4 Things You Should Learn If You Want To Be A Successful Design Thinker

esign Thinking is basically about two things. One is to re-activate the right side of your brain. Two is to connect your new found way of thinking to the context and scientific method that is already in place. Some call Design Thinking a method, some refer to it as a framework, others as a skillset. I would rather call it all of those, and call it a way. To learn the way of the Design Thinker you have to go through four steps. It’s a training program for the mind, training the right side of your brain and connecting it to the left. All in order to develop you problem-finding, -seeing and -solving muscles.

Step 1: Start Drawing & Visual Thinking

Activate the right side of your brain

Design Thinking uses the right side of your brain. Most problem solving methods that are taught in schools are analytical and use the left side of the brain. Those are perfectly good methods, but Design Thinking is a different way to solve problems. And it deploys the other side of your brain. Most people haven’t used the right side of their brain since elementary school. When we were kids we were all creative and drew and built stuff all the time. Most of us stopped doing that. To start with Design Thinking, we need to awake the creative, stuff making, expressive side of our brains from hibernation. One of the best ways to do this is by drawing. So pick up your kid’s coloring pencils and start. All you need is pencils and the guts to get over yourself.

Think with your visual mind

Once you’ve got your hands, eyes and brain re-adjusted to drawing, start to draw to help you think. Start drawing diagrams, boxes and arrows when you read something. Start drawing your thoughts when you are trying to solve something. Use simple stick figures, icons and connect things. You will start to see patterns. The simple act of drawing will spark new ideas. Ideas you wouldn’t have thought up without drawing. One of the secrets to Design Thinking is this interaction of your brain with the visual world. If you start creating something, a drawing, a diagram, seeing the thing you created will generate new ideas. The matter will start to speak to you, tell you where it wants to go. You will start to think with your eyes. This is your visual mind at work. Just like your rational, verbal mind, it can think. This is why it’s called Design Thinking, it’s thinking by designing, by making, by drawing. So learn to speak the visual language, let tour eyes talk to you.

Learn to see

One of the other things that drawing does for you is that you start to see more, different. Drawing is an exercise in seeing, noticing things. Once you start drawing, you are forced to look better. One of the tricks to thinking different is seeing different. This heightened level of perception will help you in other areas as well. Draw all sorts of things. One of the things that drawing real things around you will teach you is to see the big lines. One of the most used methods to draw stuff is to recognize the big lines and shapes first and then move on to the details. In the complexity of the problems you are going to use Design Thinking in, the skill to see the big lines is crucial. Another aspect of drawing is about the relations between objects and the space between them. Things exist in their relation to other things. A good drawing articulates the relationship between things, their size, direction, fabric, color. The way these things relate to one another is what makes a good drawing. The ability to switch between detail of an object and the big picture of how things relate to each other is also a skill that will be very helpful when you analyze complex problem spaces.

“I did not teach the kids a way to draw but a way to see.” — Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore

Move between concrete and abstract

One of the skills a Design Thinker should master is moving through different abstraction levels easily. One of the things you have to learn to navigate swiftly through is the concrete and the abstract world. You can develop and find ideas in both realms and the trick is to create synergy between the two. You don’t want to end up in a situation that you come up with a great abstract idea that doesn’t work in reality. What you want is a abstract concept that gets better when you confront it with the concrete reality. One way to practice the move between abstract and concrete is drawing. Once you have an abstract idea, try to draw it, try to make it concrete. Then reflect on it in an abstract conceptual way. And so on. Try to find the synergy, the point where the two feed off each other. In my experience, one of the areas where this matters most is the relation between strategy, tactics and operations. In most organizations and projects there is a lack of synergetic flow between those levels. If you can connect those three levels because you mastered moving swiftly between abstraction and reality, between big pictures and small details, you can add a lot of value as a Design Thinker.

Communicate better

There is an added bonus to this drawing step. Not only will drawing help you think, it will also help you communicate better. If you use your drawings to explain things to other people, they will understand much better. You can use it in presentations, discussions or even sales pitches. Drawing out your ideas greatly helps people see your point. That is why if people understand something, they say “Ah, now I see.” Communication through the eyes is far more powerful than the ears. Once you integrate drawing in your thinking and communication, your storytelling skills will greatly increase. And it goes without saying, that if you can improve on communication in projects, this will help a lot with performance, quality and engagement.

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If you want to read more about how drawing can help you to communicate and sell better, I recommend reading Draw To Win by Dan Roam (or at least my visual article about it, or my review).

Drawing for designers

But what about designers getting into Design Thinking? They already trained their visual mind. They already mastered visual thinking. Should they also start to draw? I think drawing is even a good exercise for designers that want to get into Design Thinking. This might come as a surprise, but a lot of designers don’t draw. They use advanced computer tools instead of paper en pencils. These tools are great for making products and allow them to move faster, but something is lost when you don’t draw. You miss out on the benefits of touch, of hand-eye coordination. If you use your hands, something different happens in your brain. You start to think different. And on top of that the output of advanced computer tools are limited in their use in problem solving situations. They are mostly aimed at creating deliverables for specific design assignments. The aim of Design Thinking is to use design skills in other situations. And with these tools, the transfer is harder. They are built to make beauty, but Design Thinking is not primarily about the beauty part of design, but about the thinking part. Drawing puts the focus back on the thinking part and away from the beauty part.

Next steps

Drawing is just the beginning. It’s a foundational skill that you can develop all your life. The other three skills you need to learn in order to master Design Thinking are all somehow connected to the skills and mindset that you develop when you start drawing. The next steps will all build on this first step of drawing. They will cover:

  • Step 2: Start prototyping. This is a step up from drawing. Design Thinking is about creating solutions to learn. Not to use solutions as deliverables, but to use them as a tool, a means to an end. The end is better understanding of the problem space, finding the right questions, bringing people together and validating your choices. Prototyping is a great way to learn and the method of choice of a good Design Thinker.
  • Step 3: Become lean. Prototyping is the gateway towards lean (startup) thinking. If you learn to identify assumptions, formulate hypothesis and design ways to test your ideas in iterations, you are on your way to apply your designerly skills to the context of your projects.
  • Step 4: Learn to think in systems. To truly see where Design Thinking can add value to an organization, you need to learn to see the systems and how they work. All projects operate in complex ecosystems of stakeholders, goals, needs, technology, organizational structures, etc. Design Thinking can introduce new forces in this system. Deep understanding the effects Design Thinking can have an how they relate to the forces in systems is crucial if you want to maximize the impact Design Thinking has.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into the three next steps in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner