period of your life and all of those motivational posters in the dorms turn out to be pretty ineffective. In other words, this brief was no walk in the park and the Fellows were going to need all the creativity they could muster.

So, they spent three days building their design thinking skills and digging up ways to make college campuses healthier. They got out into the field to interview mental health experts and students to learn about the challenges of university life. They also got to test their prototypes and solutions on other students. Basically, they worked through the whole design thinking process to find solutions for this tough problem.

“People do steps from design thinking naturally, but I like that we have a framework now with the whole process that’s been proven to be effective.” – Sarah Franco, JK Watson Fellow, Class of 2017

Design Thinking As A Life Skill

Figuring out how to make universities healthier is a noble goal and the fellows did an amazing job. But the really impressive outcome wasn’t finding ways to fight the Freshman 15—it was the way these students approached learning about design thinking from the get-go.

Lots of people take on design thinking as a process for creatively solving problems within their organization. Students, on the other hand, fall outside the context of a particular job or set of organizational goals. That allows them to learn and leverage design thinking in a different way. Without the constraints of the work setting, they have the space to focus on the principles, attitudes and mindsets of design thinking—not just the process. Coming at it from that direction means the skills are easier to integrate into your day-to-day life—you can apply them all the time without consciously going through the design thinking process. It just becomes part of the way you think!

Of course, none of this is to say that the process isn’t important—it is, and it’s part of what the fellows learned. The exciting thing was that when they had the freedom to really focus on the specific skills of design thinking, the process came to them naturally.


It’s Never Too Early To Start Design Thinking

It was incredible to have the opportunity to work with these bright, motivated fellows and see the impact of an open approach to learning design thinking. Sara Nolfo, Program Manager of the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship, thought it was a great experience for these gifted students. “The Design Gym facilitated an engaging program that got our fellows thinking and solving problems in ways they didn’t expect. Afterwards they told us they used the process at their internships with great success, getting their supervisors and coworkers involved as well. They also applied what they learned in a great brainstorm session that helped them reflect on their future postgraduate goals and plans, one of the most difficult problems many of us face: What am I going to do in my life?”

We’re proud to have that kind of feedback and at the end of the day, we learned as much from them as they did from us. These fellows will go on to do great things and we can’t wait to see what they do with their new skills!



Leveraging Design Thinking to Launch a Business

By: Jess Do

Starting a business is like most endeavors in life—if you reflect and incorporate lessons as you go, it can be a lot easier to move forward and even find some success.


Listen to this smart man! This absolutely applies to businesses.

My entrepreneurial project is Palmpress, a personal craft coffee press for hot and cold brew coffee. And I’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons, but one in particular stands out: success comes from learning as much as you can about people as quickly as possible. Our first job is to understand. Once I realized this, the next steps became clearer, decisions became easier and progress came faster.

This is a story (a slice of, rather) of what the path to launching my business—and learning all about my customers—looked like. It’s rooted in design thinking because design thinking is rooted in understanding.

Ideation: Stretching Your Brain

Every business starts as an idea. If you’re like me, you love thinking of ideas for products and services, and you get them all the time. But most of these ideas fade. Maybe the passion isn’t there, it feels like it’s way beyond your experience and resources, or it’s already being done. So how do you get an idea that sticks?

For me, the key was starting with a theme that intrigued me—how to make our mornings better (this doesn’t have to become the premise for your business, just a prompt to get you thinking). I’m not a morning person so I started thinking about my morning routine and jotting down scattered thoughts and ideas, quick, quick, quick. Eventually, I got to the coffee part.

Brain dump.

Brain dump.

I get really excited about coffee. A few years ago I started making really good coffee for myself, and now my daily, late-morning cup is such a treat. I had tried many coffee brewers and experienced my fair share of annoyances—things like waste, toxins, clunkiness, bad aesthetics, inaccessibility… I wrote all of those thoughts down. Then I brainstormed solutions, including a compressible thingamajig that made bomb coffee without it contacting plastic, and was entirely reusable and beautifully designed. And so the concept of the Palmpress was born from a brainstorm. It wasn’t a business idea yet, but it was a starting point.

That process of going from nothing to an idea with legs takes practice. In workshops with The Design Gym we worked on just that. I learned to start with a hunch and quantity over quality of thoughts, which stops you from overthinking and gives you a much wider range of ideas to work with. I learned to then build upon and edit those thoughts until something compelling bubbled to the top, something that could make sense for me to tackle! If nothing stuck, I’d do some exploration to get inspired or revisit brainstorming another day.

Examining and Understanding: Building a Business Case

Once I had my idea, I wanted to find out whether or not it was viable and how it could fit in the marketplace. So, it was time to leverage the Examine and Understand phases of design thinking—two phases that lay the groundwork for a customer-focused offering or business.

If you’ve looked into the design thinking phases, you may notice that I talked about ideating before researching. That’s okay because design is not a linear process. It’s often initially taught in a linear way to make it digestible, but with enough practice, all the concepts slowly start to become permanently cached in your brain and can be called upon whenever needed.

