Book Review: "Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration"

Every teacher grapples with how to adapt a physical space, usually assigned and often less than ideal, to the requirements of a particular educational objective. Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft is an all-purpose toolkit for such occasions — think: creative space-design tips in book form.

Doorley and Witthoft direct the Collaborative Environment at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Lacking a permanent facility, the school moved location four times in its first four years. This nomadic existence honed the school’s experimentation with student activities, postures, density, furniture types and arrangements, surfaces, materials, lighting, ambience and storage. The result is a bounty of knowledge about spatial-behavioral relationships and ways to manipulate them with surprisingly low-cost materials.

The book superbly details key design principles. In the same way the authors encourage outfitting spaces to be easily accessed and rearranged by multiple users with differing needs, they offer a smorgasbord of 100 bite-size ideas that can be read front to back or nibbled in any order.

Throughout the book, Doorley and Witthoft emphasize “a bias toward action:”

“We designed this book so that you would put it down — so that you can and will experiment. Read it long enough to get inspired, then put it down and get to work. Pick it up when you need another boost, then put it down again and get back to work. Each entry and the sum of their collisions can help you quickly fine-tune every decision you make — from the shape and scale of the furniture you use to the music you play in the space — to inspire new ways of working and interacting.”

 The authors intersperse five types of content: ToolsSituationsDesign TemplateSpace Studies and Insights.

Typical Tools entries describe mounting furniture on casters, building movable slick-surface room dividers for use with wipe-off markers, making foam-block stools for flexible short-term seating, and stacking open bins on rolling carts to keep tools and supplies handy. The authors provide assembly instructions, sources, cost estimates and ways to make inexpensive trial versions.

Situations addresses how to configure spaces for activities such as heads-up information sharing or heads-down focused work, as well as ways to transition between the two.

Design Template teaches the “spatial grammar” of four elements: places, properties, actions and attitudes while the Space Studies section offers real-life examples authored by collaborators.

Insights, the largest category in the book, is the product of the design school’s “trials and errors.” Typical entries include when to use walls versus open spaces, using furniture to encourage interaction, using raw finishes to encourage messy experimentation and when to “Leave Room to Evolve.” Doorley and Witthoft emphasize that sometimes less is more:

“Allow the space and the people to adapt and grow. Do less. Leave some aspects of the space open-ended, even though your impulse might by to take care of every detail. Resist filling every square foot with furniture or decoration — literally leave room for improvement.”

The book’s eclecticism derives from the authors’ multifaceted backgrounds. Doorley, who has worked in education, design and filmmaking, describes himself as “a serious dabbler, who rarely dabbles in seriousness.” Witthoft, with experience in civil and structural engineering and product design, calls himself “sometimes an artist, always a maker.”

A playful approach keeps the reading lively and the reader primed for the unexpected, such as the header on page 261: “This Page Unintentionally Left Blank.” Every page exudes creativity and accessibility through clever use of illustrations, graphics and color.

Make Space is a versatile resource that packs so many insightful concepts and practical solutions between its covers that every educator or group leader, whatever their physical setting, can discover ways to enhance the learning or collaborative working environment. Reading this book before starting a space-design project will help you avoid pitfalls, save money and jumpstart your imaginatio