How to prepare for and run a Design Thinking / Gamestorming / Creative workshop. And what to do with the outputs, too.

Time to read: 9 minutes

In June 2017, I was hired for a few days by a consultancy to help with a design thinking workshop they were running for a client. They needed to run it with 80 participants, and to make it work they’d split them up into cabaret tables of 8, each with a facilitator… who needed to be told what to expect!

So I put together a short guide, to help me quickly brief the facilitators (experienced consultants) on what to expect and watch out for.

I’d be on stage MCing the activities, giving instructions, and getting the outputs played back, so their role truly was to keep everyone focused during each activity.

Because I love meta-jokes, I ran the briefing as a workshop. So it was a briefing and a demonstration and a workshop all at once.

I found it funny, and everyone was much more engaged than in their typical death-by-powerpoint approach.

Flipchart with stickies on it showing the workshop about workshops outputs.
The activity was “what to do during the workshop” and these are all the items once we affinity sorted them.

Below is the guide that I put together back then, refreshed with a few items from a more recent and intensive workshopping experience.

It will not tell you how to run a workshop in detail, because the choice of activities, or venue, or audience sizes, and your style of facilitation will be your own. But all the things you need to think about and prepare are listed.

And there’s a link to an amazon wishlist with all the materials I use, to make it faster for you to set up.

It’s long, but I’ve tried to make it easy to skim, and split it into the various phases of a workshop.


Exercises – it’s ok to customise them

* Define the area being explored. Write a problem statement or goal, to make it clear.

* Discuss and decide what sort of insight and aspects you want to learn about from your participants and have them discover and build amongst themselves.

* Design exercises (use out-of-the-box classics as they are, customise them, or invent new ones as necessary).

* I use index cards with exercises summarised on them to help me plan the activities sequence of a workshop. Easier to remember your options when you can just see them all. Most come from either Gamestorming or Universal Methods of Design.

* Practice the exercises, or pretend-do them at least in your mind as if you were the participants from their perspectives, to see how valuable the outputs are likely to be. Change the activities if necessary.

* A good working group size is 8-12 people. Once you cross 15 it starts to be unwieldy, and beyond 20 you need to redesign exercises or modify them heavily or split the group into smaller teams for each activity, because it’s just not manageable.

Materials – procure these early, and get 25% more than you deem necessary

* Many post-its, preferably the 10×10 square ones. Calculate one pad per person, per day, volume-wise. I’d advise 75% classic yellow and 25% other colours.

* Depending on the exercise, one or two packs of different (larger? Coloured?) post-its for writing affinity sorting cluster names or other headings. Expect to replace those headings as you iterate, so you’ll use quite a few.

* Sharpies. A lot of black sharpies. One for each individual, and 20% of spares because some come will come out of the box dried up and, invariably, extra people will show up.

* Whiteboard markers that look different to the sharpies. They’ll be useful for writing on the magic whiteboards or on windows and erasing what you’ve written.

* Any facilitator prompts and notes that are necessary.

* Magic whiteboard sheets to cover the walls where post-its will go. We call these a “stage”. In case these cannot be found, or are not affordable, brown paper, cellophane, or solid colour giftwrapping paper stuck up with masking tape will also work (though not as well).

* Masking tape for moving the stage(s) with the post-its secured onto them. Masking tape is also useful for making any long lines such as the horizontal ones if you’re laying out a service blueprint.

* A4 paper for larger storyboards.

* Index cards for frame-by-frame storyboards or other comments. They stick by touch to the magic whiteboards, which is amazing. Just remember to secure them with tape or blu-tac before moving them.

I have a workshop materials list I maintain on Amazon. That has all these and more. You’re welcome to make use of it, as I’ve already spent the time finding the best bundles of each thing.

Room – it can take two hours to set up. Book it for the setup time, and be there early

* Stick up the sheets on wall areas in front of where your group will convene, so that everyone can see it. These will be populated in each activity, and then quickly moved to the side to make room for the next activity.

* Get colours on the walls if possible. Giftwrapping paper makes for good temporary colourfulness. This helps remind attendees that we are there to play, have fun and be creative. This isn’t a working day, we just happen to be talking about work.

* If you can, adjust the seating to be similar to a cafe, creating small clusters of people. The exact arrangement will depend on the number of people in the session, and the activities planned. Remember, this isn’t a presentation or a boardroom meeting. All people are equal in this space, and everyone should be comfortable, easily see the staging area (where the sticky-note action will be happening), and be within speaking distance without needing to raise their voice.

* Allow for space around the seats and in front of the staging area so people can easily stand up and stick their post-its to the stage when necessary.

* Stick up two large pieces of paper on the side of the staging area. Mark one “?”, and the other “P”. These will be used to make note of questions that we cannot answer immediately or topics that we cannot address immediately or at all.

* If I am doing a workshop within a company, and I expect people come to it as they would to a meeting (read: with their laptops), I will make a “Laptop Parking” sign, and put post-its and a marker for labeling any identikit laptops beside it. I prefer to set this up towards the “back corner” of the room, so nobody will feel anxious about their laptops getting grabbed.


Introducing the game

* You are the host and game-master. Do not be afraid to use a louder voice or clap to attract attention, if necessary. Always do these with a smile.

* Begin the session with a safety briefing regarding expected alarm tests, nearest exits, bathroom and refreshment directions, and timings for scheduled breaks, if any.

* Instruct them to park their laptops, and explain that they will need their hands and deskspace for the activities of the day; not a keyboard.

* Introduce the facilitators, and give context for the activities being run today. Why are we here, what is the higher aim.

* Introduce and run a warm-up activity, to shake up the crowd. This could be the inspirational “design a vase” vs. “how can I enjoy flowers in my home” or “draw me a mug” vs. “How can I enjoy coffee”. It shakes up the brain from thinking of a product to thinking about a multi-sensory experience in a series of contexts. Because we’re there to shape experiences, not products.

* Always introduce the exercise in chunks of instructions, never in one long breath. Break it down into phases that you mention up front, but wait to give step by step instructions for each phase when the group gets to that phase. If you give them all up front, they’ll forget and you’ll have to repeat them anyway.

* It can be helpful to have the phases or goals written out on the wall or on a slide. (though monitors are discouraged in a workshop space)

* If an activity is meant to be in pairs and there is an odd number of players, make one group of three, don’t pair up with a single person yourself.

* Answer any questions that people want to ask. Wait for all questions to be answered before starting the activity.

What to do while they play

* Move around the groups, and sit with each for a minute or two, to make sure they’re all comfortable with the activity.

* Answer questions, but mainly ask questions to open up the team’s approach to the problem.

* Keep an eye on time. It’s ok to not be hyper-precise, but it is critical to make the entire endeavour run to time or 5 minutes early, because it shows respect for any work commitments your participants have outside of your project.

Keep an eye on the audience for

* Disengaged. Sit with them and switch to interview mode briefly, to get them talking about the topic. This should get them unstuck and working. Once, I came across an aggressively disengaged person. I learnt later that they had been working on the topic for a year, and the company had killed the project and hired us instead. Don’t stay too long, not everyone will engage fully, and that’s ok.

* Overtalkative, taking over. Step in and ask how is everyone doing. When the louder presence speaks up, engage with the others more directly to validate their presence and give them a voice. Leave once a conversation is happening again.

* Quiet. During a full group verbal activity, you will need to probe the quiet ones out of their shells, and stop the louder ones from taking over the discussion.

* Finished early. Some people will be faster than others. If they are done, don’t rush the others on their account. Most moderators engage them in conversation to keep things interesting while waiting for others to slow down or to announce “time”.

