Establishing Design Direction

Design is hard. Aesthetics are subjective, and all the people involved in a design project all have unique perspectives that result in strong opinions about what content and functionality should be prioritized.

As part of our open redesign of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, we wanted to get everyone on the same page and collectively establish a design direction.

In order to do this, we utilized a couple exercises from Good Kickoff Meetings, an amazing website by the brilliant Kevin Hoffman (@kevinmhoffman) to help web people facilitate better meetings.

Earlier this year, I got to take part in these exercises with other clients working with Jennifer Brook, Josh Clark, Dan Mall, and Jonathan Stark, and I feel the exercises were really successful. Yesterday, Melissa and I conducted two exercises with the stakeholders of the Pittsburgh Food Bank redesign project. Here’s how they went.

20 Second Gut Test Exercise

20 second test inspiration sites
The first exercise we conducted is called the 20 second gut test. Here’s how it works:

  1. Gather 20 inspiration sites that match up or roughly pertain to your client’s site – In our case, Zack and Melissa had collected other food bank, non-profit, charity and government sites. You can view the sites we used here.
  2. Pass out sheets with a scale from 1 to 5 for each site – Distribute the sheets to everybody in the room. I made a template of the sheet that you can download.
  3. Rank each site – We made a Keynote presentation (I made a Keynote template you can download) displaying and scrolling each inspiration site. We asked everyone, “OK, if this was your site (of course swap in your logo, branding, and content), how happy would you be with it?” Everyone had 20 seconds to score each site on a scale from 1 to 5.
  4. Tally the scores – We collect the sheets then dump them into a spreadsheet (I made a template you can download), which tallies up the scores. We then determine the 5 best and worst sites.
  5. Discuss the top and bottom 5 – Now the fun part: discussing what everyone likes and dislikes about each site. Melissa took notes while everyone talked, focusing especially on people’s adjectives and language. “It’s too busy.” “Too bland.” “Not enough pictures.” “This is really clean.” “Really vibrant.” “Professional-looking.” etc. etc.

As we went through the exercise, trends began to emerge. By encouraging everyone’s input and spending a half-hour together, we discovered what the team valued and what they didn’t care for. Because of that, we’re able to establish a solid general visual direction without having to do any design work ourselves.

Design Studio/Prototyping Exercise

Pittsburgh Food Bank Design Studio
We used the momentum from the discussion of the 20 second gut test exercise and jumped right into the Design Studio/Prototyping Exercise. This exercise utilizes what’s called The KJ-Technique, which helps a group collectively establish priorities. Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Brainstorm Homepage Content

We picked a particularly thorny page of the site: the homepage. Homepages are nasty things as they result in turf wars within organizations. That’s why we wanted to address it up front.

We conducted a timed exercise, where in 5 minutes everyone in the room shouted out all the things that could possibly go on the homepage. Melissa did a great job furiously writing everyone’s ideas down on Post-its, which were then stuck to the wall. By the end of the 5 minutes, we had a ton of stickies with things like “donate form”, “find help near you”, “mission statement”, “our services”, “contact information”, etc.

Step 2: Homepage User Feelings

We then repeated the 5 minute timed exercise, except this time it wasn’t about what content goes on the page, but rather how we want the users to feel when they visited the homepage.

The food bank serves a ton of different audiences: people who need help, people looking to donate or volunteer their time, people looking for information, etc. So in 5 minutes everyone generated a lot of adjectives about how they wanted their audiences to feel: “empowered”, “not frustrated”, “educated”, “generous”, “part of a community”, etc.

Step 3: Vote

Once we cluttered an entire wall with Post-its, we then handed out 10 stickers to each person. Each person got to give 5 votes to what they felt were the biggest content priorities and most important feelings.

Step 4: Discuss

We then briefly discussed the pieces of content and emotions that got the most votes. Then we put these insights into action.

Step 4: Group Sketching

Armed with a better idea of what our content priorities were, we paired people together to do a group sketching exercise.

