Quick Design Exercises for non-designers

I am a professional industrial designer and teacher. I will be teaching a 2-3 hour private workshop to a group of non-designers with the objective of giving them a sense of what is involved in the design process. The resources will be limited (no computer, shop, foam, . . .).

Does anyone have a great project that they’ve done like this?

I was thinking of providing them with popsicle sticks, glue and crepe paper and having them design a laptop carrying case that could also support the weight of the laptop when in use. Toothpicks, straws, or the like could be substituted.

Any ideas would be appreciated.


we did a model of a softgoods project in a begining id class - it was great.
the assignment was purposefully vague so there was a nice variety in interpretation, and therefore final product. we had paper scissors staplers and tape…

that actually sounds like something we did the first day of engineering school. Our first design project was the old cardboard radio gag. Take a bunch of cardboard, packing tape, hot glue etc, and fashion a radio, or laptop case may be nice.

fwiw what i used to do is take a mundane item, a pen, disposable lighter etc and have them disassemble it, then describe each part as to form, function and materials. This gets them to thinking that each and every part as well as the whole must be designed and understood. With things where appearnce plays a bigger part, discussions on how lines, forms and colors are used to modify perceptions of size, assembly and or enhance function.

We did an exercise once where we switched designers and marketers. Designers where given an iconic simple object (i.e. hammer, screw driver) and had to describe the object over a walkie talkie to the marketers who had to draw it without saying what it was or what it did… the results where pretty funny.

We did yo’s exercise with legos. The designers had to tell them the color and number of blocks to engineers and they had to build it with out looking at it.

I don’t think giving people a kindergarten craft project is the way to go.
Leverage THEIR strengths and try and make it as realistic as possible.

There are a lot of designer activities that don’t require designer skills:

  • Ethnographic research: send them out for a 15 minute gathering exercise
  • Affinity mapping: form groups and have them make sense out of what they saw
  • Create mood-boards and personas
  • Teach them how to brainstorm effectively
  • Have them build present/future state storyboards
  • Create out non-functional requirements (like ergonomics)
  • Sketch the winning idea for them, with their input

You should also bring some show and tell:

  • SLA prototype
  • Sketches & Renderings
  • Specification documents
  • Samples (materials, nameplates etc…)
  • Photos
  • ID Magazines, Books ← This is always a hit with non designers

I had a similar experience trying to explain industrial design to a group of teenage kids incorporating some hands on time.

I ended up having the kids help design a toaster. I started by showing a video of how a toaster works and had taken a toaster apart with all the pieces on the table. I then let them brainstorm and sketch on what the wanted the toaster to be (there were a lot of boxes with slots). A lot of kids weren’t interested at this point. About half way through the Sketch session I pull out “really cool” toasters pictures I found online. It was like a light bulb went off and everyone got excited and started coming up with some pretty cool stuff.

I like the Idea of using something simpler like the pen or lighter Zippy suggested