Design Thinking for Everyone

By Elizabeth Nguyen

You don’t have to an architect to think like one. Designers of all kinds learn to use “Design Thinking”: a method of problem solving that emphasizes “making to think” rather than the traditional “think to make” way of problem solving.  It’s a hands-on, iterative process that can be surprisingly useful when you are seeking to innovate in any field.  This approach is a valuable tool to cultivate creative thinking and empathy, skills that many social scientists believe will be highly valued in the job market of the future.

So what is Design Thinking?

First coined by Herbert Simon in 1969, “design thinking” has been a bedrock of training in the architecture and planning professions.  Its essence is the ability to uncritically search for multiple solutions to a problem, then critically evaluate those solutions on equal footing.  It’s also known as “solution driven” problem solving, and requires a certain amount of ambiguity and synthesis before the results can be analyzed, thus fusing the rational with the inspirational.   Stanford’s publishes the bootcamp bootleg, an incredible resource for developing your own Design Thinking exercises, broken down into specific strategies, with stream-lined process maps for half-day and 90 minute problem solving sessions. They define five steps to follow, with activities for each step (comments in parentheses are mine):


1.       Empathize: with your user, observe and engage (research)

2.       Define: craft your point of view of what the design challenge is based on your empathy discoveries (synthesize)

3.       Ideate: open brainstorming, free of critical restraints, to find hidden possibilities (collaborate)

4.       Prototype: get your ideas out of your head and into the real-world; make symbolic representation of your ideas, created rapidly to engage your investigation of the problem (make and iterate, communicate)

5.       Test: get user feedback on your solutions to continue to learn and improve upon them. “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.”

 How We Use It

We follow this process when we approach any project, whether the task is to design a house for a family or a commercial space for a business or institution.  Understanding the needs and point of view of the end user is a crucial step in defining what the design task really is.  “Brainstorming” may sound familiar, but it is pushing those ideas forward and testing feasibility, identifying which evolve or fall away, that capitalizes on the initial burst of creativity.  It is an iterative process that is very helpful in determining the ultimate design direction and gaining consensus among all stakeholders.

Tactical Urbanism takes these premises to the street, as experienced recently at the Islington Street Lab installation organized by PS21 with the help of tactical urbanism expert Mike Lydon.  Tactical Urbanism is a form of research and prototyping at the human scale, using the city as a laboratory while encouraging radical collaboration between policy makers, design professionals, and the people who walk, drive and bike down the shared resource of the street.

 The future of jobs

If you doubt that design thinking skills will be useful in the future economy just google “artificial intelligence and the future of jobs” and you’ll see what I mean. Creativity is the one advantage a future worker may have over networked super computers running AI software. Brush up now and you could have a job in 2036! Author Daniel Pink put it this way in his 2006 book A Whole New Mind, “high-tech is no longer enough…we need to supplement our well-developed high-tech abilities with abilities that are high concept and high touch.” His terms high concept and high touch describe the abilities to be creative, to synthesize, to tell compelling stories (high concept); and to empathize and find and create joy and meaning (high touch). Studying software programming is not enough; teach yourself how to be an artist too.  We’re inspired by the executive, designer, technologist John Maeda, the self-described “humanist technologist” behind the movement to transform STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to STEAM by adding Art.

Our advice to young people interested in a career in architecture is always, “great! Take some art classes!” Or music, or acting, or whatever endeavor gets your creative juices flowing. While we all need to have strong technical skills, we also need to develop our various kinds of intelligences by engaging in some “serious play”.  It’s good for the soul and you may enjoy some unexpected benefits at work too!