Designing in a war room

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It’s the designer’s responsibility to leverage resources and appropriate methodology to cultivate a deep understanding of the problem space, and empathy for end users.  

One of the ways we do this for our clients at Handsome: we create a war room, so named because they resemble the “big boards” of maps, buzzing lights, and troop movements shown in old war movies like Dr. Strangelove or War Games.  

The war room in Dr. Strangelove. Image: Wikipedia.

The walls of these rooms are covered with sticky notes, photos, wireframes, and user interface designs. We externalize quotes and photos from our immersive research experiences and pin up design ideas. Data, insights, and ideas associated with the project are made physically available to see, touch, organize, and start synthesizing our ideas.

“War rooms act as evolving mosaics that document project exploration and knowledge creation.”

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Setting up and maintaining war rooms is integral to our design approach.Twitter Logo These rooms act as evolving mosaics that document our exploration and knowledge creation. They tell the story of a design engagement and provide a central gathering place for our product design teams. They contain quotes and pictures from research with users, and back-of-the napkin sketches of design ideas.

As Jon Kolko puts it, they allow us to “externalize and make sense of data through a process of spatialization.” In these spaces, we discover insights and generate solutions to problems.

A look into a war room at Handsome during our preliminary design research phase.

One of the reasons war rooms help design teams make sense of problem spaces more thoroughly and efficiently is that humans have been hardwired to take in massive amounts of sensory information from the physical space around us. War rooms make us better able to find and make novel connections, which is very important for designers. Sometimes you need a much bigger canvas than a computer screen to really see thingsTwitter Logo.

“War rooms make us better able to find and make novel connections.”

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War rooms also foster an intensely creative environment. They become a space for ideas, fueled by symbols, photos, and quotes. Being surrounded by artifacts and inspirations transmits a spark of energy into our creative process, allowing us to have a 360-degree view of the moving parts of what we’re looking to make sense of. It strips away distractions and allows the team to immerse themselves in all that we’ve seen and learned.  It’s an exceptional space to quickly pull all team members into sense-making and really get everyone on the same page.

Synthesis in the war room looks something like this: our team extracts powerful quotes from user interview transcripts and prints key user quotes on Avery labels, which we then post to big foam boards. Then, sticky notes are used to identify patterns and insights. After that, we add everything from smaller sticky notes, photographs, items shared with us during user interviews, and other connections, breakdowns, or novel findings.

These boards can quickly fill up with user quotes, photos, and artifacts—and it can be intimidating. The key is to embrace the chaos—and don’t be afraid of the initial ‘mess’ from transferring everything from your brain onto a wall.Twitter Logo

Sure, these initial steps can be a grind, but when the messy data pasted onto the walls of the war room start clustering together to form patterns and insights, it’s magical. In our opinion, it’s one of the most rewarding moments of being a designer.

Setting up your own war room

We recommend the following supplies:

  • Black, 3/16” thick foam cork boards (in Austin, we get these at Miller Blueprint Company, a local print shop)
  • Printer
  • Dry erase boards and markers
  • Avery labels
  • Colored sticky notes
  • Small sticky note tabs
  • Sharpies
  • Highlighters
  • Speakers for music
  • Giant tub of peanut butter (synthesis requires brain fuel)

Once you’re set up, just dive in. When you start to paste things on the wall, you’ll feel like you’re playing a part in a detective drama—but soon it’ll become second nature.


Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard