How we used design thinking to create media solutions

Elaine Ramirez
Feb 25, 2019 · 10 min read

Post-it notes, ideas that can get you fired, and the fuzzy front end are a few tools that MIE’s design thinking professors shared with students for thinking up innovative new ideas in creative ways.

Rachel Wong and Hillary Carey, former IDEO design researchers, spent a quarter with Medill’s media innovation and entrepreneurship students in San Francisco — a class in which students explored Bay Area neighborhoods to seek out opportunities to build media products focused on local news and information.

From left: Design thinking professors Hillary Carey and Rachel Wong stand amid brainstorming materials at Northwestern University’s San Francisco campus. (Photo / Elaine Ramirez)

Rachel and Hillary’s design thinking course focused on developing ideas through methods of observation, interviewing, synthesis, brainstorming and prototyping.

“What we really wanted them to learn was idea generation — different methods for having ideas. Interviewing and synthesis are probably fairly familiar, but the concept development and prototyping is so valuable for the extent that it can be used to learn and test your ideas,” says Hillary, who has taught design thinking to clients and at the California College of the Arts.

“Teaching design thinking to journalism students to save the industry and spring new ideas was really cool. To find out how non-designers do in the process, the idea that they would be much better writers and presenters is exciting and interesting to see, because designers are more nervous about going out into the world and interviewing people,” she says.

Rachel, who has magazine and radio journalism experience, said she was instantly excited for the opportunity to teach design thinking to journalists. “I don’t see a lot of intersections come along very often between journalism and design research.”

Rachel and Hillary’s primary goal was to create a hands-on learning experience that would prepare students for upcoming NUvention Web+Media, Local News Initiative and Knight Lab Studio courses, where they ideate and develop market-ready media products.

Interviewing is different for journalism and design thinking, so teaching the difference was important too. While journalists often start interviewing with the story in mind, design researchers must do the opposite and allow the subjects to be in control of the interview. “We wanted to teach how to go in without a preconceived notion, without an end goal in mind, and really be inspired and surprised by what you’re seeing. It seems like journalists have to go in knowing what they’re going to find,” Hillary says.

“It’s a big investment to come to a new city for a quarter, so we really made sure that we were challenging graduate students at this level,” Rachel says.

That is why they brought in several local guest speakers including Lyft research manager Gabe Trionfi, Reveal digital producer Sam Ward and former Gannett vice president of innovation Laura Ramos.

MIE’s 15 students split into five groups to cover Union Square, the Mission and Bernal Heights in San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley in the East Bay. Here’s what they said about their neighborhoods, products and what they learned.

From left, clockwise: Nicki Kaplan, Melissa Hovanes, Hillary Carey, Rachel Wong and Isabel Miller-Bottome. (Photo / Rich Gordon)

Neighborhood: Bernal Heights

Team: Melissa Hovanes, Nicki Kaplan, Isabel Miller-Bottome

Product idea and problem it solves:

Bernal Box is a monthly subscription package delivered to your doorstep that includes goods from local businesses and a high-quality magazine covering local news. The next step for this product is to prototype a digitized version, which would support residents’ desire to protect the environment by reducing use of paper and plastic. Online coupons also encourage people to visit local businesses.

Bernal Heights resident and digital media professional Todd Lappin used to run a hyperlocal blog called Bernalwood. Residents cherished having this high-quality, trusted source for local content. Thus, a nice digitized magazine will serve a need that has been unmet for the last six months.

Stereotypical view of our neighborhood:

Bernal Heights was once a thriving middle-class neighborhood, but due to drastically increasing home prices it now supports upper-class tech industry employees who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. These residents value having their own homes and yards in a relatively safe area where they can raise a family. Bernal Heights is also an extremely pet-friendly community, and neighborhood businesses often cater to dog owners.

Melissa Hovanes and Nicki Kaplan

Something nuanced we learned:

One surprising observation was that physical communication is still thriving in Bernal Heights. Cluttered message boards are found all along Cortland Avenue, and fliers and posters appear on telephone poles throughout the area.

We even came across a handwritten note tied to a tree that read, “Dear Neighbors, the tree guy says there’s too many dogs using this tree. Please spread the love.” This early observation served us well in our search for research participants. The most effective way we found residents to interview was not by posting on Craigslist or Facebook, but by posting fliers. That’s one reason why we chose to create a physical media product.

Our biggest challenge in embracing design thinking:

Each person we interviewed came from an extremely different walk of life. It was interesting to dive deep into the lives of people ranging from small business owners to an early adopter of social media. We often had to remind ourselves that the unique experiences and interests of one person did not necessarily represent all Bernal Heights residents. Therefore, we had to be careful not to get too attached to one person’s viewpoint and ensure that our product solutions reflected the greater Bernal Heights community.

From left: Danny Hwang, Wuqiu Sun, Elaine Ramirez, Rachel Wong and Hillary Carey. (Photo / Rich Gordon)

Neighborhood: Berkeley

Team: Danny Hwang, Elaine Ramirez, Wuqiu Sun

Product idea and problem it solves:

“Neighbor” is a project aimed to ease class tensions. Berkeley residents can team up to take turns helping with each other’s household chores, yard projects, or community repair. Inspired by the ROSCA or chit microlending models used in sub-Saharan Africa and India, Neighbor applies the collaborative investment and benefit concept to residential and community upkeep. Users propose projects on Neighbor’s platform, and Neighbor matches them up by similar tasks. Everyone gets extra hands on their project while meeting residents from other Berkeley neighborhoods.

Stereotypical view of our neighborhood:

Berkeley is often seen as an uber-progressive, inclusive and politically active neighborhood. The legacy and history of the hippie era still define a large part of how Berkeley is perceived by non-residents.