During the Examine and Understand phases, I leveraged a variety of tools—the following are three that I found extremely helpful.

Tool 1: Tip-toeing in with Reviews and Forums

I’ve never invented, built a business model around, and manufactured a physical product before. When people ask me how I went about figuring things out, I tell them I googled. A lot. It’s the simplest answer I can give. We are so lucky to be able to research anything we want, whenever we want. This includes important competitor and industry research. No matter how unique your idea is, you always want to know the different options currently on the market, the trends in the industry, and where you could fit in.

Here’s what’s incredible—tons of raw user feedback has already been nicely typed up for you to digest at your leisure over a pamplemousse LaCroix. It’s in the form of Amazon reviews, forum discussions, blog post comments, and the like! You literally can read what customers are saying about your space and your competitors—what they love, what they hate, what questions they have, even what they wish were different. Do you hear this?! Users are telling you how you could provide unique value to them!

I began to understand the pros and cons of other coffeemakers without ever having to buy one. I saw that people commonly asked about the materials of coffeemakers. I saw how people reacted to different types of coffee filters. I collected so much information to work off of on day one of examining!

So browse those reviews, scour (and even participate in) those forums, and take note of those comments. Copy and paste any interesting data into a Google doc—or for design thinking points (and fun points), jot info onto post-it notes so that it’s easy to sort and visualize later. Then use sorting techniques—like cluster and label, quadrant/axis and venn diagram—to connect some dots and gain insights.

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much :)

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much 🙂

Tool 2: Talk to People! Conduct Surveys

Online surveys are something so simple and so valuable, yet totally underutilized! But I’m telling you, seeing feedback magically appear into a nice spreadsheet is as fun as getting likes and comments on your Insta post. I put together a simple Google form with non-leading questions and accompanying images—including an early rendering of the Palmpress with a scrappy how-to diagram (remember, prototypes come in all shapes and sizes). I sent out the survey to my friends and then asked them to share it with people who didn’t know me.

When the results came in, I started digging for trends and insights. This was great practice in receiving feedback neutrally. There were people who weren’t feeling the early rendering of the Palmpress, and some even hated it. But that was okay, because a significant amount of people were enthusiastic about Palmpress, saying things like “I so want this.” I filtered for enthusiastic feedback and found that those people tended to share certain qualities, such as age range, their perceptions of existing coffee brewers, and what they appreciated and disliked. I was learning what drew them to Palmpress, how much they might pay, and what information they needed to actually get on board. My early adopter was materializing. And I had a good sense of my “anti-customer”—the people who simply weren’t going to be interested in this kind of product.


I was analyzing the feedback and learning things left and right. This early, scrappy research led me to begin identifying a positioning for Palmpress. Positioning is how you’re perceived, your angle, what you lead with, whether it be low-cost, high quality, excellent service, super portable, extremely convenient, eco-friendy, luxurious, masculine, healthy, philanthropic, for this type of person, for that type of person, for harmonica-playing dog walkers—whatever it is, you cannot and should not be everything to everybody or even close. Start with one thing to hang your hat on, and it will push you to think differently, intentionally, and thoughtfully rather than scattered and diluted. And you can always broaden or edit as needed.

My first survey pointed me in a general direction. My next survey allowed me to target a much more relevant audience, and present more details about Palmpress, in order to get more accurate answers. This second survey showed an evolved prototype—a demo video and styled image.

Everything I learned about my users through surveys was used to make Palmpress better for them.

Tool 3: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Immersive Research, Observations and Interviews

I received a lot of suggestions on how to market the Palmpress. The suggestions weren’t right or wrong in and of themselves, but I reminded myself that the people giving suggestions didn’t have a deep understanding of my customer or the market. Their feedback is valuable, you just can’t take it at face value.


Here’s what I mean: figure out why people are saying what they’re saying and how it actually plays out in real life. I did so by using Palmpress in as many real-life scenarios as possible, being a fly on the wall, and interviewing.

For example, some people suggested that work/office and on-the-go use would be a leading application for Palmpress, one reason being it’s obviously very compact. So, I visited six different offices to learn about their coffee game. One thing I observed was that while some offices were equipped to the nines, some didn’t even have a sink or water source that gets hot enough for coffee. I also realized similar things with hotel rooms when I traveled, although I must say that Palmpress is super easy to travel with. On another trip I brought Palmpress to my friends’ apartment and we palmpressed coffee using fresh grounds from their local coffee shop—they LOVED the coffee, saw how much better it tasted than usual, and even made an extra cup to save in the fridge before I left.

I also brought Palmpress to the Caribbean with me on vacation. I made coffee with beans that I had packed, but realized something tasted off. I was baffled for a while before realizing the water there tasted really, really different, and it was the main ingredient in my coffee! I learned so many things that I could’ve easily missed had I not immersed Palmpress into a bunch of day-to-day scenarios.

