Making Sense Together

The role of designers is not to divine solutions, but to help groups of people work with complexity and make decisions together.

At Paper Giant, we treat design research less as a method for representing the world – capturing data from the ‘field’, and distilling it to ‘insights’ – and more as a way of creating the conditions under which research participants, designers and clients can make knowledge together. We think that the role of designers is, in many ways, to help build collective understanding, and to facilitate the challenges in communication that can occur when contexts and cultures collide.

One way designers are being asked to do this is through the versatile and complex genre of activity known as the workshop.


Workshops, you may have noticed, are experiencing a renaissance. They appear to have taken the mantle as the preferred mode of collective decision making within organisations, and in this role they perform many complicated functions.

Workshops are often the only opportunity that people from diverse backgrounds have to come together to discuss a common objective or challenge. They carve out a space from the day-to-day within a workplace, and signify to everybody attending that this is not business-as-usual, that different ways of thinking are both permissible and expected. Of course, workshops are never a clean slate of politics and process, and agendas (once you can spot them) are often as numerous as attendees. Participants can feel pressure to “innovate” and, in the process, will forget about the real problems they have. Others might express skepticism about the process (“co-design? *eyeroll*”). Others still might even treat the workshop as a platform to air long-term grievances (which, of course, is fine – if that’s the goal of the workshop).

As designers, we treat workshops as a design problem. Much of our work in the last 12 months has been working with clients to design workshops that make the most of the rare opportunity different stakeholders have to collaborate. We’ve run workshops that last 1 hour to ones that last 5 days, and we rarely do the same workshop twice.

Despite the differences, there are some similarities and common themes between them, and this article is an attempt to document those similarities. To that end, here are a couple of different varieties of workshops that we’ve designed and facilitated recently.

Workshops to create questions

Solving a problem has a very important step: the framing of that problem. As designers, we treat this challenge very seriously – asking the right questions is more than half the challenge of a project, and is often where projects fail.

Taking the guise of a “project kick-off”, we might ask workshop participants to help define the scope of a project, or perhaps the criteria for success. More often, though, we design particular activities to help open up the possibilities within a project.

My favourite example of this comes from a recent academic collaboration. Working with a team at RMIT University, we designed a workshop to explore data they wanted to generate from an upcoming field trip to an indigenous community in New South Wales. To help with this, we designed an ideation game that prompted attendees to combine participant perspectives, themes and datasets in unique ways – the result of which eventually became the More-Than-Research game.

By asking participants to think about questions, our role in these types of workshops is to open up participants to the potential we have to do something out of the ordinary, and, of course, to frame the problem we are trying to solve in the right way.

Workshops to document experiences

Workshops are often the first step of a larger research or design engagement. As such, they’re a great opportunity to understand and represent the experiences of attendees, and to create tools together.

My favourite example is from a recent project around sexual health education.

On this project, we needed to design scenario-based learning aids around the theme of sexual health. To do this, we designed a workshop for social workers to document stories they had heard from children about sex and sexual health. We started by asking pairs to tell real stories to each other, and asked participants to merge stories to create fictionalised storyboards. After the workshop, we turned these storyboards into illustrated comics that we used in research interviews with young people. By documenting real stories and then fictionalising them, we were able to have realistic conversations with young people about sexual health issues (without asking them to share personal experiences with strangers), and the broader group of social workers were invested in the outcomes of the research.

These types of workshops help us move toward the final outcome of the project (by documenting experiences) whilst at the same time creating resources that help us achieve better research results.

Workshops to make sense of research

Another kind of workshop we commonly run are those that help clients make sense of data collected during fieldwork or research interviews. These are the toughest kinds of workshops, as often the people in the room were not involved in the research, or have an incomplete knowledge of what might have been found. Even those attendees that observed or conducted research themselves often need help making sense of the data. Qualitative research, for those not used to working with it, can quickly become overwhelming.

Rather than shying away from the messiness and complexity of the research (which is often where the most valuable insights emerge), we’ve developed a number of activities that break down the task of analysis. We ask pairs to work with the data from one participant, and we provide templates and tools to help them scaffold their understanding of that person. We then invite them to share what they’ve learned about that participant to the wider group, and we will either sketchnote or affinity map insights that we think are important while those conversations play out.

As designers, our role in these types of workshops is to provide a way through the complexity, and to help participants understand what’s important about what they’ve learned. It’s also about sharing the expertise we may have developed in research and analysis in a way that is inclusive and respectful of the experiences of others.

Workshops to propose solutions

We’ve run a number of workshops with clients that move from problem understanding to solution scoping and concept testing within a week. We might call these a ‘Design Sprint’ – a well known genre of workshop in design – but they rarely run like one. We’ll often combine aspects of our sense-making and question-framing techniques with other design artefacts (like a journey map) to help participants decide on the right problem to tackle.

We’ll then work with them to design, sketch and pull together a prototype that is grounded in research questions. When the goals of these types of weeks is to get to a solution, it can often be difficult for workshop participants to leave behind logistical and technical considerations that come attached with new product or service designs. It’s very difficult for participants to not think of solutions as a Real Thing, and to project forward all the problems that will come from actually implementing their ideas.

Our role in these workshops is to help attendees realise that the solutions they are coming up with are not yet Real Things (although they might eventually become that), and that their job is actually to find out if it’s a good idea to make a Real Thing that is roughly similar to their proposal. This is a tough conceptual leap for many people – the realisation that they are designing a research tool, not an actual solution – and our role in these workshops is to help them work with the tension between these different perspectives in a productive way. We help them realise that they’re still learning about the problem at the same time as proposing the solution.

Why is collaborative sense-making important?

Each of these workshop varieties show some of the different ways a workshop can help people reach shared understandings. Each of the workshop styles described here have different goals and outcomes, but they all perform the job of building shared understandings that live both between and within different groups and perspectives.

We’ve learnt that the success of projects is often dependant on how active a client can be in the design process, and how robust those shared understandings are as a result. Whilst it’s possible to have success as a lone designer-in-a-room, making decisions separate from the politics and cultures of different organisations, your project is far more likely to be successful if people – both participants and clients – 1) understand the process, and 2) feel like they’ve been part of it. Workshops have emerged as an important way that designers can achieve this.

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