Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the Design & Content Conference in Vancouver, BC. This post in particular focuses on Samantha Warren’s workshop: Style Tiles: The Visual Voice of Your Brand.

At Four Kitchens, we’re no stranger to successfully using style tiles to support, extend, and define visual brands for the web. I have several years of experience collaborating with clients using style tiles, to much success and a few failures. Designers everywhere have experienced challenges using style tiles, and learning/redefining their purpose with every unique client or project. I love hearing others’ perspective on best practices and who better to learn from than Samantha Warren?

My goals for attending Samantha’s workshop were:

  1. To see what the creator of style tiles says about them today.
    • What has worked and continues to work for her?
    • How does she make better design decisions based on her process of using style tiles?
    • How has she failed? How has she succeeded?
    • How can I better inform and explain design decisions and thought processes to clients?
  2. To explore with a group of designers how to better talk about the design process and to more effectively speak to design decisions. I specifically wanted to learn how our individual approaches differ.
  3. To continue learning how to ask better questions, period.
  4. Gain insight into how Samantha conducts her workshops.

Workshop tasks and agenda

  • Drawn word exercise
  • Drawn search box exercise
  • Style Tile presentation and discussion: Samantha’s experience using Style Tiles
  • Style Tile creation exercise

Drawn word exercise

As a workshop starting point, all participants (16-20 people) were tasked with visually representing one word on a large format Post-It note:

  • We had to use a single drawn line (one beginning and end point).
  • We had ten minutes to ponder this and draw our word. No other instruction was given.

Once everyone had their word drawn, we went around the room, one-by-one, presenting each drawing. The audience had to guess our word in three guesses or less. As the drawer, we were asked to explain our approach, thought process and reasoning behind our drawing. The audience then agreed or disagreed on whether the explanation helped in visually communicating each word. The varied results were pretty remarkable and helped hammer home the fact that people reason, interpret and execute differently.

Drawn search box exercise

Before lunch, we did a follow-up exercise in which we switched words with someone else, then applied and communicated that word through drawing a search box. In the same format as the previous word exercise, we went around the room and talked through our thought process. Once again, we talked about our design decision making and learned how to effectively communicate them. The critique feedback was helpful and thought-provoking.

Style Tile presentation and discussion

Samantha presented her initial design discovery for a video classroom application. The client loved the look of her first mock-ups; which were nothing more than slightly styled wireframes. They were more concerned with the functionality of the application than the look and feel.

She took it upon herself to create a style tile and present it to the client, by directly comparing the unstyled version of the site to what the site could look like via style tile. The client realized how important the design process was and opted to iterate through style tiles until they arrived at an approved version.

The main event: Style Tile exercise

The final workshop exercise was to create a style tile based on an imaginary client, creative brief and design materials, and some initial discovery documentation. In 4-person groups, we followed a style tile workbook (Samantha’s process of attribute foraging and word exercises) and created one style tile per group, based on 3-4 word attributes. Each group presented and talked through their interpretation of pooled research data.

My team’s end result:

Style Tile

Team members:

Key takeaways

I love learning how to ask better questions and, in turn, elicit better responses. Much of this has to do with setting the tone and establishing solid expectations. The word exercise was helpful in better understanding and defining what people actually mean when they use certain words.

Talking through design decisions is as helpful to a designer as it is a client. It builds mutual understanding and empathy. Clients get better at describing how they envision their website and business; truly understanding what their word choices mean. Designers get better at explaining how their design decisions align with client’s goals and descriptive words/metaphors. Both collaborate in better harmony.


Big thanks to my teammates, all attendees, and especially to Samantha for facilitating a great workshop.