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity striked. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity arose. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Another suggestion was that Palmpress could target coffee snobs. However, after conducting interviews and visiting homes to learn about coffee habits, I found that most of my audience was pretty unfamiliar with making craft coffee. When they had time, they’d make themselves coffee with a coffee machine or perhaps a French press. When in a rush, they’d stop to pick it up or drink free office coffee. They weren’t coffee snobs, just coffee lovers. And that led to another key insight—Palmpress may be attractive to coffee snobs, but marketing to coffee snobs might actually alienate my early adoptor!

Putting all of that together, I concluded that outside of home my audience would not likely go out of their way to brew their own coffee. It’s just not practical with unknown factors and alternative options, and therefore Palmpress should not lead with things like “on the go.” And to learn all this I had to go straight to the source—the people who would actually be using Palmpress. At this point, I was forming a good idea of what my audience cared about and the simple value they could derive from Palmpress—superb coffee, made by you. And where you decide to make it is not so important as long as it suits you.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Showing Up and Doing

Here’s the beautiful thing. Because you’ve done so much discovery, you’ve formed a meaningful story that you can tell to others—be it investors, media outlets, or colleagues. This is a framework I like that I’ve adopted from The Design Gym and Ariel Raz of Stanford d.School:

We had a hunch that ______. So we researched by _______. We were surprised to learn that _________. So it’d be a game-changer to _________.

You now have the workings of a business case, a position to take, some fluency in the market, tools for research and brainstorming, and data to fuel your prototypes. Now, it’s about showing up and doing—yes, that’s the grand finale! Be a practitioner. Learn as much as you can about people, and then do something about it.


About Jess Do:

We’re stoked that long-time TDG community member, Jess Do was able to contribute a blog post this week on how she’s leveraged design thinking thus far in her entrepreneurial journey. Jess is a product entrepreneur with a background in finance and project management. From trading platforms to local communities, she’s been building things her whole life, most recently the Palmpress coffee press.



The Future of Work: How to Optimize Your Organization for Innovation

Innovation is one of the hottest topics in how organizations are thinking about the future. Executives view it as the Holy Grail to their organization’s success. Managers are seeking effective ways to implement it. And teams are wondering how to balance it with getting shit done.

So while it’s really easy to say to your work force, “Go forth and innovate!” what does that even mean for your current culture? How is innovation defined? What does it look like? And how do you optimize an organization for it?

To help our community consider answers to these questions, we sat down with a killer lineup of organizational development leaders to discuss just that—The Future of Work: How to Optimize Your Organization for Innovation. Joining us on the panel were:

  • Lucy Blair Chung, Head of People & Organizational Development, Rag & Bone
  • Miles Begin, Co-founder, The Design Gym & Director of Product Design, Canary
  • Mike Arauz, Founder, August
  • Johnathan Basker, Founder, Basker & Co


These creative leaders have helped lead the charge towards creating organizations that foster and support innovation across a wide variety of industries. They’ve helped figure out what innovation means to their organizations, where it’s most valuable, and how they make it a part of their team’s everyday operations. Here’s a recap of their awesome insights and war stories.

Defining Innovation for Your Organization

“Innovation” can be a tricky (buzz)word to define. The first step for any organization to become more innovative is to clearly define what innovation means in the context of their business, culture, and current processes.

As Miles explained, “Language can trigger a reaction because it has cultural baggage to it. If I tell everyone in this room to imagine a tree, not everyone will imagine the same tree.” It’s the same with the word “innovation.” Even among four like-minded individuals, there was no absolute agreement on how to define the word—which appropriately highlights why it can be so hard to apply it to an organization.

Jonathan described two types of innovation. “One is proactive or offensive, and the other is reactionary or defensive.” Innovation can be responding to a problem, like downward trending sales. Or, it could be creating a new product based off listening to customer’s feedback.

Lucy, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily agree that innovation could be defensive. “Innovative assumes there’s a baseline that you are reacting to,” stated Lucy. “You’re setting up for a future state.” Reactionary implies that you are a “trend-follower,” and therefore, not an innovator.

Mike spoke to the responsive nature of innovation. “Innovation is sensing and adapting,” explained Mike. “You have to put something out in the world first so that you can learn what happens.”


It’s ok for there to be various definitions of innovation. But to Miles’ point earlier, what’s key is that you develop a common understanding of what innovation looks like for your organization—and that needs to come from within, with senior leadership on board and championing it from the top.

Designing an Environment that Encourages Innovation

After you have a clear definition, it’s time to optimize for it. For an organization, that means designing an environment that encourages innovation.

Create a structure: Mike stressed the importance of creating a structure for innovation to exist. “Think of innovation as everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s work,” explained Mike. You have to empower each individual team member to think about how to improve upon their day-to-day work. But, there still has to be the ability to try something out and evaluate the results. And in order to do that, a team needs time and space to step back and reflect. “One of the things we do at August is structure our work in four week cycles. Every four weeks, we take one week to reflect on what we need to do.”

