Breathing Life Back into Creative Workshops

by Shanon Marks

5Defining image attributes during the Women On Course workshop. Reston, Virginia. July 2015. Courtesy of Shanon Marks.

A workshop is a powerful creative tool, capable of producing terrible messes or illuminating results — depending on the practitioners and the participants, of course.

During my time as a creative director, I had the opportunity to carry out, participate in, and occasionally run from a variety of workshops. Both the good and the bad shaped my impression of the power and value of the workshop, and this perspective affects the way I run business every day at MU/DAI. 

Workshop Myths and Misconceptions

Myths about workshops persist because often, they don’t deliver on time invested, they’re poorly run, or they don’t effectively focus on the challenge at hand. In great workshops, every activity is designed to provide value to participants’ time. They also emphasize delivery-focused production. 

Myth No. 1: Workshops Don’t Produce Results

Successful workshops involve the client as a co-designer from the beginning and focus on personalized activities, not time-consuming brainstorming sessions. For our recent workshop with Kimberly Cayce, COO of Women On Course, we tailored a series of brand-focused activities by selecting those that would be the most productive for the people in the room. Understanding the personalities and needs of individual participants is crucial for activity design.

2Describing a brand language through imagery. Reston, Virginia. July 2015. Courtesy of Shanon Marks.

Myth No. 2: Workshops Take Too Long

Effective workshops are relay races, not marathons. You need the key stakeholder present for the duration, and he or she likely wants to be. Everyone else should cycle in and out in 90-minute sprints. This approach keeps teams engaged and curious about what comes next. Further, it keeps them hungry for more, and above all, productive.

Myth No. 3: Workshops Are Too Broad

A workshop must be delivery-focused with each of its activities designed with an end in mind. What do we want to explore? What problem are we trying to solve? Who is our customer? These questions require specific activities to generate actionable insights. Thus, tailoring each activity is as fundamental as keeping your audience engaged. HOW Design University’s workshop, How to Become a Branding Expert, is a prime example of what a delivery-focused workshop should be.

What Workshops Provide

Workshops are the highest form of creative tools. They shape ideas, inspire visions, and facilitate breakthroughs. Your workshop is critical in three areas of product and experience development:

  1. Exposure: Exposure to emerging technology and design patterns is essential. Your clients don’t speak the same language as your team, so workshops act as great equalizers. They give everyone the chance to explore new technologies and interactive methods together.
  1. Alignment: In the best cases, workshops facilitate alignment around central concepts and help push ideas into realities. Smaller teams and breakout groups are effective in situations where organizational alignment is difficult to achieve. The workshop is a generative format, and loses effectiveness if disagreements and negotiations take over.


Making sense of the data through centrality-distinctiveness maps. Reston, Virginia. July 201. Courtesy of MU/DAI.

  1. Data: Data and insights are the fundamental materials workshops produce. Understand the types of data — and the methods — to be captured. Pre-workshop surveys help shape activities, but don’t reveal deep insights. Rather, collaborative activities in the context of the workshop produce these data points, which require continual, careful collection. Turning a workshop into a successful delivery-focused activity means translating all of those data points into meaning.


Find or build the tools you need to solicit great thinking and reveal data. Reston, Virginia. July 2015. Courtesy of Shanon Marks.

How to Make Workshops Work

Creating the right conditions is as important as the effort that goes into running a workshop. Minding the details can mean the difference between misguided attempts at groupthink and productive, collaborative sessions.

Keep the following in mind:

  • Have a role for every task. Workshops that work well generate more data than the guiding team can handle. Make sure you have project coordinators, managers, or producers capturing data points throughout the day. 
  • Host activities that work. Create a deployable package that clients can explore before the workshop. This package should include tangible activities that invite questions and curiosity. Attendees are paying for your insights, not the activities. 
  • Listen more than you talk. You’re not there to teach or lecture. Guide and encourage participants, but don’t interfere. Overly talkative subject experts slow down productive workshops by creating passive environments.
  • Move fast — and faster still. Workshops are about momentum. Build breaks into your plan, cycle teams in and out, and be clear about time blocks. Crisp communication will keep your agenda on target.
  • Plan for redundancy. The day before your workshop, explore the room and work out logistics. You can’t afford to have a canvas and no brush in the morning, so tackle this beforehand and have a backup.
  • Look to the future. Have clear next steps, deliverables, and plans ready to go before the workshop. Individual activities naturally evolve through the workshop. Still, have a project plan in place to guide the critical days after the close.

Best of the Best

Good workshops demand participation; the best workshops inspire you to contribute and challenge your ideas in real time. I experienced a great example of this — as a participant — when I attended a John Deere leadership workshop.

The day was broken into two parts: a morning session that focused on inspiration and idea generation, and an afternoon session that focused on prioritization and concept development.

In the morning, leadership was distributed across multiple small teams to provide a safe environment for exploring new ideas. In the afternoon, we leveraged the inspiration and momentum from the morning’s generative sessions. In this time, we prioritized concepts into grouped ideas and, ultimately, into projects.

The progression was natural, effortless, and collaborative. The day began with a common goal and ended with a new experience layer for connected machinery.

Workshops aren’t easy, but they’re effective. They’re the result of careful planning, coordinated teams, and involvement from your client every step of the way. It’s up to you and your team to ensure a successful outcome.

Shanon Marks is the chief innovation officer at MU/DAI. His work focuses on the application of emerging technology and harvested data to augment and improve the human experience, accelerating the market through innovation and emerging technology. He simplifies technology through design, leveraging the analytical power of digital to create predictive and invisible experiences. He’s constantly searching for the innovations that will fundamentally improve our lives and our planet.


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