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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?

Add New Comment


  • Filip Grgic

    Thanks for sharing Marco. I personally don't believe in digitizing creative workspaces. Pens, pencils, paper, etc. have a much more natural feeling and the connection between these tools and the conductors/creatives is far better then handling a laggy screen. Even wacoms have a slight latency when it comes to sketching, but of course provide the advantage of much more flexibility when drawing. Still, many artists start on paper.

    In our war-room, laptops/screens are sufficient for adding digital content for instance.

    @Jake: Thanks for the inspiring article! I really like the idea of being able to move every piece of furniture easily to rearrange the room depending on the situation.

    Best regards!

  • Very interested to know if since this article was published a year ago, and all the people you've likely talked to about this, if you've compiled a formal or informal/mental list of some examples of similar spaces. Might you have a list of companies, a doc with links to images, or anything of the sort?

  • this is terminology is disgusting. as if war and and creative productivity were remotely similar. bomb the clients and gas the competition. as if death and destruction were a cultural value.

  • Scott Smith

    Alec you clearly don't understand the reference, I'd suggest you plug it into Google before you have a go at someone.

  • Jake- Thanks for publishing this. I'd be happy to email you photos of InVue's war room. We are a fast-growth global product company headquartered in Charlotte.

    Reading your article, I think we can improve some things, and I will be having some conversations with our heads of Product Marketing, Product Innovation, and Product Development regarding this.

    @anthonycaputi global talent, InVue

  • Jonathan Halloran-Koren

    Great Article! I just recently opened an office for my business and was able to use 90% of the tips and suggestions in this article. We have used the room several time in the past couple of months and I am so glad we didn't go with the traditional conference room approach.

  • Jimmy Freeman

    Hello my name jimmy freeman, I am a inventor with ideas and desiigns that could and change the world we live in. I am in need of help with expertise and foresight in taking these ideas and making them a reality. One of my ideas would end traffic fatalities. By correcting the human error variable.another idea is completely wireless charing to all devices. I am from a rural area in north Carolina. In saying I am in need of HELP or GUIDANCE. MY email is please HELP.

  • 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 (, 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.