Why designers write on the walls (and why you should, too)
By George Aye, Director of Innovation at Greater Good Studio
We get lots of compliments on our design studio — and we’re proud of our space. It’s sunny and bright, with couches, desks, phone booths and project bays. Every day, we walk into an office that supports the kinds of small-team activities that happen on our projects. It helps keep us productive and inspired.
But this isn’t about working out of a loft space or painting the floors white. There’s a broader lesson here, about the interesting relationship between the space you work in and how it might be affecting how much feedback your work gets from others. It’s all about the walls.
The Visual and the Vertical
Design firms are known for working in collaborative, pragmatic ways to make beautiful or useful things. But you really don’t have to be a design firm to steal our processes, and you certainly don’t need a huge budget. You just need to follow some simple principles.
Our work is plastered and posted all over the walls of the studio — not finished things, but notes, photos, and artifacts of what we’re working on. Over time, we see projects unfolding as they’re posted, and we can give each other feedback along the way.
This is an absolutely essential creative strategy that’s easy to steal, no matter what kind of space you work in. Even if you’re stuck in cubicles, or under the strict watch of a facilities manager.
We’re talking about big, visual, vertical displays of work in progress, inviting people into a dialogue about your work — which may be a big change from the usual paradigm.
It all depends on paper.
That’s right, paper.
In many of our clients’ offices, collaborative space is limited and always at a premium, which is why I usually see two people hammering away on a Google doc at the same time. Or they’re both peering at the same 15-inch laptop screen.
Great ideas are spoken into the ether, whiteboards get erased and project progress is tracked on smartphones. So much work is happening without a physical footprint (everyone remember the dream of the paperless office?) that it can mean opportunities for natural and intuitive feedback are fewer. Paper, on the other hand, persists.
By sticking your work up on a wall, you invite an ongoing dialogue about making your project better. It makes your work tangible, shareable and visual, which gives it a much better chance of receiving feedback and critique.
Our studio walls are covered with work all the time so we designed and built project bays. A “project bay” is what we call a room with lots of vertical space that temporarily hosts a project. (We build them out of interlocking metal pieces made by a company called 80/20. It’s kind of like ‘adult Lego’— see below for a complete shopping list to build your own!)
In order to get started, think of one of the projects you’re currently working on. Choose a project that has a few moving parts, different people to coordinate with, and a phases or steps to plan out.
Next, you’ll need stack of Post-Its and a Sharpie marker and an open vertical wall near your desk. It could be the divider screen between your cubicle and the next, or it could be a spare piece of cardboard from an old Amazon delivery. A few square feet is enough to get started.
Lastly, write down the next big goal you’ve got to reach with your project (write a proposal, planning the next big presentation, come up with new ideas with your colleagues) and simply write down each individual action needed to achieve that goal — one per Post-It.
As you write them down, let the wall/screen/cardboard receive your Post-Its, and you’ll start to map out your thinking in a very tangible format. With each Post-It, you’re taking what’s in your head and making it discrete, movable, sortable and open for feedback.
From this, you can map almost anything — to-dos, project phases, entire workflows. When it’s done, you can step back (like, literally step back) and see patterns that are harder to spot when it’s all buried in a shiny, little screen.
Inviting (and Accepting) Feedback
So now you’ve made your work tangible, shareable and visual. Everyone knows what’s happening and when. Your work in progress is out on display. But that begs a new question: how do you ensure you’re getting the right kind of feedback that’s actionable? Not, you know, feedback about the color of your fonts, but structural feedback about the story or the concept itself.
If you’re not getting much actionable, constructive criticism, maybe consider changing the fidelity of your work. By lowering the polish, you’re implicitly giving an invitation for feedback.
So for example: If you pin up a poster that looks totally designed and done, it doesn’t invite much feedback about the core concepts. Feedback from the reviewer might feel too little, too late.
But if you put up, say, a list of ideas you’re thinking about, in your own handwriting, it makes it clear you’re inviting a lively conversation about the content.
A pro tip: since we’re expecting to hear from people walking by, can you anticipate and plan for it in a thoughtful way? Give people the tools and the space to leave feedback directly on the work itself.
The Next Level: Making your own project bay (with a shopping list below and bonus Rhino 3D file)
Let’s think even bigger. Say that you do have the space to make a project bay, what next? We had the space, but we barely had any walls to support our visual, vertical thinking. So for the first few years of our studio we relied on big 4' x 8' sheets of foam core propped (precariously) against tall Ikea shelving units.
But this year we made a big change. We committed to making our space work for us (instead of the other way ‘round) and invested in designing and building some project bays that support the kinds of collaborative behaviors that happen when small teams work together. The options we found to build a project bay were:
- cheap but flimsy (Unistrut, $500-$1,500)
- slightly more expensive but not very flexible (dry wall, $1,000–$2,000)
- just really expensive (I’m looking at you Steelcase, $10,000+)
Below is shopping list from 80/20 that gave us the ability to design a very flexible project bay that we could assemble ourselves, without spending a fortune.
Making your own project bays
Project bays are made of two parts, a box frame and a series of 4' x 8' hanging boards. The first bay costs around $3,000 each ($2,700 for the box frame plus boards and tools). Don’t forget to include your time: Each bay took about 4–6 hours to assemble but each additional bay will be quicker to make once you’re used to the process.
Each bay measures 12' x 12' and 8' high. The bay is essentially a free-standing, self-supporting box. The box is empty inside and out and its only purpose is to support the hanging 4' x 8' boards which will host the work. Each bay can accommodate 11 boards “inside”, and if you need more, you can add another stack of boards on top. And if that’s still not enough, you can also use the “outside” to hang even more boards, as the hanging system works both in and out. The best part is that once we built one, you’re able to save money on an adjacent bay as they both share a wall.
Project bay shopping list
Note: For ease of ordering from 80/20, the parts below are listed as they appear in the 80/20 system. Items within brackets are either part numbers, or modifications. For instance, “7040 in A Left” corresponds to a specific type of counterbore that allows the extrusion to be connected to others. All items follow the same formatting for consistency:
Quantity — [item code #] — Length/description — [adjustments code #]
The box frame
Front Wall Extrusions (Horizontal)
- x3 — [1515-LITE] — 100 in. — [7040 in A Left; 7040 in A Right]
Side and Back Wall Extrusions (Horizontal)
- x18 — [1515-LITE] — 75.25 in — [7040 in A Left; 7040 in A Right]
Vertical Support Extrusions & Feet
- x10 — [1515-LITE] — 96 in — [7060 Left]
- x10 —  — Base for Swivel Feet SS 29mm DIA
- x10 —  — Threaded Stem for Swivel Base 5/16–18x1.5"
Support Wing Extrusions (Horizontal)
- x4 — [1515-LITE] — 12 in — [7040 in A Left; 7040 in A Right]
- x60 —  — 15 S Anchor Fastener Assembly
Board Hangers (Bases, Tubes, and Fasteners)
- x22 —  — 1" Single Horizontal Base
- x22 —  — 6 in — 1" Diameter Aluminum Tube Ionized
- x44 —  — 5/16–18" x 1 SHCS, W, Econ T-Nut
Tool kit (you’ll need one kit per person)
- 8’ x 4’ boards of your choice—One bay can hold eleven boards, with more on the outside. You can also stack boards in layers. We use ULINE Triple-walled Corrugated Pads, as they are heavy duty and less likely to warp. They are also easily drilled into to make holes for hanging.
- 1 1/2" hole cutter bit (that’ll make the boards be hangable)
Rhino 3D file
- For illustration purposes only. We only used it ourselves to block out our overall design, never for dimensionally accurate space planning.
- Link to 3D file
- Link to download evaluation copy of Rhino3D software (for Mac and PC)
- Our holes are placed 8 inches from each side, and 3 inches from the top of each board. It helps to make a jig when drilling for hole placement to be consistent. We made one from a spare piece of foam core.
- Once you’re comfortable with all the 80/20 parts, you can take an existing wall, and just the ‘top rail’ from a project bay to start hanging boards.
It’s easy to walk into a design firm’s beautiful, buzzing office and think that designers possess secret magic about how to be creative and collaborative. But don’t let us fool you. A big part of our success is easily transferrable to any office with walls. At the very least, next time you’re working on a project, invite your co-workers to check out your wall of Post-Its, and start a real dialogue about a work in progress.
The fastest way for anyone’s work to improve is through thoughtful, timely feedback. We can’t wait to see your work become more visual and vertical.
Postscript: My thanks Stuart A. de Haro of de Haro Horns and Dan Meyer, Fab Lab Manager at the Museum of Science and Industry for their thoughtful introduction to 80/20. Cheers to Stuart, Dan and the ORD Camp mailing list for their amazingly resourceful hive mind!