Design thinking is a human-centered process for innovation. It is a philosophy, a mindset and a methodology that is taught at the Stanford Design School in five general phases. This process is not necessarily linear and the process often involves iterating through the cycle multiple times.

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A great description of the’s design thinking process is outlined in a paper by colleagues Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers, along with Dana Mitroff Silvers (formerly with SFMOMA). The paper goes through the entire 2012 bootcamp challenge which focused on redesigning the museum visitor engagement experience for SFMOMA.

Excerpts from their paper outline the five phases:

Empathy is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Borrowing from ethnographic methods, the empathy phase involves interviews, observations, and immersion in the field. The goal of empathy is to identify the individual needs associated with the challenge and to uncover insights to guide the design.

- The define phase involves synthesizing findings in order to identify and articulate an approach to the challenge. During this phase, team members process, map, discuss, categorize, reflection, and make sense of the data they accumulated in the field.

-  The ideate phase focuses on the generation of new solutions. The goal is quantity and diversity of ideas.

-  Prototyping is making fast, low-fidelity representations of ideas, usually with the goal of communicating the ideas to users and getting feedback.

- These prototypes are then tested with users in order to enable human centered solutions.

For me, design thinking’s contribution lies in the following three areas:

  1. The human centered focus.  Often when we are trying to solve complex social, economic, and political issues, we focus on the actions of those we are trying to help, but place insufficient attention on the needs, desires and motivations underlying those actions.
  2. The opportunity to reframe the problem. Because we are often looking at the explicit actions of those we are trying to help, we often miss the implicit needs, and in doing so, we often misdiagnose the problem in the first place. So we end solving for the wrong problem – often a symptom of the problem, but not necessarily the underlying cause of the problem. Other times, we are simply not framing the problem accurately.
  3. Developing an iterative process that fosters creativity, experimentation and a bias towards action. Foundations and nonprofit organizations are often working in rigid processes that suffocate innovation. This could be due in part to the rigid agreements set between funders and grantees, where deliverables are outlined even before a project begins, leaving little room to pivot if an organization uncovers new insights that could influence the future direction of the program, or if the promised programming is not having the desired impact.  Design thinking ensures that the process is flexible and provides multiple opportunities to recalibrate and pivot based on new insights and information. values.png

Design thinking has been employed by product designers for over a decade, as demonstrated by the many products that have emerged out of IDEO and other design thinking consulting companies.  My personal draw to design thinking was less focused on launching a new product – I only wish I had those tendencies- but I was curious to learn how design thinking could infuse the nonprofit sector with more creativity, and whether it could help practitioners find more innovative, effective and collaborative ways to tackle messy problems.  After a year as a fellow-in-residence at the, I not only learned it can be done, but experienced first-hand how powerful and personally invigorating it is to apply design thinking to the messy challenges I personally want to tackle.