Co.Design

Google Ventures: Your Design Team Needs A War Room. Here's How To Set One Up

Want to foster creativity? Skip the foosball table and opt for a war room instead. Google Ventures's Jake Knapp shows you how. Plus: a peek inside Google Ventures's own war room

In the last two years at Google Ventures, I’ve done design sprints with more than 80 startups. One of the simplest tricks I’ve learned is that a dedicated space with walls--a war room--always helps us do better work. The walls of a war room can extend a team’s memory, provide a canvas for shared note-taking, and act as long-term storage for works in progress.

Unfortunately, war rooms are few and far between. I’m surprised by how many tech companies make space for a foosball table (fun but seldom used), yet don't dedicate a room to their most important project.

If your team doesn’t have a war room, don’t worry. In this post, I’ll explain how to put one together on almost any budget. Spoiler: while a dedicated physical space is great to have, it’s not an absolute necessity. But first, here’s a bit more on why war rooms work so well.

Spatial memory > short-term memory

To solve a complex design problem, you need to track lots of moving parts. As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good--but our spatial memory is awesome. Plaster a room with notes and you take advantage of that spatial memory. You begin to know where information is, which extends your ability to remember things.

Physical ideas are easier to manipulate

We all know it’s better to re-order a prioritized list of sticky notes or re-draw a diagram than to make the same decisions verbally. That’s why there are whiteboards in meeting rooms and why people love agile trackers with sticky notes. War rooms take those tools to the next level.

War rooms build shared understanding

War rooms help your team work better together. When you capture every decision and put it on the wall, you don’t have to wonder if everyone is on the same page. The room is the page. The more you put on the walls, the more shared understanding you build. As a bonus, you spend less time revisiting already-discussed issues. A war room works great for long-term projects of a few days or a few weeks--and it also works great for one-off meetings.

Ingredients of a great war room

Lots of surface area

In a Google Ventures design sprint, it’s common to have many things on the walls at once: user story diagrams, research notes, printouts of the existing UI, sketches of possible solutions, a detailed storyboard, and sometimes more. To accommodate all that stuff, you need a lot of space. That means whiteboards, windows, and empty walls where you can stick stuff.

Every bit of window, wall, and whiteboard is useful.

Dedicated to projects (not meetings)

You don’t want your war room turning into just another conference room. For best results, remove your war room from your company’s room-scheduling calendar.

As many whiteboards as you can fit

Whiteboards come in a lot of styles, so choose wisely.

  • Floor-to-ceiling wall-mounted--The best. I like to use every square inch of available space, and with these babies, that’s a lot of space.
  • IdeaPaint--Great stuff (unless your walls have a funky texture). And for goodness sake, paint all the walls, otherwise, get ready to have somebody write “Not a whiteboard!” in whiteboard marker on the unpainted walls.
  • Normal wall-mounted--These are okay if you get more than one.
  • D.I.Y. shower board whiteboards--Much cheaper than real whiteboards, these require more elbow grease to install (you may spill Liquid Nails on your designer-y plaid shirt). The surface isn’t quite as good, so expect to clean it more often.
  • Rolling--These come in small and giant sizes. The small ones have a lot of unusable space down by the floor, and they shake when you draw on them. The giant ones cost a lot more, but they’re actually usable.

Flexible furniture

In our design sprints, we go through a lot of different work modes. Sometimes we need to talk a lot, and we want chairs and open space. Other times, we’re drawing on paper and we want desks. The ideal war room has furniture that’s lightweight or on wheels, so it’s easy to move.

Everything is lightweight, on wheels, or both.
You should always have at least one person wearing plaid--three or more if possible.

Three war room recipes

1. Google Ventures design war room

We took over a conference room and removed the big table in the middle. Next, we installed as many whiteboards as we could. We couldn’t do floor-to-ceiling, but we got close.

Finally we ordered a bunch of flexible furniture--some of it fancy-pants (like Modernica chairs) and some utilitarian (like clipboards and a coat hanger). Here’s the complete shopping list hand-picked by Google Ventures’ Daniel Burka. Some highlights:

2. Reconfigurable conference room

It may be impossible to completely take over a room. If you have to share your war room, get some portable wall space that you can assemble and disassemble quickly. Your options:

  • Sticky flip charts--Blank sheets of this stuff make a reusable, moveable backdrop for sticky notes and printouts.
  • Giant foam core--Foam core comes in 96”x48” but it’s expensive and tricky to find, not to mention cumbersome. Which is why I prefer...
  • Rolling whiteboards--see above for our favorite.

3. No-room war room

Sometimes you don’t even have a conference room to commandeer. I’ve seen this challenge at startups in incubators or shared offices. Don’t freak out. You can still make a war room by hacking the space around your desk. Use rolling whiteboards as partitions. It’s just like you’re a kid again, building a fort out of chairs and blankets! But don’t actually use blankets, because your co-workers might get creeped out.

Tell me about your workspace

We’re still experimenting and learning with our own war room, as well as those at our companies. How have you set up project spaces for your team?

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75 Comments

  • frederik.bellermann

    Hello Jake,

    my name is Frederik Bellermann, I am an interior designer and architect and currently working on my Phd Thesis titled „Spatial elements, principles and methods to foster innovation processes“. I have read your article „Why your team needs a war room - and how to set one up“ and was thrilled to see that you think about space as an enabler and trigger for a positive work environment.

    Would you be interested in some sort of exchange/collaboration to do some further research on this topic? In collaboration with my supervisor Prof. Dr. Noennig, working as a Juniorprofessor at the TU Dresden (http://tu-dresden.de/die_tu_dresden/fakultaeten/fakultaet_architektur/ige/kna/index_html), we want to set up an international network dealing with spatial strategies to foster innovation/knowledge work.

  • Lori Lewis

    What would you suggest if you had to create a 'virtual' war room and none of the participants were co-located? Especially for the white-boarding exercises?

  • great stuff Jake, thanks. I think every company that expects a creative process to drive their future success (all??) needs such a format. I have used them for years, and thanks for putting together the idea. The on wall paint, NOT a fan. any thoughts on colour of the pens to use for various reasons.

  • Black pens are my favorite — just super high contrast. I try to use color pretty sparingly, but red is my next favorite. Because black and red and white look awesome with our Time Timer. :)

  • John Wetzel

    Great stuff. As a college student, I appreciate the advice on creating these spaces on a budget. Any ideas/thoughts about how to potentially translate the 'war room' concept in an university level educational environment?

    Could you share any inspiration or resources that you used to create the space at Google Ventures?

  • Ethan Smith

    Great article, Jake! I've found war rooms invaluable in many past projects, but the current project I'm leading has me scrambling to find a way to share a deluge of constantly evolving information with a 100% remote team. While there are a ton of online collaboration and project management tools, I still haven't found anything that even comes close to the magic that comes from the ability to post, arrange, edit, rearrange, etc "physical" ideas in a shared and safe environment. Any favorites?

  • Harry Hutton

    Mural.ly is pretty awesome - its like a huge wall for sticky notes, links and pictures

  • Trello is the simplest and most flexible. It doesn't try to recreate everything about a shared workspace and it doesn't have a super strong opinion about workflow — and those decisions really work in its favor. Of course, it's no substitute for being together in person, but nothing really is (yet!) Give it a shot!

  • There are a lot of ways, but our approach was to buy frameless standard whiteboards and install them vertically right next to each other.

  • Loved this article Jake - especially as it has really practical advice (that is achievable on small budgets) on how companies like ours can implement these great ideas. Thanks!

  • Great article. And I totally agree with you jake, that you don't need fancy rooms or games to get people creative. You need to set a physical stage, that fertilise the right mindset and provides the necessary tools to get the team mentally prepared and off to a good start. Parcipants will then natually improve the war room along the way, if they are allowed to do so.

    We actually did a fun war room concept last summer during a Human Centered Design course. Our office was situated on the fourth floor with a terrace and a walkway along the outside floor to ceiling windows... and the weather was great. So our war room became an outdoor room plastering all the windows with postit and paper. Tricky when it got windy, requiring good photo documentation skills, and our colleagues might have thought that we were a little spacey, but it did the whole trick in terms on setting a common and effective stage for the team, that got us away from the 'mental office'.