1. Don’t Spill the Drinks: A New Metaphor for Design Thinking

Exploring the Importance of a Designer’s Process

E.Louise Larson
Dec 5, 2018 · 5 min read

You know the process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. Those are the five steps of Design Thinking. You’ve spent hours watching sticky notes cover walls, windows, and every possible surface until a grand idea is brought to life.

This is the famous process invented by IDEO. It birthed Apple’s first computer mouse and is commonly used to create product mock-ups, business strategies, and even plan joyful lives.

Design Thinking can be expansive, divergent, tedious, empathic, and challenging. These images convey a linear process, not a dynamic one. Top Google Image results for “Design Thinking” on Nov 28th, 2018.

If you’re familiar with authors like Richard Buchanan, Donella Meadows, Lucy Kimbell, and Arturo Escobar, you might have your own opinions on Design Thinking. Each of these authors has very different thoughts on the subject, yet they agree on one thing. Design is a process about changing existing situations into preferred ones. This disjoint, however, makes me wonder if the widely accepted purpose of Design is to make situations better, then is Design Thinking the best method to do so?

These various applications prove that Design Thinking is dynamic enough to fit a variety of needs. Companies, schools, and designers all adapt Design Thinking to their needs. Manufacturing and other agile workflows favor the double diamond, Engineering has several models like Systematic Variation, and Stanford designers like Ashish Goel conceived of Design Thinking as an infinity symbol.

Design Thinking needs a metaphor.

A metaphor makes an abstract concept concrete. It does this by borrowing qualities from a well known object or action and applying those qualities to an abstract concept.

The phases of Design Thinking have been assigned an axis in a coordinate system. On the X axis, Test and Ideate are at either ends of the spectrum. Empathize and Define are along the Y axis.

Creating a metaphor for Design Thinking is a big task. This metaphor must include the 5-step process, overlap, applied needs, and popular understanding. To accomplish this, we’re going to situate Empathize, Ideate, Define, and Test on a single plane.

The Prototyping phase has been removed because it can be achieved between rapidly switching between Test and Ideate.

This coordinate system for Design Thinking creates unique quadrants that highlight the permeability between each phase. In the examples above, several Design tasks have been mapped to their appropriate coordinate. These tasks might vary with refined prototypes, or as the needs of the project evolve.

In the example below, “Brainstorming with Users” is mapped to the Empathy and Ideate quadrant. In these brainstorming sessions, Designers will have to empathize with the users in order to lead the sessions. Users will ideate around the given task. During this ideation, a verbal or low-fidelity prototype might be constructed to demonstrate a point. In this instance, the node travels into the Test and Empathize quadrant, until it moves back into brainstorming. It is the responsibility of the Designer to direct the task and node into the most appropriate quadrant.

The node “Brainstorming with users” might move between the Empathy/Ideate and Empathy/Test quadrants.
Each phase blends into the other, but empathy is always required when designing for and with other people’s needs.


Designers are the fulcrum on which Design Thinking balances. They take into account their own knowledge and needs, the goals of the project, budget restrictions, time, and overall usability. Designers analyze each stage in the process to work within these constraints to maximize use and good design practice.

Balancing all these needs requires Designers to be conversational in empathy, testing, ideation, and definition. This empowers Designers to direct the project flow in each interaction.

Each phase of Design Thinking blends into the others. In one affinity mapping exercise, a team might build a paper prototype, ideate a solution, empathize with each other, and test new ideas, all within a single meeting.

A more tangible metaphor that demonstrates this balance can be found in for service industry. For anyone who’s waited tables, balancing a tray full of drinks takes patience and skill, and you have to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

The glasses on this tray represent the phases of Design Thinking. Each glasses both needs balance and provides balance to the whole tray.

Prototyping has been removed from this model because it can be accomplished by rapidly moving between Test and Ideate.

In this scenario, the waiter/designer has to use their intuition and carefully trained reflexes. Some glasses are full, others are nearly empty. Each glass requires individual attention while still balancing the whole tray.

Empathy is always the biggest glass on the tray. This is because Designers are designing for the needs of other people and situations. In order to do this well, Designers must always practice empathy. I explore the relationship between Empathy and Design in more depth in The Empathy Boogie.

This new metaphor aims to make Design Thinking more fluid. As Designers, we are constantly moving between each of the steps and always balancing the needs and desires of their users. This process can be exhausting and difficult to explain. But as we grow in our practice and profession, we develop better tools to do so.

Waiters develop an intuition for constantly balancing their tray of drinks. As a Designer you’re always balancing empathy, definition, ideation, and testing. Think about your own process. How might you develop a deeper intuition to more meaningfully guide your practice?

This article is part of a series: How Do We Get There From Here? Each essay explores a component of Design and how it shapes our practices. You can find the full series and related content at How Might We…, ongoing thoughts from my Graduate work at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design.

How Might We…

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