Try this: Design Beachball

How to run a debate with your design team

Part of the team mid-debate in last week’s Design Beachball session.

Every Friday afternoon, our design team gets together for Design Talks. It’s a hour of the week where the team can take a step back from their project work and chat more broadly about our industry, our craft, and our passions. Incidentally, it’s also a great way to bring the team closer together.

In the past, we’ve cycled through a rotation of show and tells, lunches, Q&A’s, and round table discussions. More recently, we’ve introduced something we call Design Beachball — a fun and friendly way to run design debates.

Here’s how it works:

  • At the start of the week, we begin curating a list of debate topics. Topics vary from broad concepts like Flat vs. Skeuomorphic Design to audits on specific industry case studies like the Windows 8 Metro Design Style.
  • At the start of the session, we randomize the order of the topics and we begin the debate.
  • The individual who suggested the topic kicks it off with some opening statements.
  • A beachball is used to signify who has the floor and can therefore speak (hence the name).
  • To make a follow-up comment, people raise their hands to request the beachball next. Rebuttals are prioritized first.
  • A moderator (usually myself) keeps track of who should speak next, and keeps the conversation flowing by narrowing, broadening, or pivoting the focus of a discussion. The moderator can also choose to change the topic once enough points have been expressed.

What you need:

  • A beachball, or anything else you want to use to signify who the speaker is — just choose something fun and lightweight that people can toss around
  • A moderator
  • A list of topics that your team has opinions on
  • A 1 hour timeslot (on average, 3-4 topics get covered)
  • A comfortable setting where your team can sit in a circle

Rules of engagement (for the participants):

  • Be respectful and not dismissive of others’ perspectives
  • Be prepared to articulate, justify, and defend your perspectives clearly
  • Don’t hesitate to identify if you’re sharing a half-baked idea
  • Don’t hesitate to ask clarifying or open-ended questions to the group

The key to success here is to create an open and comfortable environment for people to fearlessly share their opinions. If done right, the format should level the playing field and give everybody an opportunity to speak freely. It also, in turn, challenges your team to explore ideas analytically, turn loose thoughts into well-articulated statements, and get better acquainted with each other’s unique perspectives. Fundamentally, this makes better designers out of everyone on the team, and makes your team that much stronger as a unit.

Currently, we hold Design Beachball once a month, but we’ve been enjoying it so much that we might make it bi-weekly. If your team is anything like ours, I encourage you to give debates a try. Your team will surely be better for it.