Ensure effective management: Making improvements, in large organizations, often requires the work of many people in many departments. A good manager should be able to prioritize for their team and clearly state what you and your employees are responsible for. Make sure roles are clearly defined and everyone is aware of them, suggested Mike. Prioritizing clear, achievable goals empowers your staff to use their creativity to meet them. And, by writing down who’s responsible for it, you create accountability.

“Ask your manager ‘what do you want me working on?’ If they can’t give you four things, they have a prioritization problem.” advised Lucy. “What’s more important are leaders who make the time for creativity and strategy.” She continued to explain how this approach worked for Rag & Bone. “At Rag & Bone, our stores are a huge part of our brand. We decided to institutionalize the esthetic as a core competency.” Rag & Bone invested in a team that focuses solely on the design of retail stores, and that team is actually bigger than the apparel team.

Build Empathy and Create trust: In order to create lasting change, start with yourself, especially if you’re at the top. “As a leader, you should always be the one to create that trust. Your people shouldn’t feel that gap in the first place,” added Lucy. If you want to empower people to take risks, you can’t let them feel afraid to fail.

Mike recommended using InsideOut’s coaching method to solicit feedback from teams within your organization to better understand what’s important to them to guide positive and productive conversations. The three key questions to ask are:

  • What’s working?
  • Where are we getting stuck?
  • What might we do differently?


The Future of Your Organization

These organizational leaders have been in the trenches and know what it takes to create a culture of innovation. Their tips are a great place to start if you’re looking to do the same. That means defining innovation for your organization—and making sure the leadership is bought in. It also means spreading that spirit of innovation throughout the organization and making it part of your day-to-day operations. And of course, doing it all with empathy—listening to your team and your users to make sure you’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems. That kind of encouraging, open environment is the foundation needed to change how your organization works in the future, which is actually now!

Go forth and innovate 😉



How to Design Think One of the Toughest Challenges out There—Your Personal Life

By Gabrielle Santa-Donato

Designers use tools and frameworks to make sense of things that people might otherwise agonize over—tackling wicked problems that lack a set solution and have a tendency to change or evolve while you’re solving them. Turns out life frequently classifies as one of those wicked problems.

At the Life Design Lab at Stanford, we use ideas, tools, and mindsets to visualize future possibilities and help students of all ages navigate their way forward. Here are a few of those ideas, tools, and mindsets that I’ve used working with everyone from a timid college freshman to my ready-to-retire-but-can’t-yet dad.

Considering Coherence

Start by articulating your view of the world and your view of work, using prompts like: “Why do we exist? Why do I exist? Why do we work? Why do I work?” After writing out your worldview and workview, look for Coherence. Coherence is when you are able to make sense of the connection between who you are, what you do, and what you believe all. Coherence leads to a greater sense of well-being.

Locating yourself

Designers love frameworks, and nothing beats the classic two by two. Consider the kind of roles that you’ve had in the past and the roles you desire for the future. Map these roles against the degree of change in the world you’ll create and by how closely you’ll interact or could interact with the people who will be affected by your work. You might be more fulfilled on the front lines affecting few or systemically affecting millions—and it’s good to reflect on where the different roles you’ve played (especially in your professional life) land.


Harnessing Strengths

Consider your competencies and use them! At the Life Design Lab, we really like using Gallup’s StrengthsQuest as a tool for identifying personal strengths and competencies. While not free, the $10 cost is well worth it—Gallup has an immense amount of data to work with. There are absolutely tons of self-help and discernment tests out there, and if you want to explore some free ones, I would recommend the UPenn Authentic Happiness Lab’s Tests, particularly the “VIA Survey for Character Strengths.”

Not a big fan of tests? Don’t worry, you don’t have to take one to be able to identify and harness your strengths. Instead, try to attend to and reflect on what you’re doing when time completely disappears and you’re fully immersed.

Building Attentive Practices

In order to make decisions and move forward, you must be attentive. It’s a real skill to know when you know something—build up attentive practices to get to know your gut (often referred to as emotional intelligence!). Attentive practices can range from having a gratitude journal to running.

Using Design Mindsets, Especially the Reframe

Design mindsets are these powerful ways of thinking and behaving that come about when we practice the design process over and over again. They are a way of acting and being. And there are a few that are particularly useful in life design. For now, I’m going to focus the mindset I believe to be most powerful, the “Reframe.”

Reframe 1

From positive psychologist Martin Seligman: There is a job, career, and a calling. We tend to think that we have to be madly in love with our job and that it must be our undying “passion” (a troublesome word to begin with, especially if you don’t know what yours is!). Instead, Seligman states that you can have a job, where you work to pay the bills, and allow yourself to have a life outside of work that is either necessary for survival or even pleasurable and not tainted by your work. Then there’s a career, where you care about your work and your growth in that place of work, but it’s not capturing your every waking thought. And then there’s a calling, where your work aligns incredibly well with your personal interests and desires. Turns out ALL of them are okay. You don’t have to be in love with your job: reframe.

Reframe 2

By way of example, positive psychology as a field is a reframe in and of itself. Psychology as a field was originally entirely based on pathology or what is wrong with people. What if we focus instead on what is right with people?

Reframe 3

There is more than one of you out there, which leads me to…

Crafting Multiple Futures and Prototyping Them

The reality is there are multiple versions of all of us out there, and instead of that being terrifying what if it was straight up liberating?

Draw out three distinctly different timelines of the next 5 years of your life. Then prototype elements of each timeline. What exactly is a prototype in life design? In product design it might be a quick and dirty paper model or a storyboard of how a user would interact with a product. In life design, it’s a conversation or an experience—hence the importance of informational interviews, the positives of networking, and the power of choosing for us all to get more data quickly on the years ahead.

Sharing and Listening for Narrative Resonance

Finally, designing your life is rarely a solo act. It’s explored in community with mentors and support. We learn a lot about ourselves both by sharing our ideas, reflections and multiple lives, and by listening to the ideas and experiences of others, determining what really resonates with us.


Our lives are continually evolving. And while planning for and creatively approaching our various phases is by no means easy, it doesn’t have to be unbearable or impossible. Luckily, the ideas, tools and mindsets of design thinking can be leveraged to help us creatively solve the largest challenge we’ll ever face—our future.

Want to practice doing it? Join me and The Design Gym on Thursday, July 14th for Desing(think)ing Your Life.


About Gabrielle Santa-Donato

As a member of The Design Gym family, we love to hit up Gaby whenever we can for golden nuggets of content. And we were stoked when she agreed to contribute a blog post on the tools and mindsets that could be leveraged to design think your life. Currently, Gaby is a fellow and lecturer at the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. She teaches courses on how to apply design thinking to the particularly tough problem of deciding what you want to be when you grow up and mashes up design thinking, mindfulness, positive psychology, career strategy, and other fields to create innovative learning experiences

Top 11 Skills of an Effective Facilitator

By: Hannah Feldberg-Dubin

Facilitating is no easy task, you’re not only responsible for securing productive participation from all the individuals in the room, but also for guiding those individuals with different personalities and work styles to a common outcome. That’s giving me sweaty palms just thinking about it.

However, the good news: there are certain skills you can work on or acquire that will help you in your journey to becoming an effective facilitator. Warning: read with caution, this list may just make you the go-to meeting leader.

1. You’re Prepared for Anything

Most skilled facilitators spend about 3 to 4 times as long preparing for a session than the amount of time they spend on giving the actual session. Teachers, especially new teachers, know this reality best. But why spend so much time preparing?

As a facilitator, it’s your job to guide a group through a process, making it easier for them to accomplish the goal at hand. Having a structure and general idea of what direction you’re going in will help you do just that. However, as we’ve all learned in life, nothing ever goes as planned! You need a plan and a back-up plan and possibly a few more plans just in case your other plans don’t work or something breaks. Having options to pull from will provide you with flexibility and allow you to change things up based on the group’s needs.

How to practice this skill? Start by scoping your facilitation preparation with at least a 2-1 investment of time. Important details that will inform your preparation and planning include:

  • The session objectives—what will success look like?
  • Does the group need to do any “pre” work before meeting?
  • How long do you have to run the session? Is the time allotted realistic to meet the goals of the session?
  • What do you know about the group in the room? What personalities and dynamics are at play?
  • What will the session space look like? How can you best prepare for this?
  • What materials do you need to achieve the meeting goals?

Facilitation, Prepared for Anything

2. You Know Who’s in the Room

While definitely connected to preparation, knowing who’s in the room is an essential skill for effective facilitation. Find out as much as you can about who will be in the room before you get there. The more you know about the group, the individual personalities and the dynamics at play, the better you’ll be able to plan for a successful session and a positive experience.

I can’t tell you how often I facilitate groups who work together but don’t actually know each other. Spending a small amount of time encouraging opportunities for a team to get to know one another always adds great value to the dynamic. I’ll frequently have a group share their motivations for why they care about the work at hand, allowing them to build commonalities and connections.

facilitation, Know Who’s in the Room

3. You’re Able to Create an Inclusive Environment

When planning your session and while you’re in the room facilitating, you need to find ways for the entire group to be on an equal playing field. Finding ways for everyone in the group to participate is a key component to getting the group to buy in and own the process—inclusivity is the name of the game.

Consider designing a session with structures and activities that appeal to different learners and personality types. It could be as simple as arranging a seating plan that is equal and fair, where everyone is on the same eye level, in a circle and with no one’s back to anyone else.

Facilitation, Inclusive Environment

 4. You Effectively Set Guidelines

As a facilitator, you need to help set a tone for the behaviors and attitudes of the session. You can think about these guidelines yourself or you can simply ask the group what behaviors and attitudes will help them get the most out of the experience.

Try to push for concrete ideas and clear guidelines. If someone says “be respectful,” ask them what respect would look like and how we would all know if we saw it. This is also a good time to talk about focus—especially cell phone etiquette—and ways to manage distractions that might pull the meeting off track.

