Don’t just show up and hope it goes well

How to design your classroom or meeting space for creativity and collaboration

We all know the feeling. Sitting listlessly watching someone talk across a long table or at the front of a room, your attention drifting from the topic at hand to something more compelling, like what to do for dinner, or whether that character in last night’s episode had ulterior motives.

Too often classes and meetings are boring. They don’t engage us, they sap our energy, they make us feel like receptacles for information that someone else thinks we need.

Please don’t do this to your students or team. Photo by European Week of Regions and Cities.

Classes and meetings don’t have to be this way. Instructors or hosts often come into a space and use it as they find it. Yet different meetings have different needs and benefit from different types of interactions. One setup will not fit all, especially when that setup is rows of chairs or desks all facing the same direction.

I’ve learned from wonderful design professors, facilitators, and colleagues at MIT, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and Experience Institute that it pays to take a little time to intentionally set up a space before class starts and stay aware of shifting needs throughout. A little effort goes a long way to help people participate right away, smoothly transition between activities, and stay engaged.

Teaching regular classes or holding regular meetings can be particularly challenging. I teach several design courses at SAIC and classes are usually three hours long, often in the evening. That’s a long time for students to stay focused and engaged, especially considering I have very little natural skill as a lecturer! Concentrating on interaction points in the following three modes has helped my students stay in the right mindset for learning, creativity, and collaboration:

  • Activities
  • Objects
  • Atmosphere
Experience Institute students circle up for a quick stoking activity. Photo by Justin Eisner.

Activities

You could have the most gorgeous sunlit space full of seamlessly integrated cutting edge technology but still bore your class or team to death with an uninspired agenda. The key is to get your class participating as soon as possible, and like a good music playlist, choreograph subsequent activities to keep the energy flowing or to recharge when needed. This will help individuals feel personally involved in the experience, start to forge connections with each other, and create a buzz that energizes everyone in the room.

Stoking Activities

Stanford d.school has curated a wonderful list of improv-inspired “stoking” activities designed to spark energy in groups (here are more). I try to run an activity like this as close to the beginning of each class as I can.

One of my favorites is the “word at a time” activity where a group of 4–5 people tell a story or answer a question one word at a time. It helps them loosen up, listen to each other closely, and build off other’s ideas, all in a fun, low-risk way.

Write/pair/share

If you’ve ever taught a class you know the feeling of asking a question and being met with a bunch of silent faces or blank looks. People don’t want to answer a question wrong in front of others. Point-blank questions are intimidating and don’t allow much time to think.

Instead I’ve learned to take an activity from great grade school teachers: the write/pair/share:

  1. Ask a question to the class, then ask each person to write down their thoughts individually.
  2. Ask them to discuss their thoughts with a partner next to them.
  3. Then ask pairs to share what they discussed with the entire group.

It’s pretty stunning how well this works to get energy going and people discussing the topic. And it’s just as good for groups of adults as it is for kids.

Table “islands” are great for small group activities. This group of students at SAIC are making use of both table and wall space to explore ideas for a project.

Objects

How you set up your room sends a subconscious message, whether desired or not. For example, creating a physical barrier between the “learner” and the “lecturer” with a row or multiple rows of desks and chairs sends the message “shut up and listen to me.”

Occasionally that’s the right message to send, but usually it’s not. Here are some tools to help inspire creativity and collaboration:

Moveable desks or tables

A single large table is great for gathering a class or team for a focused discussion because everyone can see each other’s face. Smaller tables distributed around a room are excellent for small group or partner work. A completely open space is what you want for hands-on activities or a round-circle reflection.

The ideal meeting space will have desks or tables that can be easily moved and reorganized into different configurations, depending on your activities. When teaching I always arrive a few minutes early to arrange the room to fit what we have planned, and pay attention to shifting needs over the course of class.

Whiteboards or open wall space

In the physics department at MIT our rule of thumb was to never lecture for more than 20 minutes at a time. Class time was a mixture of short lectures, partner activities, and group problem-solving at a whiteboard.

Getting out of your seat to work with someone else at a whiteboard gives you more energy, makes you feel more engaged, and helps you visualize the topic at hand. But you don’t need a whiteboard to boost collaboration in a room: any open wall will do. Just bring along some…

Sticky notes and sharpies

This won’t come as any surprise to a designer, but sticky notes are remarkably powerful tools for communication and collaboration. Their small size forces you to articulate your ideas in a concise way in order to share them with your team. To keep folks from writing tiny sentences with delicate pens or pencils, I always bring along a set of sharpies. They not only promote concise phrasing, they make words easily read from several feet away when stuck up on a wall.

For a deeper dive into designing killer meeting spaces (and instructions to build them yourself!) find a copy of Make Space by Scott Dorley and Scott Witthoft.

Workshop Chicago: one of the happiest spaces where I’ve facilitated workshops, especially because of the natural light. Photo by Justin Eisner.

Atmosphere

If you’re hosting a dinner party, you want your guests to feel comfortable, open, and engaged — so you pay close attention to the mood and atmosphere of your space. Why not do this with classes and meetings?

Music

It’s incredible how music can change the vibe in a room. Greeting people with music as they enter a meeting or classroom immediately sets the tone, which should be fun and energetic (though not frenetic) if creativity and collaboration is your goal. The same is true for any partner or group activity — the right music helps folks get into an open mindset.

Spotify and Pandora are great tools for finding excellent playlists on your phone or laptop. Sometimes I even travel with a small portable speaker in case the space I’m heading to doesn’t have them built-in.

I’ve found that my go-to is the 60s and 70s inspired playlist my wife and I made for our wedding on Spotify! Or starting a Pandora station using the Temptations.

Your tastes may vary, but be aware that not all music works for inspiring collaborative work. I was playing somewhat dramatic electronic music before a workshop once when a student shouted out, “Are you here to give us a motivational speech or something?”

Lighting

This one can be difficult to change for a given space but we all know how much natural light affects our mood. Whenever possible, fight for a room with windows and natural light. It really does make a difference.


As a teacher or facilitator, you may not have much control over what space you’re given. But that doesn’t mean you should just show up and use it as is.

Meetings and classes can and should be designed. Try out any one of the suggestions above and see how it works. Your teammates or students will greatly appreciate the change of pace from all the other boring classes/meetings they sit through.

Do you have other thoughts or suggestions for designing a temporary space for creativity and collaboration? Leave them in the comments!