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Building the best design lab ever

By Erin Rohl

The truth is that you don’t actually need a physical space in order to be a design lab. Even the most amazing of maker-spaces designed to the hilt with gadgets galore won’t do you any good if you don’t have the right people with the right mindsets.

Our little design lab has been working in the most transient of states – lugging prototyping tools, ideation paraphernalia and presentation gadgets all over the bloody place. We schedule design jams in boardrooms and sprints wherever we can fit in. Larger workshops fit into conference rooms – preferably ones that are free. The spaces we find come alive with the people we bring into them and the attitudes that guide our pursuits. That being said, not having a space of our own to cultivate design thinking definitely puts us at a disadvantage.

You might find yourself lucky with a gift of space and a budget to spend, and I won’t deny that I’m envious of your situation. I’ve been daydreaming about what the perfect design lab space would be for MY WHOLE LIFE, so I feel uniquely positioned to write this suggestion piece. Also, I’ve actually just recently consulted on what consists of a great design lab, and when I Googled-For-Inspiration I found nothing. Nothing! Now if that isn’t an invitation to blog, I don’t know what is.

Consider this a lightning talk on how to build the best design lab ever.


If you get the chance to create your own design space then you’ve got to start with the vision of how you want that space used. What kinds of problems will be solved in this space? What types of end-users do you want to feel welcome and useful?

More than likely you’ll want a broad range of people to feel stimulated and focused – different group sizes and different work areas. Folding dividers, sliding doors, tables and chairs on wheels – these are essential. I’m tempted to suggest that everything in the room should be on wheels, actually, if only because usually rooted furniture (like sturdy bookcases and shelves) could then do double-duty as dividers and flexible storage.

Don’t forget breakout spaces that can be reconfigured for a quick huddle or even an emergency nap.

Yes, emergency naps are a thing. No, never ever on company time. ;-)

And lights! Static florescent lights are the worst lights ever. Lights have to be dimmable and should probably require a degree in stage lighting to be properly set. You laugh, but participant energy can be measurably provoked or killed by too much or too little light.

When you’re designing a space, you need space to design. Whether it’s a Lego table for spatial design and flow, a magnetic whiteboard wall to map out experiences, or adaptable furniture for prototyping, create a space for design. And create space that can be dominated for longer than a boardroom meeting or a daily sweep for germs.

You know that old-school bulletin board that every cop drama uses to connect the dots and find the bad guy? I think it’s called an investigation board. Well, every project you work on should have its own investigation board. Sometimes you just gotta lean back in that squeaky leather chair on wheels and ruminate about what’s in front of your eyeballs in order to find the missing link.

Also, everything should do double-duty. Get those shelves onto wheels and use ottomans that can be stacked into barriers or co-opted with draped fabrics to simulate and build sets that feature reality. Create a theatre for real-life to experiment, with real people.

So, to summarize, just build a magical space that’s cozy for 6 yet open for 50 and can be redesigned daily but maintain long-term investigation board space.


Designers are, by nature, visual thinkers. A design lab humming keenly on a project could probably take down a forest worth of paper if paper is the only medium on which to scrawl. Combat that eco-killing habit by providing writable surfaces whenever possible. Glass is a cheap alternative to whiteboard tables; invest in glass markers and you’re good to go.

But okay, maybe whiteboard or glass surfaces aren’t in the budget. I get it. Then, at all costs, what you must do is texturize as much of the room as possible.

That was a trick! Do not, for the love of design, texturize anything – especially walls! Why do people upholster walls? I’ve never understood it. Tape doesn’t stick to them, they’re a pain to write upon, and it’s a dated look no matter which pretty pattern is picked. Carpets are similarly awful – use rugs. The only upholstery in the place should be on the (movable) furniture.

We creative types need swaths of smooth space to do our best work. We don’t need inspirational posters or sound-proofing panels (but if we do, rest assured we’ll tape them to the hopefully generous available wall space). In fact, if you’re feeling particularly kind, you’ll assume that each project your design lab takes on will require wall space for plotting over a handful of months, wall space for design that will remain for a period of weeks, and wall space for jams that might change frequently over the course of a day.

And while I’m on the subjects of walls, could we just magnetize them all? Reusable magnets trump tape any day of the week.


Imagine you’re a designer: about to embark on the unraveling of a problem and the many potential solutions you’ll try to conjure. You know that you’ll be deeply immersed in a swirling of opinions and facts and experience and your faith is firmly rooted in the design process to uncover deep insights that will affect not just change but bring about a transformation of understanding.

Imagine that you want to bring together advocates and intellectuals and users and change-makers to exchange thoughts and opinions and ideas until a handful bubble to the surface to be validated, tested and tried by the people that have the most to gain by their authentic success.

Are you going to do all that in a basement dungeon? Are you going to shackle yourself to artificial light in the hope that it will scatter inspiration like a kaleidoscope? No! You are not!

Good design requires natural light. That is all I have to say about that.


If someone ever tells you that they need an open office of constant interruptions and the shimmer of external conversations to focus while raveling good design then they are a bold-faced liar. Designers need lengths of time to dwell and I’m sorry, Bill, but I don’t care about next week’s potluck dinner and neither do I care what happened on the Bachelor last night dammit I’m THINKING!

Headphones are good for this, as are movable bookcases and foldable barriers. If you have the bling to create pod spaces, don’t. Instead, create booths. Large desk space with multiple access points is key. No one wants to dwell in a telephone booth, even if they CAN sit down with a laptop and a whiteboard. Gimme some room to spread out my shit, the façade of walls to block the hum and some space to invite new eyes on the mess that I create. You’ll thank me later.


A good design lab will have a go-to coordinator. They are the person that knows where everyone is, what is coming up and where to find All The Stuff. Don’t underestimate this role because – and I say this in the kindest way – you all suck at organizing shit and you need help.

If a person walks into your lab and they don’t know where to go first then you’re doing it wrong. If necessary, put an arrow over the coordinator’s space with sign that says “start here”. If a person emails your lab and they don’t get a same-day response, it doesn’t matter if Kevin and Chad were brainstorming with the stackable ottomans and didn’t find time to email - you’re dead in the water. Design labs are social things, and should be radiating with authentic and consistent communication with the world they live in.

Get a great coordinator. Put them up front and centre and give them space to organize the heck out of your world. Ask them for opinions and rely on their good taste. If you’re uncomfortable with your coordinator speaking for you then you have the wrong person for the job. A great coordinator is as essential to any design team as the most inspirational and extravagantly talented leader.

There always has to be someone that knows what is going on, and a great coordinator will do that. Imagine them as the air traffic control for your team. You’re just not as efficient, as precise, or as safe without them.


Once I worked in a space where the only place to grab a coffee, a snack or lunch was a 15 minute walk away and closed for supper. There was a sadly-stocked vending machine outside the security lock-down walls that came down at 6pm.

I was in a university environment and so things shut down pretty early and except for the campus pub there wasn’t much fuel nor fodder available for a night-owl creative (is there any other type?). All the goody two-shoes were on top of it and had brought their own salad and snacks but – typical of me – I was counting on my environment for nourishment.

Keeping snacks and stimulants on hand is just good defense. If your players have to cross campus for a bag of salted cashews just to keep the mind-fires burning then you’re starting with a handicap. Stash a fridge, a microwave, coffee, tea, treats and snacks and you’ll be all the more productive for it.

Friends of mine with a design shop offered a local fruit and veggie producer a trade: good branding for good snacks; trust me, everyone is happy with the arrangement.


This is kind of a no-brainer but you’d be surprised at how many times this phrase has to be spelled out for the powers that be:

Go where the problem is.

I KNOW. And you know. But you’d be gutted at the amount of people that don’t realize that engaging with the people that have the problem is an essential part of finding solutions.

I’m not even joking. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked people if they’ve talked to users and they’ve said no or not yet. You and I know that user engagement is essential so it’s a huge left-hook when you realize that NO ONE ASKED THE PEEPS.

Even worse, they say that they’re gonna tell the peeps what’s best for them, without asking.

This one time, at health camp, I was asked if I could use a substitute population to simulate what the actual population might be going through because actually talking to them face-to-face would be too disruptive and might stir trouble. Are you kidding me, Lisa? You want me to solve a problem for a group of people that I’m not allowed to talk to?

That’s why labs have to live on the edge of the spaces where they’re affecting change. If you want a lab that is focused on mental health, then make sure they have access to the people who have mental health problems. If you want to deep dive into primary health care, you’d better be in those neighbourhood offices but without any favours owed to an oversight council. Ears to the ground, a few honest and confidential conversations will give you a good sense of reality and more insight than a group survey.

If you want to make a real difference with design, you can’t be in an ivory tower.


At the beginning of my healthcare career, I had to go to a meeting and convince a room full of nurses that I knew how to approach their problem. It was the back room of a Tex-Mex restaurant, with just enough room for a long and cramped table with too many bar stools and a large TV at one end. Space was so tight that there wasn’t even room to slip behind a chair or around another person who was seated at the table.