You’ll need to get agreement from the group that they’re all on board with the guidelines. I usually just ask the group directly. If you get head nods, you’re good to go! And you can always return to your guidelines to make sure you’re still on track or to edit them to make them fit the group’s needs better.

Facilitation, Set Guidelines

5. You’ve Mastered the Art of Giving Clear Instructions

So much of facilitating is asking a group of people to accomplish a task—and that’s a whole lot easier with good instructions.

For example, think of a simple ‘get to know you’ activity at the beginning of a session. You want everyone to turn to the person beside them and share something interesting about him or herself, then share that info with the larger group. When planning out the instructions, you might address details like:

  1. How you want people to present this information to the group
  2. What topics of conversation you want them to cover
  3. Whether you want them to take notes
  4. How much time they’ll have for this activity

Clear instructions make it easier for your group to get to the outcome you’re looking for. As a mom, I often think about this in the way I give my son directions (not to say the groups you work with are childish!). It works best if I break down the steps to the activity clearly and explain what the end goal will look like.

Some easy ways to do that include having the directions pre-written on flip chart paper or a powerpoint slide and asking the group the repeat the steps back to you to make sure everyone understands the activity.

Facilitation, Clear Instructions

6. Active Listening Is a Favorite Workout

In an effective group session, everyone will walk out aligned—on the same page and speaking the same language. To achieve that, you’ll need to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard and to hear each other. The best way to do that is to flex your active listening skills and encourage your group to do the same.

Mirroring, paraphrasing and tracking are three tools you can leverage to help you with active listening. Mirroring is when you repeat back the speaker’s words verbatim. It helps the speaker hear what they just said, shows neutrality, and can help establish trust. Remember, with mirroring you’re keeping your tone warm and accepting and you’re using the speaker’s words, not yours.

Paraphrasing, on the other hand, is a straightforward way to show the speaker and group that their thoughts were heard and understood. Paraphrasing, unlike mirroring, is when you use your own words to say what you think the speaker said, “It sounds like you’re saying… [Insert paraphrased content]. Is that what you mean?”

And lastly, tracking is when you’re keeping track of various lines of thought that are going on simultaneously within a single discussion—helping to summarize the different perspectives and show that multiple ideas are equally valid.

Facilitation, Active Listening

7. You Manage Time Like A Referee

Group activities have time limits—there are only so many hours in a day. That means you’ll need to plan out how long the different components of your session will take and how long your group will have to reach the session’s goals. There are a few different ways to keep track of time: use a watch or phone and let people know how much time is passing, use a large clock that the whole group can see, or delegate timekeeping to individuals or smaller breakout groups.

Choose a method that will let you pay attention to what’s going on in the room and allow your group to easily track the time for each task. Whatever method you choose, consider giving people warnings as the time for each activity draws to a close. You can say it out loud or hold up a sign (“2 minutes left” or “1 minute left,” for example) so you don’t need to interrupt the group’s work flow or conversation.

Facilitation, manage time

8. You’re the Facilitation Version of Mary Poppins

Maybe I’m dating myself here, but what do you know about this jack-of-all-trades magical child care worker? For one, she had a bag (well, a purse) of tricks for every situation. You need to have your own bag of tricks to help a group get to their end goal. Sometimes a group session will get off track or the plans you originally set up aren’t working out like you expected. Consider keeping a grab-bag (it doesn’t have to actually be bottomless; Mary Poppins is an aspirational goal) of activities to pull out just in case Plan A isn’t doing the trick.

I like to write down at least 3 name games, icebreakers, energizers, and team building activities and keep all the needed materials and props ready to go. I also like to have extra paper, markers, and supplies ready incase I want to change the way I was thinking about running an activity. That means I can pull something out of my bag and make it work for the group in the moment—and that flexibility is super valuable.

facilitation, mary poppins bag of tricks

9. You’re an Energy Gauger

We’re not talking about chakras and vortices here. It’s simply a fact of life that sometimes a group of people walk into a room and convey an energy—maybe it’s tired, lethargic, excited, hyper, silly, negative, shy, nervous—whatever! Sometimes you need to match the activity you have in mind with the energy of the group and sometimes you need to find ways to boost a low-energy group’s enthusiasm and excitement.

I like to keep a few energizer activities on hand that get people moving, bring energy up, focus the group, lighten the mood, and get people thinking creatively. No one does their best work when they’re feeling low or tired and a few fun activities can go a long way toward bumping the mood of the room up to a fun, productive level.

Facilitation, Energy Gauger

10. You’re Flexible and Able to Adapt on the Fly

Part of your job as a facilitator involves checking in with your group on progress and process. Think about how often they might need a break. Make a point to periodically ask how everyone is doing and whether it’s time for a break. Maybe you originally planned on taking a break in 30 minutes, but the group needs it now—so give it to them! It’s about taking care of your group to help them operate at their best.

You’ll also need to think about your agenda and whether you’re on track to accomplish everything you planned. If you’re off track, call it out—chances are they know already! “As you know, it took us longer to discuss X than we thought and now we only have 1 hour left in our meeting.” Now it’s time to show some flexibility—ask what the group thinks is the best way to spend the remaining time and change your agenda accordingly.

