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Design Thinking: six ways to get started

Evan Baehr

I first learned about design thinking during a Harvard-sponsored trip to Silicon Valley where we spent an afternoon at IDEO,  the iconic design firm involved in many of the most famous designs in the last 25 years, including the mouse, the PalmPilot, and many of Apple’s flagship products. There was something refreshing about the attitude of the designers, the culture of the firm, and even the design of their workspace. The firm is filled with “t-shaped people”– experts in one trade but generalists in all. A team of anthropologists, structural engineers, and graphic artists can sit down, be given an outrageously difficult problem, and hours and hundreds of Post-it notes later, they often have a remarkably elegant solution. This was something I wanted to learn more about.

Cofounding a new venture nine months ago has provided an opportunity to infuse design thinking into a technology company from the beginning. Below are a few things we’ve tried along the way.  If you are curious about design thinking, just pick one and get started!

1. Learn what it’s all about: the best place to learn about design thinking is Stanford’s bootcamp bootleg found here. This 100 page bootleg document is the best summary I have found and was created by probably the institutional leader in the field: the Stanford d.school.  Empathize. Define.  Ideate.  Prototype.  Test.  That’s it!

2. Practice thinking visually: A key component to design thinking is expressing  ideas visually. Don’t be afraid if you are a bad drawer!  Just start!  For example, I used to track all of my job candidates in Microsoft Excel. Recently, I wrote all the candidates names out on small Post-it notes and lined them up on the wall. It was amazing how often I ended up thinking about these people just by glancing over at the wall.  So think about it this way: the more content you write out or even print out and put on the wall or the whiteboard, the larger screen size you have!  Moreover, actively mapping out ideas or people in a 2D,  flexible space, enables your mind to better organize and understand the data.  Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin is a helpful place to start to learn how to draw basic diagrams and illustration.  Or check out some additional training materials around “visual note taking” from Dave Gray, Sunnibrown’s Visual Note Taking 101, and Austin Kleon’s Ideas Worth Stealing.

3. Design your space: We have tried to maximize the visual whitespace in our office so that as many square inches are as functional as possible. We have big glass doors that work for posted notes and whiteboard markers, we painted a 10′ by 30′  wall in IdeaPaint (a paintable white board – expensive but works well), covered 3 other walls with foamcore (a lightweight foam poster product sold in big sheets at design stores, usually about $15 for a 4′x8′ sheet),  and gave everyone awesome white glass desks from Ikea so their workspace is writeable! 

4. Choose your tools: Go ahead and go to Amazon right now and order a box of fine point sharpie markers (black and red), and small Post-it notes.   Make a habit of always carrying them with you. For example, I was in a bar last week and ended up mapping out someone’s idea with about 20 posted notes on the table. Yes, it was a bit odd, but we had a good time doing it.   I also have come to love my ActionMethod Journal, with tearable pages, a to-do list, and nice rubber cover.

5. Practice as a team:  friends at a design-heavy venture accelerator in Austin called Thinktiv suggested a fantastic book called Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, which lays out a few dozen really fun, engaging games that a team can play in order to solve difficult problems.

6. Make friends with designers: Austin  is lucky to have  a very rich design ecosystem, created in part by frog design and sustained by folks like Jon Kolko and his Austin Center for Design and Dean Kakridas.  I have made a point to meet these designers, learn how they work, and find small ways to engage them in our company’s work. For example, we ran a full-day design thinking workshop around the future of postal communication with a half dozen designers, our team, and a few volunteers from craigslist; over eight hours we came up with a few hundred ideas.

During my first encounter with design thinking I was a bit intimidated: I was not an artist, I didn’t wear cool black glasses,  I had never been trained in this…. But,  the great news is that design thinking is actually accessible to anyone and has the power to bring big ideas and creativity into any organization.