November 2012
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Day 29/11/2012

Design Thinking & The Individual ~ Reflections…*

Disclaimer: the views expressed below are my own and are not representative of Rethinked…* as an organization or of the other team members.

It seems hard to believe that three months have passed since I first set out on my quest to integrate the tools and resources of Design Thinking into my everyday life. Yet here we are in the reflection phase of the challenge. The past three months comprised a steep learning curve and I feel I come away from the experience with tangible benefits and a positive new mind frame. I’m also very ready to change the conversation. Here’s why.





I am allergic to mediocrity and have spent most of my life holding on to the highly unhelpful belief that if something cannot be done perfectly, there is no point in attempting to do it at all. The emphasis on quick and cheap prototypes that is a cornerstone of design thinking has proved immensely helpful in beginning to change that paradigm for me. I have witnessed and experienced first hand the value of process and ‘unfinishedness’, and I have realized that putting things out of my head and into the world, in their flawed and unfinished form, helped me achieve an end result that was usually stronger and better than if I had hoarded the ideas in my head until I felt that they were ready to be shared.



My three months of design thinking have also helped me feel much more empowered to address and change issues and problems that arise in my daily life. If you’ve been keeping up with the rethinked*annex project, you will be aware that I have been using design thinking to rethink…* my eating/cooking experience and reframe my perception and experience of winter. These two areas of my life are both incredibly complex because they operate on so many different levels (emotional, physiological, mental, etc.). I’ve always hated winter and had just come to accept that I will be cold, wet and miserable for four months out of the year. Design thinking is a very empowering tool, which gave me the push I needed to take charge and realize that I can rethink and redesign experiences for myself. Just because I cannot control the weather, doesn’t mean I can’t design my experience and response to it.  I had bought one of those ‘happy lamps’ for people affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, and after sitting under it twice, had decided it didn’t work and resolved to give up once and for all on winter. Design thinking made me realize that addressing my issues with winter were not about getting more light (although, that would help) or about wearing thicker, waterproof clothing, it was about rethinking…* and redesigning an entire ecosystem of experiences. Rather than seeing this as a barrier to change and being overwhelmed by the enormity of the undertaking, my exposure to design thinking helped me to feel not only up to the task but also excited about the challenge.



Three months after my college graduation, I started missing school desperately. My passion for reading, writing and thinking (usually very slowly) were not translating to the business world. When speaking with some of my friends who had decided to go straight to graduate school from undergrad, and hearing them talk about all of the reading and papers they had to turn in, I felt a strange pang of jealousy. I passionately love engaging with ideas but I had been taught only one way of engaging deeply and when I left the walls of academia, I realized that this one way did not necessarily translate in the ‘real’ world. Design thinking has given me a new approach to engage deeply with ideas; an approach that is much more urgent and relevant to the world outside of school than ‘academic thinking’.



This is both a positive and a negative. One of the things that I most appreciate about design thinking is the holistic outlook on problems and systems inherent to the discipline. Whether using design thinking to rethink an entire organization or a hairbrush, the design{er/thinker} is always conscious of the many variables at play in a single experience or product. Design thinking is a profoundly human outlook on life; it is a conscious effort to place the human being at the center of our lives and experiences. And design thinking has been immensely helpful and successful in making businesses, products and services more empathetic and human-centered. The problem is that I, as a human being, am infinitely more complex than any objective system, be it an organization or service could ever be. Having to be the designer and the user adds myriad other moving parts to the equation. I struggled to define the challenges I wanted to address by using design thinking because these challenges operate on so many different human levels. It is incredibly difficult to pinpoint the deep issues in one’s life because of the many strategies we all have in place to avoid and ignore our own fears and dysfunctions. So while a designer can observe people’s behaviors and ‘thoughtless’ acts (all those little things we do to make things work for us, like the folded paper napkin under the wobbly table), it suddenly becomes a lot harder when the person under observation is your self. This disconnect was unsettling. At each of the design thinking workshops I attended, I had a blast. I learned a lot, witnessed some great ideas and got to use some very early prototypes, but the most memorable aspect of these workshops was the childlike joy I experienced throughout the process. Design thinking is fast and fun and sometimes silly but it leads to great ideas and effortless collaboration with complete strangers. However, once I started trying to apply the discipline to myself and my own life, a lot of the fun and joy were taken out of the process. The process started to feel stressful as I was forced to take an honest look at my behaviors and the underlying causes of the problems and dysfunctions of my every day.