Facilitation, flexibility

11. Neutral Facilitator vs. Facilitator with an Agenda

As a professional facilitator, I’m often hired as a neutral third party to come in and facilitate a group through a process. In this scenario, it’s my role to focus on the process, the session objectives and the groups’ experience overall. In this role, I am neutral to the content that the group comes up with and I focus on how to get insights from them for the session goal. In that context, it’s not about my ideas—it’s about aiding their process.

Then there are times where I’m facilitating a session and I DO care about the content and have an agenda (and a boss who has an agenda) as far as what I need from the group. In these cases, I’m not content-neutral. I’m trying to use the skills of an effective facilitator, knowing that I will weigh in on what the group decides and discusses. In this case, I try to be honest and clear about what role I’m playing (group member or facilitator) to avoid confusion.

Be mindful about what your role is in each session—are you a neutral party there to facilitate the process or are you actively invested in the outcome? Then adjust your participation to fit!

Facilitation Role


Like most things worth doing, becoming an effective facilitator takes practice. The good thing is that all of these skills are totally learnable—you just have to get out there and try them out! Each group is different and as you work on these skills, you’ll figure out what works best for your team and your organization. With your expert-level facilitation, all those different learning styles and personalities can come together to produce awesome outcomes.

Interested in learning and practicing these facilitation skills? Join me and The Design Gym for an upcoming Facilitation Bootcamp or Practice Lab!


About Hannah Feldberg-Dubin

This week’s post come to us from Lead Trainer Hannah Feldberg-Dubin, who we often refer to as the “swiss army knife of facilitation”—no matter what the situation, she’s got the perfect activity ready to help move a group forward. With over 15 years of experience working as a facilitator, trainer and consultant, Hannah’s people-centered approach to problem solving has helped hundreds of teams and organizations meet their goals and better serve their stakeholders. She’s worked with a variety of organizations in the social enterprise, nonprofits and education space, including IBM, Me to We, Universal McCann, The Design Gym and General Assembly.

Hannah has a Masters of Art in Leisure Studies form the University of Waterloo and a Bachelors Degree in Recreation Management from Acadia University. In her research, she focused on studying optimal learning environments, program evaluation, transfer of training, positive youth development and productive organizations.



Play-Doh, Pipe Cleaners and Post-Its: Our Favorite Supplies For Keeping Meetings Creative

Meetings. The word can inspire dread in office workers around the world—and who can blame them? For some, “meetings” conjures up images of gray rooms and hours of slide shows. That doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for creativity. But meetings are an important part of running a business, so the answer isn’t just to stop having them. Instead, stock your office with the right tools to make meetings more interesting, more productive and more creative. And these supplies aren’t just for meetings—they can also give your workshops and other events an awesome creative boost!

So what supplies can help amp up your meetings? These are some of our favorites that we regularly use for our workshops, meetings, and events:


Brain Food

Nobody does their best thinking (or has the most motivation) when they’re hungry. We always like to have some snacks and beverages around to give everyone the energy they need. It’s great to have healthy snacks that are filling but not too labor-intensive or time-consuming to eat. Think Kind bars, fruit, baby carrots, roasted almonds or trail mix. It’s ok to have a few unhealthy snacks too—although it’s probably best to keep them small so that your group doesn’t end up in a sugar coma or just feeling like garbage. Gum is another great thing to have on hand; it keeps everyone feeling fresh through a long meeting.

As far as beverages go, the most important thing is hydration, which means you’ll want to have plenty of water on hand for your team the entire time. Planning a meeting early in the morning or during that post lunch slump? Don’t forget the coffee. And for concluding an all-day session or a meeting later in the day, we like to have beer or wine around. It keeps the mood light and relaxed at the end of a long day—plus it’s just plain pleasant!

Session Supplies

In addition to making sure everyone is fueled up, we like to make sure they have the tools they need to come up with and share awesome ideas. Start with nametags and a way to get people’s attention, like a bell or chime. Then, basic office supplies are super helpful: a whiteboard, whiteboard markers, Mr. Sketch markers, Sharpies in various colors and sizes, flip charts, butcher paper and scratch paper. If you’re in the market to expand your marker game, check out Neuland markers. They don’t smell and you can refill them and replace the nibs, which makes them basically immortal. In addition to tons of markers, we also love to have a speaker of some sort in the room to give our session a soundtrack—that helps get everyone pumped up and feeling creative.

One office supply, in particular, that we ALWAYS have on hand are Post-It Notes. We use the ½ x 1 ¾ size for voting; the 3 x 3 size for recording stories and capturing ideas; and the 8 x 6 size and jumbo poster-sized Post-Its for activities, sketching and headlines. You can use different colors and arrangements to help organize your ideas and create super clear visual maps of the project or idea your team is working on. Ever been in a session with lead trainer Hannah Dubin? You’ve probably seen her awesome sticky wall. It’s a great way to turn an office wall into a really cool tool for visually organizing your work.