Something nuanced we learned:

There are several forms of tensions that exist in Berkeley that make it less progressive than its history implies: racial and class conflicts, a discord between long-term residents and short-term residents or students, and residential segregation between distinct neighborhoods. All of these tensions are closely intertwined.

Our most effective design thinking tool:

The in-depth interviews were the most useful, as they forced us to get out of our heads and investigate people’s actual experiences. Speaking with Berkeley residents addressed a gap in information and insights that we could not cover with online research as outsiders. The interviews allowed us to either confirm and debunk our theories and suspicions about what it was like to live in Berkeley.

From left: Austin Ryan, Louis Oh, Hillary Carey and Olivia Obineme

Neighborhood: Mission

Team: Olivia Obineme, Louis Oh, Austin Ryan

Product idea and problem it solves:

“The Mission Connection” is a four-part weekly newsletter written by Mission residents on hot topics in the district. It features two community perspectives on an issue that’s important to the Mission, a community member profile, a feature on a particular street or local restaurant, and reader comments on the previous week’s topic. It also includes a community event calendar.

After discovering significant disconnects between sub-communities in the Mission, we decided to focus on community-driven media to foster an environment of understanding and community building for the Mission residents. We want to show that they aren’t alone and to give them a voice in the community.

Stereotypical view of our neighborhood:

Per Judgmental Maps, some keywords include “techspanol,” “gangs” and “murals.” Per Hoodmaps some keywords include “hipsters,” “too many transplants,” “people standing in line,” “like four Mexicans left,” “bitcoin dorms,” “frontline of gentrification war,” “techies,” “crime” and “sketch/amazing food.”

In summary, the prevailing image of Mission is a former Mexican-American enclave that is experiencing stark levels of gentrification brought on by tech and hipster transplants seeking to commute to downtown. But it still faces drug crime and homelessness issues.

Something nuanced we learned:

We found that inequality manifests starkly and physically in a dichotomy between Valencia and Mission streets, but residents are not clearly divided. They are all packed very closely together and the “borders” are very unclear.

The locals appear to be relatively positive despite the dismissive sneering of the area getting “cleaned up,” but don’t necessarily see the changes as things getting fixed.

There’s a deeper unseen political layer involved, both between districts over who is responsible for the city’s problems and between the community itself and its representatives. Many of these issues seem to be citywide, but crystallized especially in the Mission.

Our most effective design thinking tool:

In our intercept interviews, our subjects varied in age, career, location and community engagement — but all six of them read at least one email newsletter a day. This indicated to us that there was a market for our product, and that there is still interest in the written word for news consumption.

From left: Isabella Jiao, Ally Holterman and Prerna Sharma.

Neighborhood: Oakland

Team: Ally Holterman, Isabella Jiao, Prerna Sharma

Product idea and problem it solves:

We decided on a product that would connect a variety of social accounts (Slack, Facebook, Instagram) through stories and memes. Memes of local news would be posted to the Slack channel (and various sub-channels, like Business, Real Estate, Traffic, etc.) and then link to a Facebook or Instagram page where audience members could find out more about the people involved in the story. We also designed a “local rewards card” system for businesses run by locals, where a local business owner could offer a card that would reward a customer after a certain amount of purchases at that business.

Stereotypical view of our neighborhood

As we quickly found out, Downtown Oakland has changed a lot over the years. Currently, its stereotype is one of an increasingly corporate downtown, as companies like Pandora and Clorox have established headquarters there, in part due to the rising San Francisco rent.

Something nuanced we learned:

While there is a large corporate population in Downtown Oakland, there is also a strong local population, and these two groups would like to interact more than they do. What makes Downtown Oakland different from other corporate neighborhoods is this inherent pride felt toward a city that is not necessarily home, and a desire for most to get more involved in some way.

How journalists and media companies benefit from design thinking:

Journalists as a whole can greatly benefit from design thinking, as many of its practices are complementary to journalistic ones. Having empathy for your subjects in any field is a valuable trait, as is careful observation and questioning. We were pleasantly surprised by how many people just enjoy feeling heard, and are excited for the opportunity to be part of a project that would hopefully improve their lives.

From left: Ashley Austin, Star Li and Zoey Ren.

Neighborhood: Union Square

Team: Ashley Austin, Star Li, Zoey Ren

Product idea and problem it solves:

We focused on a product for the street artist/performer community prevalent in this touristy area. Our product ideas included a platform that pairs with leading San Francisco nonprofits and museums to sell artwork and souvenirs produced by the Union Square street artists, a network of businesses willing to hire musicians from the area for performances, and a distribution of QR-coded products that would allow the audience to scan the code during a performance and visit a website to learn more about the artist.

Stereotypical view of our neighborhood:

Union Square is known as a center for tourism in the city due to its centralized location and vast shopping/hotel options. We chose to focus on the street performer community as they are very prevalent here and possess a dynamic role as a bridge between the tourist and local communities.

Something nuanced we learned:

We learned that street performers in San Francisco have a strong interest in personalized branding, especially in adapting their personal brands to a digital landscape.

Our most effective design thinking tool:

Through a day-in-the-life exercise during neighborhood interviews, each performer brought their craft tools and creative works to show us what they produce on a daily basis in addition to the technology that they use. We learned what the artists value in their work and daily lives, providing us insights to create a product best suited to their lifestyles.

That’s a wrap!

Follow our journeys on Medium and Instagram, and email us at

Medill website | Video | Sign up for Medill Media Innovation newsletter | Rich Gordon’s guest column (Entrepreneurial Journalism Educators Network)

Medill Media Innovation & Content Strategy / Entrepreneurship

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