Design Thinking For Everyday Life

After 20 years of leading product design strategy for companies like Adidas, Gilt, and Capital One, I’m calling it the end of an era, and finally setting out my own stall as an 'experiment coach.’ I'm packing up everything I’ve learned along the way to help aspiring entrepreneurs use design thinking to shape, test, and launch their ideas. But what does it mean to think like a designer?
Designers are trained idea facilitators. We’ve got a killer toolkit to help bring structure to the occasional mess of creative thinking. And when it comes to doing the messy, creative work of designing a business in line with our life and values, these tools get the job done. If the usual suspects of potential-blocking kryptonite– procrastination, focus, and ugh, effing perfectionism- are standing in the way, thinking like a designer can shift us out of our feelings of overwhelm and into creative problem-solving mode, helping us get started instead of getting ready.   

Five Mindsets for Thinking About Your Goals as Design Challenges:


1. Curiosity

Did you know that three-quarters of adults have taken on some form of enriching personal learning in the past year, and that as a result 87% of them feel more capable, interested, and well-rounded? (Pew Research Center)
We’re encouraged to “follow our passion,” but the reality is that passion is what comes after you’ve sunk your teeth into something. Don’t wait for passion to show up, pursue curiosity. Read a book, take a class, talk to someone who does what you’re interested in everyday. We’re living in amazing times for continuous education. Just make sure that learning gets equal billing with doing.

2. Experimentation

Wake up your inner MacGyver and get prototyping- products, experiences, even behaviors. Break your big ideas into tiny pieces. Ask yourself, what’s the smallest test I can do to see if this idea works? And when it does, celebrate! Trying stuff out also resets the benchmark for success. It’s not a failure if it’s something you’ve learned in a week, instead of investing a year or two. And it’s not always the solution, but the problem that needs retooling.


3. Reframing

How many designers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Why a lightbulb?!
It’s funny (ok, it’s not that funny) because it’s true. Two powerful phrases can change your
brainstorming game. The first, “How Might We…” turns our design challenge on its head to describe the problem from different angles before diving into “solutionizing” (yeah, I said solutionizing). A great “How Might We” question is broad enough to suggest that there are several possible solutions worth exploring, and narrow enough that you know where to start. Our instinct is to generate a whole bunch of ideas and then begin poking holes in them. Instead,
try saying, “Yes, and…” to build on them, even the craziest, most impractical ones. It’s a small but surprisingly mighty fix. Free yourself from the anchor of your first idea, give yourself permission to explore further, and even to completely restate your point of view and start all over again.

design thinking is about looking at your challenges with a fresh perspective.

4. Radical Collaboration

The lone genius designer is a myth. Or worse, an asshole. Design happens in teams, and the best ones are a motley crew. Or, maybe even Motley Crüe? Collaboration isn't a radical idea. Sharing perspectives and getting feedback is integral to any creative process. What is radical is to collaborate via active listening and not just the rapid-fire ideation of often draining traditional brainstorming sessions. When you’re in idea generation mode, invite a few trusted peers to join you. Agree to defer judgment. Don’t review, critique, or advise. Just listen.

5. Awareness of the Process

Speaking at a local meetup, designer Tom Cavill said: “The privilege of being a designer is that we have permission to try things, and hone it until it’s right.” Design is a process, and not always perfectly linear. Sometimes what we need to keep us focused is to embrace the rigor of structure and constraints- to do things in order. Other times, we need loops of trial and error, iteration and refinement, testing and learning to get to a solution that feels right. Let the process be your guide, but think more playbook than rulebook. Remember that design thinking is about looking at your challenges with a fresh perspective. It’s mindset that matters.

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Heather's spent nearly 20 years leading teams who design products and services that help people take meaningful action. Recently, she's turned her expertise towards becoming an 'Experiment Coach,' helping food-focused entrepreneurs start small with their big ideas. An East Coast expat, Heather bounces between life and work in Amsterdam and London, hauling an obscene amount of cookware with her.