We folded a piece of paper into 6 (2 rows of 3 panels), and conducted a lightning-fast timed exercise. In 3 minutes, generate 6 homepage concepts. Crudely sketch out the page layout. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, and not focus on the fidelity of the sketches. That’s why the time is so short.

Once the 3 minutes were up, we gathered around and each team presented their homepage concepts. Most didn’t get 6 done (not many people do), but everyone talked through what they put on the page, in what order, and why they made the decisions they did.

Homepage Sketches

Now that everyone heard every group’s idea, we began another round. We conducted another 3 minute timed exercise, except this time generating 4 concepts. The group was encouraged to expound upon an existing concept, and/or build upon other teams’ concepts.

We gathered together again and presented our concepts. The concepts were a little more high fidelity this time around, and everyone used the good ideas generated by the collective group to come up with some more solid ideas. By the end of the exercise, trends began to emerge and we had a strong sense of what content to prioritize based on the collective sketches of the group.

Voices Heard

These exercises are in no way foolproof, and they’re certainly not the only things you can do to establish a collective design direction. But I will say that it’s extremely important to get everyone in a room together, talk through opinions, and do things to help everyone think a bit bigger than their own roles and responsibilities. By including everyone in these exercises, people feel like their voices are heard, because they are.

Better yet, when Melissa and I roll up our sleeves and start establishing the IA and visual language, the team will have a much better understanding of why we’ve made particular design decisions.

If you’re interested in following along with our open redesign, feel free to follow the project timeline.


  1. This is a really insightful look into a kickoff meeting. I’m going to check out the Good Kickoff Meetings site, and I’m going to try and incorporate some of the ideas here into future client projects. Carry on, good sir.

  2. Number of exercises very useful, and go .. is too much work!
    Brad thank you very much for sharing this.

  3. Faster and Cheaper… Sweatshop! Awesome article! Thank you.

  4. Really great exercises. Typically I find that I need to have a business priority discussion first and then I use that as a common language when establishing the design. Big fan of Design Studio. I use that technique whenever possible.

  5. Brad – These are great ideas, thanks for posting.

    Can you share any insight into how to effectively run the meeting? Any potential pitfalls (or examples where they didn’t go well or produce the results you wanted)? How to set expectations for people who have never participated in these types of exercises before?

  6. Awesome write up! I recently went through a very similar process and wish I would have read this before I dove in. The 20 second Gut Test sound like it would have been really helpful.

    I am also a huge fan of Design Studio and found that one really important part of the technique is a critique stage: after sketching, each person presents to the group and the group critiques. I found it immensely valuable with a cross-functional team (devs, designers, business stakeholders) as it really vets inevitable design problems quickly. It’s also great to get everyone involved in the process as it’s much easier to get ‘buy in’ if they are all participating in the process of making.

    Todd Zaki Warfel has a really great video on the subject on vimeo somewhere[1]. He also has a book “Prototyping”, that one day I will read…it looks really good.

    [1] – Found it –

  7. It’s a very useful insight into your workflow, especially the 20 Second Gut Test Exercise.
    I’m definitely going to use it in my next project.

  8. Love this idea Brad. Seems like creating little exercises like this gives these meetings some structure while delivering designers with actionable feedback. I’ve struggled keeping design meetings like this 1. productive and 2. on-track. This is one more tool for the toolbox.

    I plan to use a flavor of this in the next few weeks. Thanks for the write-up and being so transparent with your process (love this trend!).

  9. Kendal

    can you make some of the templates available for download?

  10. I ran the group sketching / 6 homepages exercise in a workshop this morning and thought I’d feedback. I definitely got what I needed out of it, and the two iterations worked well with some participants.
    Next time I would emphasise more clearly upfront that they would have a chance to iterate their designs with others’ ideas, which makes people pay a bit more attention during feedback. I would also make it clear that it’s not visual design that these are driving towards. I got a few visual concepts …from business unit heads. Right…
    Anyway, many thanks for putting this stuff up, and that link to kick off meetings is gold 🙂

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