Design Thinking

How can designers use design thinking to improve their processes and outcomes?

Curated resources on design thinking

Enthusiasm for design thinking is on the rise in L&D at the moment, and there is a great deal of value in the practices that come out of the design thinking movement.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.—Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO (IDEO)

While critics caution that this enthusiasm is just hype about an old concept that has questionable substance, my take is that design thinking can be a catalyst for reasserting our expert design skills and reclaiming our role as designers of high value strategies in learning and performance support.

Design thinking as a process. For some, design thinking is defined as a specific human-centered design process with several specific activities. But instructional designers and learning strategy consultants don’t need another process; there are plenty of options already. It can be argued, though, that injecting design thinking into any of these processes can help them to produce more innovative and on-target solutions.

Design thinking as a mindset. Other people tout design thinking as more of a mindset. If so, it is a mindset founded on a strong commitment to deeply knowing your end users (a.k.a. employees, clients, customers, learners, students – the people you are trying to serve). And it places high value on an iterative feedback process centered on a series of prototypes. That is, design thinking encourages us to make ideas real and put them out there for genuine critiques so they can be honed to the greatest extent possible. These values can strengthen our own design processes as well.

Icon suggesting methodologyDesign thinking as a set of practices to add to our methodology. To me, the most impactful way we can integrate design thinking in L&D is to identify specific practices to weave into our own ways of working. Given the array of toolkits and techniques offered on design thinking web sites, it’s reasonable to find suggestions that work for any context or project type.

Design thinking offers five specific practices that should be integrated into our own design processes and tool set.

Empathizing. Using the tools of design thinking to understand the people we want to support – their day-to-day experiences, interactions, aspirations, feelings, and challenges – so that we can better imagine what would be most relevant and helpful for them.

Framing. Taking the time to describe goals, problems or opportunities in ways that open the door for more innovative approaches, and identifying the parameters within which the solution should fit.

Ideating. Coming up with and playing with ideas – to generate options and discover unique solutions.

Prototyping. Building ideas in some temporary form as a way of thinking out loud and providing concrete options for discussion.

Iterating. Using a repeated cycle of feedback and revision to hone in on the best possible approach.

When I do workshops on design thinking, we talk about how to effectively weave these practices into the way we uniquely approach our design projects. The trick is to identify and routinely incorporate specific techniques that inject richer background and new ideas into our work, allowing it to be more customized and impactful. Advocates of design thinking have been incredibly generous in describing how they do what they do, and we just need to translate these activities into our particular contexts.

I’ve further described each of these practices and curated more specific resources on design thinking in the materials below. The toolkits and resources listed give more details on techniques so you can pick and choose what makes sense for your work.

>> For more on design thinking, join me for Essentials of Design Thinking, an ATD Education course, or contact me for a more customized development program.

Curated Resources

//  The Design Thinking Landscape  >

These links will lead you to more detail from design thinking proponents.

Inspiration > Ideation > Iteration
scovery > Interpretation > Ideation > Experimentation > Evolution        

  • IDEO customizes the way they express the process for various audiences. These resources not only explain the design thinking process and provide advice on some of the necessary skills, they also provide facilitation notes for specific techniques that might prove useful.
  • IDEO Design Thinking for Libraries (download PDF) – Activities and advice for inspiration, ideation, and iteration. One of my favorite toolkits. You’ll obviously want to extrapolate from library examples, but very useful regardless. IDEO also offers a Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators.
  • IDEO Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (free registration required to download) or the online IDEO Design Kit – more from IDEO, taken from a more global point of view.

Stanford d.School (Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design)
Empathize > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test

  • An Introduction to Design Thinking (
    This document contains solid explanations of the’s version of design thinking: what, why, and how.
  • Bootcamp Bootleg (Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) – A similar document to above that also provides directions for a variety of activities.

Observe > Reflect > Make > (loop)

  • IBM Design Thinking
    In addition to the ‘observe > reflect > make’ process, IBM also emphasizes key principles: a focus on user outcomes, relentless reinvention, and diverse empowered teams. When you go to this overview site, be sure to click on its links for a deeper exploration of the details. More on IBM’s journey to transform the company through design thinking can be found here.
  • IBM Design Thinking Activities – A nice set of activities aligned with IBM’s observe > reflect > make I especially appreciate the options for prototyping under make. Click on each activity for guidelines and tips. Also see IBM’s Design Thinking Field Guide (download PDF)

//  Thought-Provoking Articles  >

//  Critiques and Rebuttals  >

You should know that design thinking has its critics, and reading these critiques can help you to avoid common pitfalls. In short, effective design thinking requires much more than a surface understanding of the skills and practices involved.

//  Details on each of the practices  >



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Last updated: May 23, 2019 by Catherine Lombardozzi
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