Written by / Courtesy of Smashing Magazine

Up On The Wall: How Working Walls Unlock Creative Insight

Research wall, design wall, research board, ideation wall, inspiration board, moodboard, pinboard — Working walls are known by countless names. Underlying them all is a single idea: that physically pinning our sources of inspiration and work in progress, and surrounding ourselves with them, can help us to rearrange concepts and unlock breakthrough insights.

In their 2009 paper on creativity in design, human media interaction researcher Dhaval Vyas and his colleagues coined the term “artful surfaces” to refer to “surfaces that designers create by externalizing their work-related activities, to be able to effectively support their everyday way of working.” According to Vyas and his colleagues at the University of Twente (in the Netherlands), designers integrate these surfaces “artfully” and organize information in such a way that it empowers them to visualize and extend their work in progress.

Working Walls And Design Thinking

In this article, you will learn how displaying data and ideas on a large vertical surface can enhance your design thinking process. One of the first things to know is that the practice of using “working walls,” as we will call these surfaces from now on, is scarcely documented in scientific literature — hence, the need for a working definition of a working wall (redundancy intended). For the purpose of this article, we’ll define it as a large vertical surface on which ideas, data and work in progress can be displayed, rearranged and extended.

This design thinking tool being as powerful as it is, it comes as no surprise that a myriad of other fields have adapted and used it for years. But just how do working walls come into play in design thinking? Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, defines design thinking like so:

“A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

To further define this approach, The Institute of Design at Stanford (or d.school) has outlined five steps in the design thinking process:


It all starts with empathizing with the people you are designing for. Then, you define a clear perspective of the process by making sense of a large amount of information. You proceed with ideation, exploring a wide array of concepts and generating possible solutions. Prototyping involves building an object (or artifact) that a user can experience and give you feedback on. Testing is about triggering an actual response from your intended user.

Working walls can facilitate every step of the design thinking process, and they offer unique advantages to bolster creative thought. The tool can help us empathize with and gather input from users, define a focused approach based on a large amount of data, capture the ideation process, display a low-fidelity prototype that users can interact with, and keep track of the way we’ve tested our creative assumptions.

Hopefully, the following benefits and working wall templates will inspire you to create your own today.

1. Empathize: Enable Peripheral Participation By Users

Large vertical surfaces can be used to spark interaction with your intended users. Wall-sized displays allow for easy visualization and intervention, which makes them particularly useful for consumer research.

Vyas and his group spent over 250 hours studying design departments at universities and companies in the Netherlands and concluded that artful surfaces are “an important vehicle for peripheral participation in a project, allowing visitors to enter its context.”

They labeled this participatory environment a “creative ecology,” where users are free to interact via their inputs on working walls.

5 Guys Burgers and Fries, for instance, has been using working walls to invite customers to describe their dining experience.

Continue reading over at Smashing Magazine.