Learning Space 3D design

Redesigning a Think Tank Space

Originally published at https://cep811bretsw.wordpress.com/learning-spaces/


Several times a year, I bring together groups of people from around the United States for an intensive 48-hour Think Tank. Sometimes these meetings are more about ideation, other times more about strategy. Regardless of the specific content, the meetings are meant to be a time of co-discovery and collaboration, as well as creativity and innovation.

The most recent of these meetings was generously hosted in the corporate offices of a San Francisco tech startup. The entire office was well designed and “cool,” and our conference room was no exception. One wall of large windows let in natural light, and the opposite wall was floor to ceiling glass to the rest of the office. A third wall held a large dry-erase board and a retractable projection screen, and in a corner was a large LED monitor on wheels for easy adjustment. In the center of the room was a massive (seating up to 16 people) conference table with all the contemporary bells and whistles for company life: conference calling phones, cord organizers, and power outlets.

Conference room - before (1) web

Conference room - before (2) web

Design for experiences

While this space was the coolest conference room I have ever been in, it was still just a conference room with nicer amenties. Lee (2014) noted that the setup of a learning space communicates a message to students; the traditional classroom rows communicate an ordered environment where all attention is to be directed the front of the room and to the teacher in particular. In the case of a conference room, the massive and unavoidable presence of the conference table implies that the table itself is the most important thing in the room, and that participants should settle and expect to be there for a while. The layout also points attention toward a presentation or toward the “head” of the table. Either way, the participants on the long sides of the table are jostling for position, and are functioning as advisors at best.

Instead of these unconscious messages, Edutopia (2013) suggested an attempt to match the voice of the space with values for the gathering, or as Cannon Design, VS America, and Bruce Mau Design observed, form follows function (2010). I identified above that the primary values shaping these Think Tank meetings are co-discovery and collaboration, as well as creativity and innovation. Our task here is to create a space to match.

Place of experience: We want to create a space that feels distinctly different from the rest of the office, because the work done inside this room is different than that done outside. We need to create an experience of a series of events, and a flow to how those events unfold (Van Gelderen, 2010). When participants first enter the room, we will ask them to remove their shoes and place them on the shoe rack just to the left of the door. This will undoubtedly feel like an odd thing to do in an office; this feeling of discomfort is a perfect bridge into creative thought. We want all the details of the room to reinforce the sense of anticipation that something big is going to happen here. All the pieces of furniture will be aesthetically interesting and well made (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, & Kobbacy, 2013). The wall with large windows will be preserved for natural light (Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010; Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, & Kobbacy, 2013); another wall will be used a gallery space to display work and learning (Edutopia, 2013; Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010). In addition to the natural light from the windows, the overhead fluorescent lights will be replaced with high quality lights with warmer tone (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, & Kobbacy, 2013).

Agile Space: In place of the sturdy but utterly unwieldy conference table, we will have numerous smaller pieces of furniture; everything will be on wheels. The idea is to make the space flexible (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, & Kobbacy, 2013) and able to be quickly reconfigured (Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010)

Agile People: Rather than settling into comfy executive chairs to passively take in a presentation, we want to keep participants engaged and moving (Edutopia, 2013). Instead of a conference table, we will have smaller, round tables with high tabletops. There will be stools available, but the idea is for standing participants will be able to move quickly and adjust continually. We will put in a more padded carpet to encourage longer standing. We aiming for a space where presenters are not locked into the front of the room and the constant shifting movement increases concentration for everyone (Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010).

Peer-to-peer: We will replace the talking-head expert with small learning groups of 3-4 participants (Edutopia, 2013). If there is an expert present, their role will be as facilitator, akin to a designer and hacker drawing out the best of participants (Edutopia, 2013). The goal is connection between participants (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, & Kobbacy, 2013) and allowing participants to lead (Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010).   The space will reflect the primacy of the small learning groups, and when the time comes for everyone to join together, this will happen in a corner of the room, around a small round table flanked by a curved couch, soft but firm, definitely not cushy. In all ways, mutuality will be reinforced.

Everyone creates: We want our participants to participate. Constantly. We want ideas and thoughts to be put forth publicly; we want a space of interaction in as many directions as possible (Van Gelderen, 2010).   We will create numerous places to test new skills (Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010). There will dry erase surfaces everywhere; we will replace the existing white board (large as it is) with an entire blank wall coasted with dry-erase paint, and every tabletop with have a dry-erase surface (Edutopia, 2013).

Conference room - after (1) web

Conference room - after (2) web

Conference room - after (3) web

Conference room - after (4) web


This plan needs to be affirmed by various teams at multiple levels. An executive leadership team needs to agree upon values for the space. Accounting needs to sign off on the total budget. An operations team needs to implement the plan by working with a designer, furniture sales representative, installers, and paint and carpet professionals.


This space redesign would not need to happen all at once. Several stages of incremental changes might make the shift more palatable for participants. The first stage needs to be leadership group deciding on (or affirming) the values for work to be done in the space. Even if everyone is in agreement with the values I proposed above (co-discovery and collaboration; creativity and innovation), there should still be a process to formally embrace these.

Once values are agreed upon, smaller changes to the physical environment could be made to help participants warm up to the idea of things shifting. Two simple early changes would be starting with shoe storage by the door (and implementing a shoes-off approach to meetings) and replacing the dry-erase board with an entire wall covered in dry-erase surface. These would be quick changes and would not disrupt usage of the conference room.

The third stage (and second set of changes) would be more dramatic. Removing the conference table will feel like quite the plunge, as the room will no longer have the aura of corporate business; it’s possible that it will no longer feel like a meeting space. It will also just take some time to disassemble the table and take it out. Refurnishing should be a relatively quick process at that point, unless the carpet needs to be replaced with something slightly more comfortable on the feet.


In terms of opportunity costs, the first stage has no bearing on the meeting space, and the second stage could be executed in a half-day or even after business hours. But the third stage will take at least a full day, so there needs to be the ability to host meetings in another space during the furniture swap and any painting and carpet replacement.

In terms of financial costs, buying new office furniture is fairly expensive, although selling (or not purchasing in the first place) the massive conference table, executive chairs, and large dry erase board could offset the net cost.


  • Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013, January). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and environment, 59, 678-689. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.09.016
  • Cannon Design, VS America, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher: Ideas flash cards [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://thethirdteacherplus.com/s/TTTIdeasFlashCards.pdf
  • Edutopia. (2013, March 14). Remake your class [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXjEcnaYAmc
  • Lee, C. (2014, May 15). What your classroom setup may be saying to students [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.schoolleadership20.com/forum/topics/what-your-classroom-setup-may-be-saying-to-students-by-colleen-le
  • Van Gelderen, T. (2010, February 9). Experience design [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB4VFKn7MA4

[All images created using SketchUp Make.]