What the Heck is Design Thinking Anyway?

or How to Creatively and Consistently Solve Any Challenge Set Before You

If we define design as the decisions that determine how something works,

Design = Decisions

then Design Thinking is simply the process to make more thoughtful decisions.

Design Thinking = 
Thoughtful Decisions

Too often, we aren’t even aware there are decisions to be made, or that we have options besides the default on offer.

The truth is, though — every day, in life and in work — you have a dizzying array of opportunities to make more intentional decisions that could result in more desirable outcomes.

Then why don’t we take advantage of this all-you-can-eat design buffet? Because there are too many opportunities.

How do we know which ones to take advantage of?

And even if we could figure that out, how exactly do we take advantage of them?

CUT TO: Design Thinking shyly raising its hand. 👋

Over the years, this thought process has grown beyond its roots, primarily in product design, to be applied universally to solve any problem creatively — big, small, and seemingly impossible.

It’s as close to a human superpower as we have.

Seriously.

If science is how we make sense of our world, design is the way we impact it.

With Design Thinking you have the power to consistently harness creativity and make it your bitch.

Many of us don’t believe creativity can be harnessed like other, more earthly processes. Maybe that’s because until very recently in human history, we haven’t had a creative-problem solving process that could be as universally and consistently applied to do so.

Plus, it’s much more fun to believe in a fickle and elusive muse who visits only a select few, very special people in each lifetime.

When it comes down to it, creativity is simply the act of creating. Even if the thing you create exists only in your mind.

We can get paralyzed thinking that expressing creativity has to mean creating something that’s never existed before, EVER!

But that’s impossible. We cannot imagine the unimaginable.

Go ahead and try. We’ll wait.

(And no cheating by using our world’s laws of physics or any chemical element found in this universe!)

When I was a kid, I spent a whole afternoon trying to draw what a real alien would look like if it didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before. The best I came up with that day was putting boobs where the arms should go.

And then many years later, I saw this Stanley Kubrick quote at LACMA and was like, “Yes!”

“…it soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable.” — Stanley Kubrick

We can only knit together what we already know in new ways to get to the something that’s never existed before.

Then, only in hindsight, can we look back and see that, nope, we never could have imagined the solution at the start.

And that’s what Design Thinking offers — a way to get where you’re going when you don’t know where that is.

So, what is the process of Design Thinking exactly?

Like anything, there’s complexity and layers of nuance to discover, but it can be pretty much summed up in four phases.

The 4 Phases of Design Thinking

1) Getting Focused: This is all about identifying constraints, and framing your challenge around the right questions (which probably aren’t the same questions you’ve been knocking your head against forever).

Less like: How can we stop drinking so much wine in front of the TV every night, OMG, we’re such losers!?

More like: How might we design activities at home that help us feel rewarded after a hard day of work?

A famous example of looking to an analogous situation is the redesign of a hospital operating room that looked to a NASCAR pit crew for insights.

2) Getting Inspired: This is all about letting your curiosity guide you, and gaining empathy for the people you’re designing for (which could also be yourself). Become a detective of the world outside your own. You’re looking for clues about new ways of thinking and doing.

Talk to experts, people with extreme behaviors related to your challenge, and analogous situations that might provide unexpected answers. Go crazy, think broadly, have fun with it, be a little weird. This isn’t about finding the right answer. It’s about shaking things up and collecting a swirl of many potential answers.

Getting Scrappy & Smarter Evening Routine-style: Brainstorm. Cluster. Prototype. Iterate.

3) Getting Scrappy: This is all about finding the patterns in your inspiration research, generating a whole lot of wild ideas, and creating lo-fi prototypes.

4) Getting Smarter: This is all about sharing your ideas with the people you’re designing for early and often, and testing and iterating your way towards a successful solution.

It helps when you’re just getting started to use these like you would training wheels, and to surround yourself with people who can do this kind of work in their sleep. But once you get practiced at it, you really don’t need to work through all the phases all the time, or do them in any particular order.

In fact, approaching the world through a designer’s lens becomes more of a mindset — one that is centered around:

· Curiosity: to seek out and see the world in new ways, especially through the eyes of other people. Empathy is an especially powerful tool, used in combination with your own design instincts.

· Optimism: to feel like every challenge is an opportunity for improvement, and that people (including you!) have the capacity to identify and solve seemingly impossible problems.

· Collaboration: to surround yourself with people whose brains and skills are different than yours so that you incorporate new perspectives and can get further faster, together.

One word of caution, like with all superpowers, you’ll sometimes resent experiencing the world with this newfound hyper-sensitivity.

Like when you’re at the airport at a United gate and everyone is asking everyone else if they’re standing in line 2 or 3 or what group is boarding, and people are bunched up against the moving sidewalk barriers and nobody walking by can get through and you’re like, “You can design this process to actually function if you wanted to, stupid f*cking United!”

By the way, that’s a good distinction to make: optimism doesn’t mean being cloyingly rose-colored. It just means you believe there’s room for improvement. And being design-minded just means you have the creative confidence that you are one of those people who can improve it.

I’m definitely optimistic that you can!

I’m also curious to hear what design challenges you’re interested in solving.

Share them here, and who knows, maybe there are others reading this that would be great collaborators on your new project.


If you want to experiment with applying design thinking to your own life, listen and subscribe to the Results May Vary podcast.

And if you enjoyed this article, please tap the heart below and share with someone you think would enjoy designing their lives more mindfully.