Newsletter || July 2016

Active Learning Through Design Tools

Sara Legg

Keywords: Workshops, Tools, Design Research, Design

Workshops are design events in which research is input to stimulate ideations sessions. But workshops are not limited to this interpretation and research does not simply function in this linear fashion.

Workshops are their own kind of research where making happens in tandem with learning and new knowledge is circulated amongst participants. The workshop provides a simulated environment where people can experiment and make prototypes — a way of learning how to be in the world and how to engage with others. The emphasis on practical learning-by-doing is it’s own form of research, exemplified by prototyping and testing.

The value of tools are to bring together very different forms of knowledge, research, ways of thinking, and understand them in relation to one another. This isn’t easy to do and the results are not always meaningful to every participant. There are varieties of knowing, and they do not always exist on the same register.

For example, research evidence on scalable interventions is not the same sort of data as insights gained from witnessing interactions between an end-user and an internal stakeholder. Both are important but they are different categories of information. In each instance, the goal of using a tool should be to structure disparate information in such a way as to create frameworks that yield sensible, contextual results. This is not a simple process to articulate, and the tools need a skillful facilitator to help make sense of their process for others and guide the creation of outputs. Contrary to popular practice, the facilitator doesn’t need to be a designer or someone directly involved in delivering the workshop — sometimes the best facilitators are the end users themselves.

The value of tools then is to bring together very different forms of knowledge, research, ways of thinking, and understand them in relation to one another.

The workshop tool, then, is a method for translating or adapting multiple ways of knowing against one another to come up with insights and fresh ideas. Below are several practical themes to consider when selecting tools and activities for workshops, all of which have been important to Quicksand and have affected our work in varying degrees.

The Fluidity of Tools

The design tool is not a static thing. While we know the design thinking process is naturally iterative, the tools themselves are also changeable objects always in the process of iteration depending on the context. Some tools are more open to interpretation and can be changed on the fly. It is important to consider what technology is needed in order to iterate on the tool while in the lab or workshop. For example, do you need access to a printer or can this tool be modified with paper and pens?

The Interpretation of Tools and Outputs

Workshop stakeholders are unique in what they bring to the table, what ideation tools they are drawn to using, their ability to use them, and what outcomes they expect from workshops. This is especially true of co-creative sessions in which there are clients, various tiers of staff, and end-users all generating and synthesizing ideas and concepts together. Participants may interpret data, processes, and concepts in distinctively different ways. This is important and can point to mental models that will have direct relevance for workshop outputs.

The Language of Tools

By this we mean both the language of the design thinking process and the language in which this process is being communicated and rendered. Quicksand has always worked with people that speak a multitude of languages and dialects found in India, and more recently in locations where we have encountered Khmer, Dinka, Swahili, Kirundi, and French.

While language barriers are expected in field research and we employ translators to help us, they carry over into workshop situations that call for added considerations to skillfully use design tools. The intended use of a design tool or the object of an activity undergoes two layers of translation (e.g., English to Swahili, and Swahili back to English). This is something for which there is not currently an easy and efficient solution beyond direct oral translation.

Parallel to this is the language of design thinking and the design industry. This language is a theoretical and practical one that requires buy-in from participating stakeholders. As such it should be considered critically for what it offers those that are not designers or researchers, and that value should be communicated clearly prior to and throughout the workshop process. A great way of doing this is creating engaging collateral, such as a deck of design cards, that creates understanding across stakeholders.

The Essential Attitude

In the end what is required is understanding, trust, and a level of openness for workshop stakeholders to share ideas between each other. The design tool is an object to facilitate this interaction. There can be a complicated dynamic in the workshop in which there are different styles of knowledge and modes of knowledge production.

However, by coming together in a workshop, we have all implicitly agreed to place our efforts into making the most of design thinking — utilizing those processes and tools that render something sensible to both designers and the other stakeholders involved. What may be contested is who is in control of knowledge production and how many different ways of knowing there are. These differences, if acknowledged and embraced, can bring new understanding and nuance to the project in question, and help everyone reflexively consider and validate the experiences of all participants.

Workshops are distinct episodes in the design thinking process where creating and ideating can happen rapidly and excitedly. Along with field research, workshops are arguably one of the more human-facing and human-engaging instances of the HCD process, in which the designer’s ability to empathize is put to the test. The need to avoid working in silos is apparent to most human-centered designers, and it is the workshop where all players involved must listen to one another and think reflexively about their role in the process. It is this education through action (or learning through doing) that continues to influence and enrich our professional practice and the personal lives of the individuals that make up Quicksand.

Want to know more about how we think about and structure our workshops, and how we can add value to your organization? Write to us at

Linked In Twitter Twitter