There once was a time when design thinking was nameless. Like breathing, it was taken for granted, it was designer’s worldviews and the way they thought about problems and solutions. But in the past decade or so design thinking has been exploding in the business world as leading management and innovation experts like Roger Martin and legendary design firm Ideo, have been extoling the value of applying the design studio methodology to the design and creation of not only products and services but also businesses and organizations. This push to bring design thinking to the boardroom has been highly positive in many ways. I have spent enough time researching the discipline and its outcomes to believe that the design process and mindset add tangible value on a host of levels (emotional, mental, physical) to a wide range of solutions. The problem comes at the individual level. When I set off on my design thinking cycle, if I had been asked if I considered myself a designer, I would have laughed at the thought and answered, no. Participating in several design thinking workshops with Ideo and the Parson’s New School of Design was tremendously helpful in helping me realize that we are all designers and that design thinking is just another form of human thinking. I learned about the process–discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, evolution—and I learned a lot of new terms, concepts and methodologies such as (Ideo’s brainstorming rules) that were immensely valuable, but I feel that after a certain point, trying to learn more about design thinking (through reading about it) proved to be alienating. Which leads me to my next point…



I did not find a single book with Design Thinking in the title that was not explicitly about business or leadership and management. Reading about design thinking became boring after a while because it was all the same: case study after case study of how the discipline had revolutionized businesses and organizations, services and products. To learn more about design thinking as it applies to the human individual in the everyday, I had to broaden my search and read about design. I read Kenya Hara’s Designing Design (which I cannot recommend enough), and Imagine, Design, Create: How Designers, Architects and Engineers Are Changing our World, and it was through those books that I really learned about the power of design to optimize human experience at the individual level. I think it is a shame that the mainstream conversation about design thinking is so heavily centered on businesses rather than people. Design and design thinking are profoundly human; to engage in design thinking is to think as a human and to place the human at the center of experience. I found the fact that most of the conversations about design thinking center around businesses and organizations to be alienating. This is not to say that there isn’t anything written about design thinking and the individual, there is. In Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations And Inspires Innovation,Tim Brown observes that we are all involved in designing our own lives:

Above all, think of life as a prototype. We can conduct experiments, make discoveries, and change our perspectives. We can look for opportunities to turn processes into projects that have tangible outcomes. We can learn how to take joy in the things we create whether they take the form of a fleeting experience or an heirloom that will last for generations. We can learn that reward comes in creation and re-creation, not just in the consumption of the world around us. Active participation in the process of creation is our right and our privilege. We can learn to measure the success of our ideas not by our bank accounts but by their impact on the world. (241)

My issue is that I find that there is not enough on this specifically; that in the face of all the talk about design thinking and business, we need to hear more about how the discipline applies to communities and individuals.



To be fair, some of the issues that I encountered with design thinking were of my own doing. I have some regrets, best summarized as—I avoided discomfort too much.



My attempts to translate design thinking to the everyday were based exclusively on my own experience, which is how I had planned the project, but I do think I should have talked about this with more people and been more proactive in seeking out different perspectives on the notions underlying design thinking. I should have talked with more people, gotten their feedback on what I was doing, and seen how we might have helped each other refine our thinking about the discipline. My boyfriend was a trooper and happily went along with the design thinking dates I planned, and the myriad post-its that took over our apartment these past three months, but other than him, I feel I did not really engage in any meaningful one on one conversations about design thinking. I wish I had been more proactive about nurturing that conversation.



I wanted to make cheat sheets and break down the main things I have learned along each phase of the project but found myself distracted by the constant tension I felt between thinking and doing. As I mentioned above, I have a very difficult time doing until I feel I have reached a certain level with my thinking. I know that I did not make the prototypes as quickly as I should have. A lot of thought went into most of them. A few weeks ago, Dominic expressed his concern that I was spending too much time thinking rather than doing and he was right. That has always been one of my weaknesses and I think I didn’t push myself as much as I should have in terms of doing quickly, and without too much thinking. I was aware of this tension and it was the cause of some anxiety and a great deal of paralysis in terms of doing.



I believe design thinking has tremendous value in the business world as well as in the world of the individual’s everyday. I think there is a real need to broaden the conversation about design thinking. Too much is made of design thinking’s potential for businesses and organizations and not enough of its benefits to the individual. This is an exciting time for design thinking as some people swear it is the thing to revolutionize 21st century living, while others deride it or claim its imminent demise. The moment is ripe with possibility to broaden the scope and depth of the conversation and there are people trying to make it more about individuals and communities. I was pleased to see Frog Design’s Collective Action Toolkit published November 15th.

The Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) is a package of resources and activities that enable groups of people anywhere to organize, build trust, and collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting their community. The toolkit provides a dynamic framework that integrates knowledge and action to solve challenges. Designed to harness the benefits of group action and the power of open sharing, the activities draw on each participant’s strengths and perspectives as the group works to accomplish a common goal.

The toolkit brilliantly broadens the scope and reach of the design thinking conversation and gives people the tools of the discipline in layman’s terms. I hope to see more of this.

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