Redesign recycling: A design thinking odyssey

Phil Smith
Apr 22, 2019 · 7 min read

A healthy middle school cafeteria, a toy to learn coding, and the first wearable breast pump — what do they all have in common? Design thinking. Since I first learned about design thinking back in 2012, I’ve been captivated. I jump at any opportunity to apply the method.

Design thinking fuels innovation. I feel a little dirty even saying that — buzzword salad isn’t my thing. Everyone would like to be innovative. Few truly are. But at the core of design thinking are proven ideas to fuel innovation. Peek inside a kindergarten class: everyone is creative (we ‘serious’ adults forget). Design thinking taps into the innate creativity in every human being. We don’t have all the answers: learn from others. Crazy good ideas will reveal themselves when we learn from others. But how do we know if these ideas a crazy good and not just crazy? Take these crazy ideas and test them: experiment rapidly. What works? What fails? Make it real no matter how crude. Paper and markers, scissors and tape—your new BFFs.

At my workplace, everyone has the opportunity to hack any idea during our semi-annual hackfests. This was my chance to apply design thinking. Less interested in the problem particulars, I pitched a vague project — redesign recycling. The vagueness was a happy accident because another core ability of design thinking is embrace ambiguity. The ambiguous pitch was great for gathering a design thinking team.

Perhaps I am drawn to design thinking because I live ambiguity. I had no plan for our team. I’ve been waiting for a chance to use this beautiful, practical, deck of cards. Each has an exercise in one of the three phases: build empathy (i.e. learn from others) unleash creativity, and prototype (i.e. experiment rapidly). It seems simple enough, but making a plan out of these cards turned out to be challenging. Unlike the popular design sprint methodology, there is no prescriptive path; there is no map. One must roam.

Photo credit: IDEO on the Design Kit Travel Pack.

The first stage of the odyssey: build empathy

I Notice, I Wonder

Capture the Right Mood

The second stage of the odyssey: experiment rapidly

Guerrilla Design

The bad idea brainstorm.

Bad Idea Brainstorm

Headlines from the future.

Headlines From the Future

Expert Interview



Maybe you, reader, would like to go on a similar odyssey? What do you see that is broken? We have no shortage of problems. Here are some resources to prepare you.

Build Galvanize

A window to the product, design, and engineering teams at…