Thinking about Design Thinking

Recently, my assistant, Krysta and I attended an AIGA event series entitled “Design for Social Impact” that focused on how to use design thinking to solve problems in the nonprofit sector. I follow a similar process in my design practice, so it was great to hear them break it down and show the steps they took.

If you’re not familiar with design thinking, I’ll give you an overview and share why I think it’s so valuable.

Design thinking is a process for solving complex problems. It was developed by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (known as the It can be applied to all sorts of situations, from designing a product, service or brand to designing a system, business or idea. Design thinking is a flexible process adaptable to many situations.

Design thinking is characterized by a bias to action. Ideas that spend too much time in development can lose touch with the real people and problems they are intended to help.

So, let’s get to the process itself.  There are five steps.


1. Empathize

Empathize with your audience. Do you know who they are and what they care about? Create personas and and look at the world from their point of view. Go out and ask about their point of view! Use observation, engagement and immersion to discover what matters to them. Creating an interview process that includes another teammate is also helpful. One person can engage and be present in an interview while the other makes notes. Ask open ended questions and dig into interesting and relevant areas.

Remember, the key to empathy is “feeling with,” so taking the time to suspend your judgement or personal opinions is the only way you’ll gain the valuable insight about another persons perspective.

2. Define

Define the problem. Often we begin a project and discover later that we are solving the wrong problem. Sometimes it is a matter of going deeper or reframing the situation altogether. Get very clear on what problem you are trying to solve and why it matters. The example given in the first week of our AIGA workshop was, that we were first asked to design a vase, then we were asked to design a better way to enjoy flowers. Going from broad thinking to narrow in your consideration of the problem is a key element of design thinking.

3. Ideate

Once the problem is defined, ideate as many solutions as possible. Have a wild brainstorm and generate hundreds of ideas. Be creative and do not judge or rule out ridiculous-seeming ideas. The objective here is quick, dirty and collaborative! Build on the ideas of others, see what common ideas are emerging, and don’t let yourself get bogged down in what’s good/bad/realistic, etc. Be playful.

4. Prototype

Take a few of your best ideas and quickly prototype them. Do not make perfect, finished products. Make basic prototypes that get the idea across. Even if you’re not creating a physical product, you can prototype an idea. One technique is to create a specific character and storyboard their problem, and how they would interact with your solution — what are the beginning, middle and end of this process?

5. Test

Take your prototype out into the world and test it. You can do focus groups or user testing. Interact with people and get feedback.


Once you have gone through the steps, reevaluate and start the process again.

Every step will teach you so much about what you are trying to accomplish. Once you begin the process of defining the problem and ideating you will likely realize where the holes in your information about your audience are. This is why the process can be done quickly and repeated many times.

The emphasis on quickly prototyping ideas gets you out of a hyper-critical mindset that wants you to be “right” all of the time. It also helps you move away from wrong assumptions that can derail a project. Testing gives you immediate feedback that you can use to make your project better. Because the steps are done quickly, you do not invest all of your time or energy into one idea that must work. You can sprint through the process in a week or even a day, depending on your project. Again, the key here is flexibility—and failure. You can get the bad ideas out of the way quickly so that you can get to the good ones.

Design thinking is an apt way to design for an ever changing world. Gone are the days when one solution works in every situation or people are working toward a fixed point of perfection. We live in a multifaceted and complex world that needs diverse solutions and design thinking provides a framework to work toward better solutions every day.