Learn Design Thinking: Photoshop Skills Not Required

We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody had before. David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO

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Oddly enough, I remember the moment I became a Design Thinker. No, it wasn’t 10 years ago when I officially became a designer. It was much later, in the fall of 2012.

I was working at a graphic design consultancy where clients came to us with specific directives: "Design me a website." "Make me a logo." It felt limiting to me, like design was an afterthought. They already had the solution. We’d hand off the deliverable, cash the check, and never know if we helped solve their real business problems. We weren’t empowered to tell them whether or not the website we were building would be the answer to their problems.[bctt tweet="#Design is a solution to real business problems and not an afterthought, says @AlissaAmpezzan " username="StartupInst"]

Toward the end of my tenure at this studio, an innovative professional development program for teachers came to us wanting a website that could help them spread their reach and train thousands more teachers nationwide. We asked them, “Are you sure a website is the answer?” and they said, “No. You tell us.” Finally, the challenge I wanted.

I conducted interviews, observed teachers and students, organized cooperative ideation exercises—a grab bag of the IDEO Methods toolkit. Ultimately, we delivered a series of organizational opportunities they could pursue to scale their impact. And, yes, one of them included a website overhaul.

This was Design Thinking. It’s a process that can be applied to any problem—a way of observing and improving the way people work, live, and behave. It combines business strategy with the creative process. I discovered the design thinking principle while reading Change by Design in grad school. Immediately, I knew this was a process I wanted to adopt and would shape my career from then on out.

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Design is not just about creating elegant objects or beautifying the world around us.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, from “Change by Design”

It sounds sort of lofty… Design Thinking. Capital D, Capital T. But you can learn it and it won’t take you months (in my case, years), like Photoshop or JavaScript can.[bctt tweet="Design isn't just about creating elegant objects—@AlissaAmpezzan via @tceb62" username="StartupInst"]

How to Learn Design Thinking

1. Always ask “Why?”

Whenever you encounter a challenge, try to identify the core problem and change the question. For example, “We need a new website.” → “Why?” → “So we can have greater impact.” Now, flip the question and start with the secret phrase top innovators use. “How might we”… scale our impact?

The answer to the “how might we” question could be any number of strategies. Certainly, a website could help. But perhaps a national partnership could, too. If it is a website, what does it do? How do we measure the impact? “How might we” questions leave room for innovation.

2. Resist going straight to a solution.

When encountered with any type of problem, try to resist solving it as quickly as possible. Sure, at a startup, this is counterintuitive. You need to move fast. Fail fast, right? Well, yes and no. Design thinking requires taking a bit of time to make sure you’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems. Such critical decisions warrant a (slight) pause. This has always been tough for me—my instinct is to picture it, to draw it, to make it. But making an “it” that no one wants is a waste.[bctt tweet="#DesignThinking requires you to resist going straight to a solution, says @AlissaAmpezzan" username="StartupInst"]

3. Read.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Design thinking is about curiosity and innovation. You cannot innovate unless you're abreast of new ideas. Listen to podcasts, browse Medium, fill your Kindle. I started a book club for my team at Civis because it’s important we’re discussing concepts broader than just our domain. Our product team has discussed everything from storytelling at Pixar to the biography of cancer. And it’s all been applicable to our work in one way or another.[bctt tweet="#DesignThinking is about curiosity and #innovation. Read as much as you can—@AlissaAmpezzan" username="StartupInst"]

4. Practice the process.

Design sprints are great for this because you condense a lot of time and work into one week. Once the process becomes natural to you, you’ll be less focused on output and more on the learning that unfolds. And you’ll be able to speed up or slow down as necessary.

5. Work at a startup.

Working at a startup affords you great opportunity to practice design thinking because you’re in (probably) the only type of workplace that requires you to think about the company itself as a product you’re building. Each day is a new opportunity to iterate and adjust course. In this case, the “product” is never pixel perfect, it’s something that continuously evolves. That’s the fun part.[bctt tweet="At a #startup, each day is a new opportunity to iterate and adjust course, says @AlissaAmpezzan" username="StartupInst"]

Design Thinking isn’t going anywhere. There’s even a school dedicated to it at Stanford (created by David Kelley), and more and more companies and leaders are putting design thinking at the core of their strategy. Now is the time to start exercising the Design Thinking muscle.