Plate rooms, boat building, and band rehearsals

How collaborating in physical spaces taught me the value of forging a community, not just making things.

Brent Palmer
Mar 18, 2019 · 6 min read
Agile before Agile was cool

Going analog

I completely missed the dot.com boom (and bust). While my university friends were taking jobs as Webmasters, I was working night shifts at the Austin American-Statesman in the Art Department. My friend’s tools were CorelDRAW, Fetch, and Netscape. My tools were QuarkXpress, X-acto knives and Clip art. Every night, graphic artists like myself, writers, platemakers, pressmen, and editors would gather around the paste-up table and assemble sections of the daily newspaper. Carol, the floor manager, facilitated the comings and goings, reviews, and sign-offs from all the proper parties like an air traffic controller. Highly caffeinated and detail oriented, watching Carol orchestrate the collection, assembly and production of over nine editorial sections, with hundreds of stories and advertisements, was a thing of beauty. The whir and sputter of the platemaker signalled to all it was time to gather around the paste-up table and print the news. Everyone had a task: typesetting, advertisements, final art, exposing negatives, ink mixing, paper cutting. The final page — the ultimate paste-up ready to be photographed — gave everyone focus and purpose.

congregate, collaborate, and keep the fire going

Stephanie Hughes wrote in her book Architecting Interactions; in a remote island in the South Pacific, every few years the people of the community build a boat. From cutting planks to sewing sails, everyone in the village has a specific task. The village elder is given one particular function, make a fire and keep it burning for the entire boat building process. After a hard day’s work, the village folk would gather around the fire to reflect, share, reconcile, and inspire. Whatever the obligation, everyone gathered nightly around the fire to remind themselves why they were building a boat.

Five benefits of great collaborative spaces

The physical distance between an idea and a surface should be as short as possible. Moveable walls, whiteboards, and erasable markers should be prominent and abundant. Paper, stickers, and post-it notes should be in plentiful supply. Blue-tac or pins can be used for putting up print outs. Dedicate an area of the room to displaying principles and other motivational pieces. These serve as a reminder to why you’re building the boat. Framed posters with your organisation’s values serve as the “Carol.” For the eco-conscious, utilise several large TV displays and display work with tools like Wake. Hang the displays in high-traffic areas to show work-in-progress, investigations or user research.

Four squads at carwow mapping the car buying journey

Teams can utilise physical environments to advance the discipline and create meaningful relationships with their counterparts. Product people want to do great work. Great collaborative environments give the team purpose and alignment. Rituals like design sprints resolve people problems and accelerate decision making. Inevitably, the evolution of your design career will lead you away from Thunderbolt displays and towards facilitation in physical spaces. On average, designers spend 40% of their time at work engaged in non-design activities: persuading, selling, and sharing work that doesn’t involve shipping software. Roughly 24 minutes per hour are devoted to the collaboration of some form. In short, Product Design is a contact sport.

“If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realise they have one in the first place.” — W. Edwards Deming

Software often points to Toyota’s JIT manufacturing as a boon to modern development. At the Austin American-Statesman, the nightly collaboration in the paste-up room was similar. It focused everyone’s efforts, fostered unintended interactions, and imbued a sense of purpose. Regardless of industry, people feel better about their jobs and their organisation when they have opportunities to be heard. Physical spaces like war rooms make those opportunities possible.

Gathering at the paste-up table every night reminded us why we got into journalism in the first place.

Getting great ideas behind a cubicle is hard. It’s easier and faster to manipulate items on a wall rather than moving objects around on a screen.
Designers are spacial learners and can make use of multiple dimensions to solve problems. War rooms give us a command centre view of the end-to-end journey or project. Interactions in a war room needn’t be conversational either. Design Leads can take pictures of the entire area and capture the evolution of the work. As Jake Knapp said, “The room is the page.”

“The bigness of the space supported the bigness of our ideas.” — Peter Merholz

Design Sprints, when done right, solve many unintended problems © GV 2017

The output of our four-squad design sprint were on display for the entire company. One artefact in particular, the car buying journey map, was about 10 meters in length and hung on the interior wall. It was the focus of many walk-throughs with stakeholders. One outcome, a follow-up session with our Customer Support Manager, sparked a kick off regarding what a sales assisted order might look. She was exposed to the physical space, new ideas and perspectives arose. Customer Support, previously excluded from the product design process, emerged as a vital partner. At carwow, the car buyer journey artefact was an opportunity to clarify the story throughout the organisation. Executives, Finance and Commercial, swung by for a tour. Those who engaged contributed their ideas to the greater good, positive discussions ensued, and the design offering was elevated.

The residue from a well-used war room is storytelling. Collaboration begets more collaboration.

Research shows even short walks build up BDNF which supports healthy hippocampus development. Creative problem solvers need BDNF because the hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in improving our ability to imagine new situations. Physical movements can stimulate the imagination and language for learning, problem-solving, and creative work. We’re physical beings intended for community and movement. I’ve previously written on how working around a whiteboard breaks down barriers and accelerates decision making. I suggest putting down the headphones, heading to the war room, getting the blood flowing, and making something new.


Deep Water © 2015

To me, great collaborative spaces were always part crime scene, part band rehearsal. Team members either participated in the ongoing investigation or jammed with the rest of us, getting the groove right. It’s the most exciting part of the design process. If done well, war rooms can be festive, engaging, and powerful. Unlike shipping digital products, war rooms create lasting quality beyond themselves. Thanks, Carol, for keeping the fire going and reminding me why my work mattered and where it fit within the bigger picture.

Brent Palmer

Written by

Product guy @useproof. Previously @carwow @Zendesk @PayPal @TrendKite @Spredfast.

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