Design Thinking: Refresh your business model and insert creativity into your routine

The YSEALI Network’s #TechTuesday Design Thinking webchat provides powerful insights about the advantages that “design thinking” can bring to any undertaking. U.S. Department of State Program Officer Sam Gordon interviewed Adriel Luis, a curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, capturing his passion for this innovative method for solving problems.

As Luis explains, design thinking is a way of problem solving that focuses more on a grand solution than a difficulty. With design thinking, “you use creativity and imagination to think outside the box and solve large-scale issues,” he says.

For example, a classroom lesson may typically present a topic using PowerPoint. Design thinking may inspire a teacher to present the same information through more creative means, such as a class game that quizzes students. For example, Kahoot is a game-based learning platform that allows students to quiz each other and better grasp the material in a creative and novel way.

“The design process starts with observing, turning observations into insights, developing ideas from those insights and then prototyping and testing the best ideas,” Luis says. “It means going out and gathering items, and then coming back in and synthesizing them, again and again. It’s not a linear process; it is a looping, sometimes messy, process.”

Take the YLAI Network’s online course “Design Driven Entrepreneurship” to learn more.

Five Steps to Design Thinking:

  1. Empathize with others: True empathy means understanding where someone is coming from on an individual basis. Empathy may help you to understand your customers wants and needs in relation to your business.Taking time to observe your customers while setting aside prior assumptions will help you to further develop insights about the audience your product aims to help.
  2. Define the challenge: A sense of empathy provides a foundation for knowing what challenge needs to be solved. You can further develop the key points of this issue through your observations from the first step. How do you make sense of the challenge? Fully understanding the issue helps you to come up with a solution.
  3. Dream big: It’s time to identify solutions to the challenge you are choosing to address. How do you move toward a solution for any given problem? Holding a picture in your mind of what you would like to create can bring forth innovative ideas and solutions. As Luis states, “Think optimistically and aspirationally about the problem you’re trying to solve … It’s all about intentionality.” A clear vision provides the scaffolding for intentionality.
  4. Make stuff: Put your ideas into physical or digital form in this experimental step. Create models, such as charts and prototypes that describe how your vision will be brought to life in a way that is shareable with an audience. This audience can in turn provide helpful feedback.
  5. Share and respond: Once you’ve created your prototype, you can share it with a small community, receiving feedback on your prototype, and then repeat. You should do steps 4 and 5 over and over until you land on a solution about which you are passionate.

Design thinking can be applied to problems for which we might not be inclined to use our imagination. By taking these five steps into account and following them closely, we can address challenges big and small by thinking outside the box.  

How can people apply design thinking to their own work and goals?

Every entrepreneur has his or her unique perspective and goals. Design thinking can help entrepreneurs expand their thinking to look at the larger picture and context of their work. Often, when we work on something every day, we tend to become too focused on the details and lose sight of our mission. The discipline of design thinking can help entrepreneurs refocus their ideas on their mission, using the observations they have made.

How can design thinking be used in local or national government?

Design thinking can be applied to problems of many sizes, ranging from challenges that you individually might face, to those confronting small businesses, local government offices and even nations. One example Luis gives is how you make a schedule. Before undertaking this task, you might first ask, “What are my goals for the day?” and “What will make me fulfilled?” Once these questions are answered, you can proceed toward designing and planning your schedule.

Design thinking can also be applied to an organization in a way that has a far-reaching impact. For example, YLAI was established to serve the many young leaders and entrepreneurs like you who are looking for additional resources to help create change in your lives and the lives of people in your communities through entrepreneurship and responsible leadership. Through this, the Network applied design thinking’s first two steps of empathy and understanding. The YLAI Network team surveys Network members every year about the topics Network members want to learn about. The team also works to develop new resources and online courses and to connect with new young leaders across Latin America and the Caribbean. The team continues to seek new innovations and jump on them, expanding the resources available to YLAI Network members.

How does design thinking differ from the typical definition of design?

Design is defined as a plan or drawing that is made to “show the look and function of something.” However, design thinking means more than addressing a practical plan through small steps. Design thinking is also a way of problem solving that focuses on a “grand solution” through imagination. Unlike the scientific method, in which you control as many variables as possible while testing a hypothesis, through design thinking you use your vision and imagination to drive the process of creating something extraordinary. It goes above and beyond functionality. Creativity is key!

Design thinking can feel abstract. A key component is teaching people how to recognize an issue that can be fixed. In his work as a curator, for example, Luis keeps in mind groups that may not have easy access to buildings housing art exhibits and showcases. As a result, Luis worked on making exhibits inclusive, even holding “block party” showcases in neighborhoods.

By understanding your audience, you can understand how your product or service will affect them. Cultivate a vision for what you want to accomplish, and put this vision in a tangible form. This form provides the means through which you can receive input from others. The vision can be further shaped based on the feedback you receive. Finally, it is important to remember to accept criticism; know that it will take your idea to the next level, and don’t shy away from taking risks (también en español). Maintain a sense of higher purpose throughout these steps. Understand that you work not only for yourself, but for the greater good of a larger community.

When forming your vision, ask yourself: What key partners do I need? What activities and resources do I require to produce my big idea? How much will my idea cost to produce, and will I make money from it? These are key first steps to creating a successful business that employs design thinking.

The YLAI Network’s online course Design Driven Entrepreneurship teaches how to identify, create and implement marketable solutions for businesses and organizations of all sizes and missions.