Workshops Don't Work. Work Works.

I’ve recently started hating post-it notes.

I know, I know, they’re super handy, cute and come in an array of colours, shapes and sizes and God knows what we would do without them in the modern world. I mean, next thing you know I’m going to say that I don’t really think in the grand scheme of things, that Twitter is super necessary for the functioning of our lives, families and cities.

However, in the often times insular and ghetto-ised design world in which I spend a lot of time roaming, post-its are seen as some sort of panacea. A salve for the symptoms of enforced mediocrity. If you get enough of them, and enough people together, and then have everyone write everything that comes to mind, click your heels three times then BAMM!! Amazing ideas to take your organisation and/or product forward will magically appear!! Sign me up and point me to the local stationers I would say. Oh, if life were only that simple, taxonomical and clean.

What I’m talking about is the usual format for one of the worst things to ever happen to the design world, which is that of the ‘brainstorm workshop’, or worse yet, ‘design brainstorm’. What typically happens, for those of you who have had the fortune to not take part in one of these, is that someone gets the idea to chuck a bunch of people who more or less have the same job or intents into a room with a lot of post-it notes, put all of their ideas on the wall on said post-it notes, put these post-its in groups and then hope to get something out of it.

What this in fact is, is a race to the bottom.

Design doesn’t happen by committee, which is in fact what you’re forming with this usual workshop format. Not much of anything actually happens by committee for that matter. What does happen is that you subject ideas, designs and opinions to a process where they’re brought to light not as complete ideas, but half-assed notions subject immediately to social dynamics and group politics which results in not better ideas, but ones a lot of people agree on.

What really comes out of these things anyhow? This is the question nobody is asking. The answer is almost always nothing. Nothing. The workshop has somehow miraculously become a product unto itself. It happens and that’s kind of it. Management walks away happy because they feel like they accomplished something just by the merit of letting it happen and the workers feel like they accomplished something because they got out of their regular jobs for a little bit. So this talking about doing something has the same effect without any of the mess. Nobody has anything at stake, or any real incentive to do anything. Someone makes a PDF out of it, emails it around to loads of people who will never read it and mission accomplished.

So what to do you ask? The answer is pretty damn simple. Do something, don’t talk about it. Make now, talk later.

You want to come up with some new ideas from your team? How about having everyone come up with an idea, flush it out as completely as humanly possible, getting them to make something they have to defend in front of a bunch of other people with complete ideas and then seeing which one survives. Otherwise, its called a critique, and its the reason that art schools, journals and the arts in general have survived for so long and advertising (the people who invented ‘brainstorming’ by the way) is on its knees.