* The smartass. Every larger group ends up with one. He’ll question everything, try to take over the show, hopefully make some good jokes, but is generally an annoyance. I personally acknowledge their contributions, and then ask someone else to comment on them. By giving authority over what he just said to someone else, I both open the conversation to another voice, and allow everyone to question the validity of what he said. There will always be wise people in that group too, but wise people are usually quiet, and will need more encouragement to speak up.

Wrapping up the game: The discussion

* The most important part of the workshop, while it is running, is the final discussion amongst the group. Never skip that, even if you’re pressed for time. It’s the only occasion you’ll have to catch all of these people in the same room together, freshly having thought about this problem, and full of things to talk about.

* Encourage anyone too quiet, but active with their eyes, to speak up.

* Keep an eye out for interruptors, and either cut them short, or make sure that they will finish speaking and give the floor to someone else.

* Whenever an objection comes up, question it (you can even use the five whys method).

* You should always add all comments to the stage, and if you’ve used the five whys technique to probe into something, it is smart to also write those answers in sequence next to the original statement.

* It is good form to affinity sort items and find groupings that refer to big ideas or topics. It is only by going one level “up” that it will be possible to do the next thing.

* Give a summary / story of what was discovered today. Often, this is a genuine narrative, because a lot of creative activities are centered around an actor or hero / heroin (our users). This will open up the floor to some elaboration, clarification or a few more ideas. Write those down too.

* When nobody has anything else to add, the summary has been given, and (or very importantly when) it is time, move on to the next activity.

* It is good form to have breaks between activities, or at least after 90 minutes. 5-10 minutes, enough for most of the group to fetch a coffee, biscuit, or go to the bathroom. Assume you’ll lose 15 min of working time though, with all the chit chat and running around.


When you look online, it feels like creative workshops stop with the post its on the wall. That is untrue.

The real work begins AFTER the workshop. And typically, from 90min of workshop, you have about half a day’s worth of work in “decoding” what was contributed. Documenting it can take anywhere from two hours to three days, depending on what the material will be used for.

If the workshop content ends up in the bin, or purely in your brain, your project will have a higher risk of failure.


* After the workshop, photograph the stage(s) from close enough to be able to read what’s on every item when you open that photograph at 100% zoom. (iPhone 6s and newer have 12MP cameras which are particularly good for grabbing a full wall in one legible photo).

* Do a full photo as well, even if you can’t read it, as it will be useful for illustrating all the work in a report. A wide-angle lens is useful for this. Occasionally, panorama shots grab a nice overview, but bear in mind they’re usually too blurry to read.

* Secure the post-its onto the stage(s) with masking tape, and take them away.


* If the content calls for it, once you’re in a secure location, affinity sort all your items with great attention, until everything has been classified into themes. This will have been done superficially in the workshop. The post-workshop work needs to be more thorough, because this is when the real insights are found.

* Typically, a sense of family or narrative will emerge from the clusters you have discovered.


Start a document where you will have

* The context of the activity you ran (project, attendees, goal of the discovery exercises)

* A description of the exercises themselves

* How you processed the information after in your affinity sort. Photographs of the sorting in progress and at each intermediate stage are handy here.

* A full record of which items were posted under each theme. (this will take quite a bit of time, and is best done with two people: one reading, one typing)

* What your conclusions are, in terms of

  • What has been discovered (e.g. themes)
  • What needs to be done next / should be addressed first
  • Other items to investigate
  • What this information can be used for


Share that document with your client as part of a post-workshop pack.

This was run for a reason. Take the insights back home, where they belong.

I know that there will be a “next steps” deck somewhere soon enough. I believe that every project also need a “Here is why we did this workshop, what came out of it, and how we intend to use these insights” document, which will be a separate entity, and related purely to the process and discoveries of the day. Expect to spend a day putting it together.

I’m sure there are other tips and tricks for running workshops. These are mine. If you find inspiration or use them and succeed or fail, I would love to hear from you.

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