People ordered drinks and lunch and then I had to give my presentation from the southwest corner of this long table/room, on my knees on a bar stool, without a mic or any way to advance my spiel without asking the person closest to the laptop to “please advance” after every slide.

It was ridiculous – I WAS RIDICULOUS. No one at the table had the space to accommodate both their salad bowl and my handout and it didn’t matter a goddamn bit that all my slides were pictures and my pitch was great because the space was not conducive to anyone being able to concentrate on anything except for how ridiculous I was.

Someone later said to me that they’d “never seen anyone give a presentation on their knees on a bar stool” so that was pretty cool.

My point is that if you’re going to design the perfect design lab, then you must have space for a spotlight. Whether it’s a small stage or great acoustics or a rockin’ mic system – give your team a space for show and tell.

Sometimes all it takes is a soapbox, but being able to pitch an idea is essential in this field and no one should have to go into a knees-on-bar-stools pitch without the benefit of a dress rehearsal.

This is where team culture is huge because a stage is only as safe as its players. To really invite ideas to percolate there must be space for messy thoughts to grow, and for ego to step aside. Failure must always be an option, or how shall you weed the bad from the good? To shine a spotlight on success you must also shine a spotlight on failure. Both are essential for insight.

Create a safe stage to present ideas and you’ll never be want of good ones.


Sometimes it feels like every IT support thinks I’m trying to break the internet. I just want to download a font, man. I just want to share a design.

Design moves fast, and open-sharing platforms are a reliable hub for designey types. But a lot of companies are – understandably so – really tight-fisted with technology privileges and administrative rights. Healthcare, in particular, is uber-risk-adverse and any scent of a potential for breach of technological security is usually treated with blanket policies and a series of bureaucratic hoops.

The thing is, I’m just a designer standing in front of a computer, hoping it will help me design. I like the village of creativity that is available on the interweb and I can’t work efficiently if I have to get security clearance to attach a design draft to an email. I need to have quick inspiration available, and I need the design tools to get shit done.

(P.S. If you think that Word is a great design tool because of its fantastic templates then you need to stop.

Just stop.

You’re not allowed to give design advice ever again, that’s over now. It’s just not in your genetic make-up. I’m sure you have other amazing talents and I strongly suggest you pursue those immediately.)

Oh yeah - reliable tech. So, my point is that you’ve gotta have computers that do the things that you need them to do and you have to have reliable space to share ideas across boundaries. Data space for all your needs, access to programs that accelerate design, and a free train ride through the village.

Skimping on tech is just skimping on efficiency.


Okay so I’ve gotta assume that if you’ve gotten to this point that you’re super-savvy and also not as drunk as my cousin Sandy gets sometimes. I’m ready to divulge a deep secret to you now – take it or leave it – but know it’s the truth.

YOU are the usable tools, and I mean this in the kindest way. If your design lab is baller but you can’t count on the skills and insights of your teammates then you might as well quit while you’re ahead.

A great design lab is filled with a group of people that know their strengths and rush in to support where there are weaknesses. Good design knows that for every thousand lousy/okay ideas there is one that will rise above, but you can’t get there if your team is busy competing for glamour.

If Joe is worried about Karen outshining him, he’s not going to give her his best when she needs it. But Karen is absolute shite at *something* and she needs Joe’s best game to get her to that place where she excels. Joe, too, is likely absolute shite at *something*. Odds are he’ll need to count on Karen if the team is going to work.

Your team needs to know how they work best, who is good at what, and how to apply their intuition in every situation.

Good design isn’t evangelical, it’s inclusive. It balances on your instincts. Good design doesn’t just require curiosity and empathy but counts on mind-set and SETTING. Good design is a passion, not a pursuit. Good design is a direct result of the people – not the tools – that create it.


You’ve probably figured out by now that a great design space without passionate people to inhabit it is not going to solve your design problems. If you build it, they may not come. In fact, if you build it it’s more likely that – without design leadership – no one will know how to use it and it will either become the de-facto craft room or – worse – another boardroom.


So start with the team. Let them get their legs and practice on each other. Let them hash it out and figure out what makes them tick.

Then, if you find yourself in a passionate, dedicated team of design thinkers with the unique problem of enough space and money to build the design lab of my dreams, email me.

Ha ha, just kidding*.


If you do want to know more about design thinking, or if you have a big hairy problem that just won’t quit, then email us at and we’ll do our best to help. We might not have a million dollar space, but we definitely have the right people to make change happen.

*Not kidding. Email me at Let's talk.

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