Prototyping Supplies

For prototyping, you can never have too many supplies. So we make sure to stock our cabinet with a diversity of items: Play-Doh, string, popsicle sticks, foam stickers, paperclips of every shape and size, construction paper, tin foil, scissors, glue sticks, pipe cleaners, Legos, and index cards, for example—everything needed to physically create ideas on the spot. We also like to keep a box of random knick-knacks from Oriental Trading for inspiration or to incorporate into our designs.

Need help with time management? A Time Timer clock is perfect for keeping rapid activities on schedule.


Experiential and Inspirational Supplies

Some of us think best when we’re still and quiet. Others are at our best when we have something to keep our hands busy while our minds roam. As a facilitator, it can be helpful to keep some small, quiet supplies on hand for the more kinesthetic thinkers and learners on our teams. Supplies like Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, and koosh balls give people something to fiddle with as they think without distracting other people in the room. It’s good to also have some games on hand. BananaGrams, small magnet games and playing cards are great for helping you open up your brain—relieving some of the pressure of direct focus and allowing your mind to free-associate and make unusual connections.

Additionally, invite people to doodle or draw to help them focus. Create the open environment for individuals to do what works for them to stay focused and ‘in the room.’

Thoughtful, fun stuff in general is great for greasing the mental rails. We like to have books of cartoons around (stick to ones that have a single panel so that they don’t take too much time and effort to get through) to encourage thinking about things in a different way. Books like “Would You Rather…” or any of those coffee table books they sell at Urban are also great tools to get people thinking, laughing and interacting. They act as a playful diversion from the main task to keep people loose and comfortable and help stir up those creative juices.


Both during and after your sessions, it’s super helpful to have documentation of what came out of the meeting or workshop. The good news is that it’s 2016 and there’s no need to go out and hire a videographer—cell phone cameras are a great way to handle it! You can take photos and videos of a session to record key processes and insights so your team can reference them after the fact.

Naturally, you’ll also need a centrally-accessible place to share that documentation. Dropbox and Google Drive folders are both great ways to store and share your photos and videos of a session.


The work and creativity that goes into a meeting or event doesn’t all happen in the couple of hours your team is in a room together. People have great ideas and insights all the time, so it can be super helpful to keep a fresh stack of nice sketchbooks around for your team to use. It’s a low-cost, high-impact way to encourage everyone to stay curious. We love ScoutBooks and Moleskines, depending on the situation.

Here’s a Pro Tip: don’t just give notebooks away. It’s too easy for them to end up at the bottom of a desk drawer or shoved in a bag and forgotten. Instead, make them an active part of your work process. Start asking people to bring 3-5 pages of thoughts and sketches into meetings. That forces them to do some critical thinking on their own before the session even starts. Your meetings will be more effective with that kind of head start and it’s also a great way to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute their ideas.

Google Calendar Invites

So, this technically isn’t a supply that you could stick in a closet with the glue sticks and Post-It notes, but it’s super important for a valuable session. Scheduling alone is crucial, especially when your team is busy (and who isn’t?). You can also use it to outline the basic agenda and outcomes, designate a facilitator and other roles, and assign pre-thinking or homework to help prepare for the session. That lets everyone know what they should expect and gives them a chance to start brainstorming and prepping in advance.

The Cabinet of Dr. Creativity

The transition from old-school meetings (with legal pads and pens and maybe a cup of coffee) to a creativity-centered meeting will take a little bit of time and experimentation. You can stock your office with every cool supply on earth but it’s not going to help if no one is using them! Try asking your team to create prototypes and ideation boards to encourage them to dig into the supply cabinet. You can always lead by example—be the first person at a session to jump up and hit the whiteboard or start pulling out the Post-It notes. And make sure you keep your supplies in a central, accessible location to make it as easy as possible to get to them.

Keep an eye on what supplies your team likes to use and what supplies are most effective. Building an arsenal of creativity-boosting supplies is kind of like stocking up your pantry—you don’t need to get every single thing you’ll ever use all at once. You’re liable to end up with 250 spices you don’t know how to pronounce but no sugar! Instead, you can build up what you need over time as you figure out what works for your team (and what doesn’t).

Once you know what you need to stock up on, you can create small ‘facilitation kits’ with key supplies. We like to keep them with us so we’re always prepared! These kits also make great gifts for your team.

So there you have it—these are the tools we use to boost our meetings out of the Dilbert doldrums. For easy access to most of the items in this post, check out our curated Amazon list. Also, we’re big fans of the Sprint Kit, from Google Ventures. Did we miss anything on our list? Let us know what supplies your team loves—tweet us @TheDesignGym or simply reply in the comments.



Internship Posting: Porsche Innovation Intern


Our Porsche clients are looking for an intern for their Culture + Innovation team. It’s based in Atlanta and is a great opportunity for someone looking for a chance to boost their design thinking skills and have a direct role in rolling it out across a broader organization.

For more details and to apply online check out the posting. Also, if you apply, let them know that you heard about the internship posting from The Design Gym.