Charrettes (Design Sketching): ½ Inspiration, ½ Buy-In

by Kara Pernice on December 22, 2013

Summary: Design charrettes inspire design sketches and ideas, include more people in the design process, explore and expose goals and objectives of colleagues in multiple functional roles, and drive off designer’s block.


What Are Design Charrettes?

Definition: A design charrette is a short, collaborative meeting during which members of a team quickly collaborate and sketch designs to explore and share a broad diversity of design ideas.

The idea for design charrettes (from the French word charrette meaning “chariot” or “cart”) is believed to have derived from stories of architectural students in Paris in the 1800s. As the story goes, students’ exams were collected in a charrette, and some of these students continued to madly sketch together as their designs were being gathered for evaluation.

Benefits and Goals

There are several benefits to sketching, whether in a team or alone, and whether under a time limit or not. In the case of charrettes, some of the greatest benefits include:

  • being inspired by design ideas from various people;
  • kick-starting a designer who is temporarily paralyzed by the blank white screen;
  • hearing the priorities from people in different functional groups (and possibly building consensus);
  • making each person feel listened to and considered equally;
  • streamlining to avoid “futzing” with detailed drawings or using wireframing tools;
  • doing all of these things incredibly quickly and inexpensively.

​How to Conduct a Design Charrette

Design charrettes are fast and easy. Here are the main steps:

  1. Gather people in a room. This can be done with as many as 20 people and as few as 2. Anyone can (and should) participate, not just UX designers. But of course, the more people in the room, the longer the meeting will be. And if it is not a required meeting, then the longer the meeting is, the less likely people will be to come and stay for it (or for the next charrette that is scheduled).
  2. Give everyone a few sheets of plain paper and a pen. We can all agree that Sharpies make everyone more creative, but any felt-tip pen will do.
  3. Write a goal or a design challenge on the whiteboard. For example, “design a homepage that drives customers to buy more gummy bears.” or “design an intranet page that encourages employees to share knowledge about the project they are working on.”
  4. Communicate the charrette process, which is:
    • Each person sketches his or her own ideas for 5 minutes. Each has just 5 minutes; then all pens down. This is supposed to be fast. People may sketch one or several ideas, until they run out of paper, ink, or inspiration.
    • Each person works alone. No talking once sketching begins.
    • When the 5 minutes are up, each person gets 2 minutes (and no more than 2 minutes) to show his or her ideas and explain the reasoning behind them.
    • The group may then ask questions of each sketcher, spending one more minute on each person.
  5. The person running the meeting has to keep time and be diligent about it. Otherwise these meetings can go forever, and in the future people won’t want to come.
  6. At the end of the charrette, the UX designer collects the papers and uses the ideas generated to help derive a design.
Four people sketch ideas

Attendees of our Wireframing and Prototyping course (in London, November 2013) sketch their ideas for a product-listings page.

One person holds up his paper sketch and explains to the other three people

Attendees of our Wireframing and Prototyping course explain their sketches to colleagues.

Ideas Unfolding

By the end of a charrette, the designer will have new ideas and a better understanding of why various people have different priorities. For example:

  • The marketing person’s homepage design has very little content. It mostly encompasses a few lines of text about a particular promotion. Her reasoning is that the sales of the promoted item should account for most revenue during the current season, and she wants to make sure it is visible and legible on even the smallest viewport.
  • In an intranet design, the HR representative sketches a section page with 90% of the above-fold space dedicated to the benefits of the open-enrollment period. When explaining her design, she says that this year there will be no print mailings to employees, and that people already get so many emails that they don’t see them. She is concerned that some people will miss their open-enrollment window, and that people who are in the field on their phones may completely miss it.
  • A developer has seen a new way of presenting and coding a list of items on a page. So, when sketching the product descriptions, he attempts to use the new, exciting user-interface pattern.

​In some cases, designers may actually take the drawing as sketched by their colleague and use it as their design. But what’s more likely is that the designers will get inspired by the ideas suggested during the charrette, and garner a better understanding of their colleagues’ perspectives and goals.

When to Conduct a Design Charrette

You can successfully conduct and use information gleaned in design charrettes at any time during a project cycle. Of course, set realistic goals for the session based on what can be done now. For example, don’t set a grand goal when your website is almost complete. Conversely, set sights high when a project is at the early research phases. And save ideas that you need to defer so you can remember them and possibly use them in future versions of the design.

Conclusion

Use design charrettes to explore and sketch ideas for designs, include more people in the design process and learn what drives your colleagues and domain specialists in particular areas of the UX, and drive away the designer’s block you may suffer when staring at that blank page.

(A broader spectrum of design-idea-generation methods are covered in our full-day course on Effective Ideation Techniques.)

Many thanks to attendees of my Wireframing and Prototyping course in London in November 2013 for allowing us to share their images.


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