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Are you a designer, or just a facilitator?

A few weeks back I was standing in a room facilitating a large ideation workshop. Mid-session I found myself thinking, I am not sure if I enjoy this. Walking out of that workshop, I told myself that I entered into the design field to become a designer, not a facilitator. I felt that as a workshop facilitator, I could have been replaced with any other person, toolkit in hand. Sure, there are nuances experienced design facilitators bring (like knowing when to probe thinking and move a team in different directions) but a decent set of card-prompts could suffice. A good toolkit in and of itself could very well guide a novice team through the process, particularly since many design thinking workshops are aimed at beginners and most beginners cant tell the difference between good and bad design thinking.

Design thinking is sold as a better way to work, to innovate. It has morphed into a practice that encourages so much collaboration that it has left lead designers playing an integrative (and intrinsically extroverted) role. I am no extrovert. I began as a ‘traditional’ designer, embedded in my own world (or that of a very small team), often left to our own devices to problem-solve through design. Commercial design thinking practice takes aim against this ‘lone wolf’ from design yonder, and shoots it squarely between the eyes. Commercial design thinking is theatrical and its workshops are an opportunity for presenters to perform to a large group of individuals.

The problem I have is that I don’t think I agree with big collaborative design. I am not sure I agree that you should integrate everyone and anyone into the design process, at every step of the way, in big workshops. Yes, I make the exception with end-users, as this is the heart of the design process. However, I’m pointing at those projects that carry the client and/or big, broad networks of stakeholders across every stage of the design process. I understand that large workshops with key stakeholders are conducted in the essence of time and schedules, but this is not how design naturally flows.

a ripe environment for collecting ideas

Crowdsourced design has become commonplace; gather a bunch of multidisciplinary individuals in a room and make sure everyone contributes to the creation of ideas. Make sure the same individuals also participate in prototyping, in research, in testing. Most often than not, these individuals- whilst bringing in diverse viewpoints- find design unnatural and uncomfortable. Design thinkers often find themselves facilitating these teams to do the design work, with little breath in-between to engage in the design process. Workshops started as a way to help clients and teams understand the process of design. Somehow, they have made their way into design practice. This more than often slows the design process down and requires more time up-skilling which detracts from actual designing and thinking.

Of course, if the project intent is to build design capability amongst an organisation or team, then this makes sense to do so. But capability based projects and design projects have conflated. This problem exists not only for external design consultancies, but for in-house design teams. This issue naturally raises the topic of establishing a design culture; if everyone across an organisation is familiar with the process and approach, then each project can operate in a less rigid and more organic manner. It is this intuitive flow that is lost when you need to design and facilitate capability uplift through collaboration with a large set of stakeholders, leaving no one really feeling their way through the design process.

It is this situation that I question if we are really doing design, or just superficially skimming the cliche. It is in this situation that I ask myself if I am actually designing, or if I am reduced to merely that of a passive facilitator- at best- an active integrator. It is in this situation that I ask myself if you really need an experienced designer, or simply someone who can run a workshop. It is in this situation that I ask how an ‘experienced design thinker’ perceivably differs to a novice, when faced with a room full of stakeholders fresh to design practice.

It is, however, in this situation that I know a small, engaged design team working intensely and consistently performs far better and with greater understanding than large, sequenced and structured workshops.


  1. I have been conducting couple of training and felt it too. Since I have found few good results from my recent projects now my colleagues want to learn by the training. The thing is having a workshop with different stakeholders sometimes gives me a break from the designing interactions but its also challenging. From my experience there are very few participants actually enjoy to work with insights and interested to do iterations. Most people go with their previous conventional participatory design method and try to explain it through design thinking process. Its frustrating..

  2. Miss Mitali K Desai

    I have experienced similarly around the second part of this blog post in the recent corporate world which you call commercial design. Not everyone is a designer in stakeholder’s teams and shouldn’t be forced to. Perhaps I’m old fashioned but for best quality, design should be left to the experts rather than making everyone in the client team quit their day job and co-designing for days on end with design consultants. A couple of hours workshop works well every few days. Assume and validate iteratively. Too much collaboration where everyone’s a leader spoils workshops, slows analysis+synthesis, kills the depth of the ‘thinking’ which we designers are trained to do. I think we should have a mix of facilitator and designer roles in teams. The old rule one person speak at a time still applies and should be stressed.

  3. I guess I return to chestnut: why not both?
    I see two primary reasons to engage large cross-functional teams in the design process:
    – the ‘things’ we’re designing are too complex to be handled by any individual–the multiplicity of experience and perspectives allow us a greater and more nuanced understanding of, and problem-solving approach to, the design.
    – the people we bring along on the journey are often key stakeholders whom we will need when it comes time to implement the solution. by including them in the design process, they become advocates for the solution. if we don’t include them, they are potential barriers who wonder “why wasn’t I consulted?”

    It’s been a while since I’ve been a practicing designer. My sense is that companies ARE going overboard by wanting to workshop every damn thing. But, that’s not the fault of workshops or facilitation. It’s a failure of leadership in knowing how to engage in these practices appropriately. Some measure of workshopping (and thus facilitation) is essential to success these days. And I think is core to what it means to be a good designer, at least one that expects to have any real organizational influence.

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