Design by Example: the quick design brainstorming workshop

3 minute read
This is an update of the initial Design by Example post I wrote in March 2011 on the Headshift blog, now Dachis Group.

Design by Example is a workshop technique I developed in Dachis Group. It’s used to brainstorm specific interactions and interfaces in order to improve lateral thinking, find interesting solutions and spread knowledge and experiences inside teams.

The Workshop

Design by Example, workshop flow

The workshop consists in the following stages:

  • Retrospective (5 minutes): the workshop starts with a brief discussion of the previous one, in order to see if there are new ideas on the solutions already discussed or if something about the workshop itself could be improved. This part shouldn’t last more than 5 minutes.
  • Explanation (15 minutes): every session is managed by a facilitator, someone that proposes the focus of the session itself, explains the context, the issues and the design objectives as well as answering any potential questions. If it’s a UI design, the facilitator would also jot down a list of potential IA/content to start with. Every member of the design team should partake in the facilitator role, but anybody is welcome to propose a subject.
    If there are new people it’s probably nice to show how simple it is to draw and sketch ideas starting from simple shapes (thanks Xplane‘s Matt Adams for the hint).
  • Generation (10 minutes): all the participants in the workshop will sketch their solutions independently for 10 minutes and no more, without sharing their thoughts with the others beforehand. This is very important: thinking and sharing are two different phases and must not be mixed.
  • Gathering (30 minutes): all the sketches are put on the table (one person at a time) and the ideas/concepts are discussed openly. The importance at this stage is to understand each person’s rationale behind their choices, rather than discussing the overall solution itself. It’s important to avoid judgement, do constructive criticism oriented to solve problems, fostering positive critical thinking: since there are no ways to validate the ideas, it’s more beneficial to discuss a solution that can be used (instead of just saying “it wouldn’t work”). In this phase there’s no imposed limitation to the topic: you could freely discuss user experience, technical details, business, and branding considerations etc.
  • Summary (10 minutes): after the gathering brainstorming the common and accepted proposals should be synthesized into a bullet list by the facilitator, for better understanding and future reference.

The workshop should last from 1 to 1.5 hours, although may take longer with more people involved due to the extra time required in the discussion part. In my experience 1 hour and about 6 people is the ideal scenario.

Why it works

This way of brainstorming is the most effective, (Furnham, 2000, The Brainstorming Myth, Business Strategy Review, Volume 11) mixing the ability to generate ideas and intuitions of every participant without them being hampered by other’s opinions (we are social beings and we always try unconsciously to agree), and to then unleash the creative power of the brainstorming to evaluate, hybridise and evolve the ideas.

These workshops are open to everyone, regardless of their design skills, because it’s a way to get fresh points of view and spread implicit knowledge. The objective of Design by Example is to share knowledge and generate solutions, so the broader the skill set, the richer the outcome.


This quick workshop technique has lots of advantages:

  • Uses real-world scenarios.
  • Improves design skills and understanding of the participants.
  • Improves the cross-pollination of skills and ideas between the people in the company.
  • Tiny overall time consumption: less than 2% of the participants time in a usual work week.

I’ve used this technique effectively for more than two years now, working both with my internal team, project teams and also with random people. By inviting people from different teams you are also able to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing.