Methods: Design Thinking for the Non-Designer — Part 3

My prior two posts, found here and here, introduced the concept of human-centered design advocated by IDEO,* a global design firm that helps organizations to grow through innovation. I reviewed the first and second of IDEO’s three stages of design thinking, inspiration and ideation. To quickly recap, these include:


  • Framing the design challenge;
  • Assembling a diverse team to tackle the challenge;
  • Identifying what learning is needed to address the issues at hand; and
  • Conducting field and other research.


  • Sharing, reflecting on and articulating insights from the research;
  • Asking nuanced questions informed by the research that go to the heart of the problem;
  • Brainstorming to uncover workable solutions; and
  • Rapid prototyping for immediate feedback.

Now we’re ready to tackle the third phase, implementation. The good news is that this will be familiar to those of you who have done operational planning, especially in conjunction with strategic planning. This phase involves mapping action steps: identifying resources and needed personnel, projecting expenses, determining a rollout plan and timeline, launching a pilot and evaluating results. It also continues to emphasize the benefits of interdepartmental teams – what my co-author and I advanced in Magnetic as “inviting the outside in” – to ensure that different perspectives and external voices are heeded as you build towards launch. 


I’ve attempted to summarize the implementation process in a logical order, but as with all things design thinking, the sequence of steps can fold back on itself returning to any stage as you keep iterating, fine-tuning and learning as you go. Tackle the below as a team, assigning leaders to guide and “own” each activity.

  • Finesse your prototype and then head out into the world to test it live with a select group of end-users. As noted in an earlier post, prototyping can take many forms (i.e., storyboards, games, role playing, mock-ups, etc.), so choose one best suited to your design inquiry. If you’re testing a new after school program idea for youth, for example, lead a group of participants through a condensed or partial version of the program to solicit their opinions and watch their interactions. Record and use this pointed feedback to refine the program design and ready it for a pilot.
  • Create an 18-24 month action plan – what IDEO calls a “roadmap” – detailing the steps that will take your project through and beyond launch. Chart this on a calendar accessible to the entire team and keep it updated as shifts in timing occur. (IDEO advocates for a big, physical, centrally located calendar that all team members can edit using, you guessed it, Post-its®! But a digital version with multiple users can be just as effective.)
  • Think through all of the who-what-when-where-how considerations to identify the human, financial and physical resources needed for implementation. This may include additional staff or consultant expertise, institutional partnerships, office and/or program space, IT infrastructure, equipment and supplies, permits and insurance, strategic outreach and promotion, plus seed and sustainable funding (both raised and earned revenue streams). A good overview on business planning by the National Council of Nonprofits, found here, can help point you in the right direction.
  • Define what success will look like so your goal is always front and center, a visible guidepost against which to measure results. Identify the quantitative and qualitative metrics you will use to monitor your progress, and put corresponding data management systems into place at the project’s outset.
  • Prepare and institute your fundraising and marketing campaigns to reach targeted audiences. Use persuasive storytelling techniques to secure stakeholders committed to your success and loyal to your efforts.
  • Invest money judiciously in the essentials, like personnel and equipment, then launch your project as a pilot for a defined period of time (i.e., 6-12 months). Make sure to collect data and capture human-focused stories throughout, and evaluate outcomes to determine what works and what needs improvement. With this added knowledge, you’ll be equipped to head into full implementation mode using a similar process as above to scale growth.

True design thinkers advocate for continuous iteration, which can be considered the contemporary equivalent of the Japanese management theory of “kaizen” or continuous improvement. In other words, the journey is never quite over because ongoing or incremental change brings opportunity for heightened impact.

To paraphrase IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown in his now signature article from 2008 in the Harvard Business Review, design thinking is methodology more strategic than tactical. It fosters a “team-based approach to innovation…[that] feature[s] endless rounds of trial and error…[blending] art, craft, science, business savvy, and an astute understanding of customers and markets.”^ Today, Brown asserts, mastering the art of design thinking leads to creative leadership at all levels, providing a competitive advantage to any 21st-century organization. Isn’t that what we all strive for? 

With my consciousness raised, I see the application of design thinking everywhere, such as this recent article in The New York Times about designing backpacks in the digital age. To shape their understanding of user needs and wants, designers didn’t just talk to students and hikers, but other people who carry things on their backs, including the homeless. That’s certainly going to the extreme, but brilliant in its approach.

I’ve often found that insights come from the most unexpected places. Human-centered design gives you the tools to uncover new ways of seeing and doing focused directly on those you seek to engage – your constituents. I hope my demystification of the process will encourage you to try this. And I’d love to hear from those of you in the arts who have effectively instituted design thinking as an instrument of organizational growth.

* The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA:

^ Brown, Tim. “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review, Jun 2008: p. 86. Print.


Methods: Design Thinking for the Non-Designer — Part 2

In my prior post, I introduced as relevant to nonprofit cultural enterprise the concept of design thinking championed by IDEO, a global design firm committed to design’s positive impact on humanity. I reviewed the first of IDEO’s three stages of design thinking, inspiration, which includes:

  • Framing the design challenge;
  • Assembling a diverse team to tackle the challenge; 
  • Articulating a plan that addresses what learning is needed; and then 
  • Conducting field and other research. 

Now we’re ready to tackle the second phase, ideation

Marilyn in Post-Its , by  Valtech Sweden office

Marilyn in Post-Its, by Valtech Sweden office


This stage involves analysis and synthesis of the data gathered from research and fieldwork, and then applying imagination and creativity to address what you’ve discovered. Here’s how:

  • Re-assemble as a team and share real stories from the field; actively listen to one another and reflect on what you’ve learned. Transfer salient points and insights to post-it notes – design thinkers love Post-its® and Sharpies, the more colors, the better! – and then stick them up on the wall for everyone to see.
  • As a group effort, rearrange the Post-its® into categories and identify the top three-to-five emerging themes. Then succinctly articulate “insight statements” – things you’ve learned that will be important considerations in the design phase.

For example, say your design challenge is to enhance youth participation in your after school programs, and your discovery process has revealed that young people in your community (1) don’t know much about your organization, (2) prefer to hang with and get information from friends about what to do outside of school, and (3) haven’t had much exposure to the arts. (These are “insight statements.”)

  • Translate these insights into “How Might We” (“HMW”) questions that reflect what you’re learning and that go to the heart of the problem you’re working to solve. Resist dictating a specific pathway and shape questions that will allow for a number of solutions or innovations to bubble up.

Using the above example, you could frame the design challenge by asking, How might we develop and promote program offerings to engage youth who are unfamiliar with art and artmaking?

  • Now it’s time to pass around some chocolate and start brainstorming to elicit myriad ideas that address the design challenge and HMW questions. Record the ideas in words, drawings, charts – whatever gets the point across – using a whiteboard, flip charts, more Post-its®,  magazine pages cut up into collages, etc. All ideas have merit, so don’t edit at this stage, and as IDEO urges, go for quantity over quality. Also emphasize pictures over words, which help to bring ideas to life.
  • Now step back from your design wall to digest and process all of this data to notice where there is convergence. Then synthesize or “bundle” the best ideas and consolidate them into one or two concepts that can be tested. Don’t forget to refer back to the original challenge to ensure that you’re arriving at potential workable solutions.
  • Use “rapid prototyping” to concretize your best ideas and get immediate feedback from team members to aid your R&D process. Designers utilize various tools to help make the conceptual real. Choose those that best serve your design challenge, as well as those your team is skilled at or can master – such as storyboards (freehand drawings supported by short, explanatory texts), customer journeys (narrative writing and storytelling using personas), role playing (acting and simulations), mock-ups (physical models graphically designed or sculpted from low cost materials, like construction paper and tape) and experience maps (a combination of all of the above and more). 
Mocking up rapid prototypes: Boise State University's  LaunchPad  program for student entrepreneurs 

Mocking up rapid prototypes: Boise State University's LaunchPad program for student entrepreneurs 

Although perhaps not conceived as such, the Fleisher Art Memorial engaged in a human-centered design process when it set out to attract increased participation by neighborhood residents in its on-site, art-making programs. The Fleisher is located in Southeast Philadelphia, an ethnically diverse, low-income community populated by Asian and Latin American immigrants. The art center had specifically designed programs to attract children and families to its facility, yet the community just wasn’t showing up. Fleisher staff wanted to know why and what could be done to enhance engagement.

With funding from The Wallace Foundation and aided by outside researchers, an interdepartmental team at the art center began its inquiry with a baseline study to understand the current audience. Then they held focus groups with adults and teens from the neighborhood to learn how the Fleisher was perceived. They also learned what locals wanted from the organization, summarized in three key findings: 

  • Come to Us: Residents wanted the Fleisher to be physically present in the community outside of the art center and to build relationships directly with neighbors; 
  • Show Us: Residents wanted the Fleisher to use community centers and neighborhood events to present demonstrations and teach them about art and artmaking, especially connected to their native cultures; and
  • Welcome Us: Residents wanted the Fleisher to build trust with the community and make the art center more hospitable and accessible to all.

Armed with this new knowledge, the Fleisher staff transformed its internal culture through institutional planning and best practice training in diversity, communications and visitor services. The art center also transformed its external outreach through organizational partnerships and by ensuring a strong staff presence at neighborhood events. Plus, they prototyped new offerings at community festivals and probed for residents' feedback, which they used to fine-tune activities. The end result? Participation by teens and kids in on-site programs has increased more than 10% since the baseline study, and people from Southeast Philadelphia now represent 25% of all students in Fleisher art classes, an increase of 5%, matching area demographics. A full description of the art center’s design challenge, process and outcomes is detailed in a case study published by The Wallace Foundation.


The final phase in IDEO’s process, implementation, involves live testing prototypes, seeking honest critique from your target audience, iterating and refining until you’ve hit upon a solid solution to meet real needs, business planning, piloting the new idea and finally taking it to market. I’ll bring it all home in my next post.

Disclaimer: Let's pause for a moment to address the notion of phases, which implies a straightforward, linear, continuous, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process. In actuality, design thinking is non-linear, and moves back and forth among the three phases in whatever way makes sense for a particular project. This is what IDEO's graphic is seeking to convey, with progress that may be up and down, divergent, convergent and fluid. 

Warning: For those of you who prefer things neat and tidy (like me!), design thinking can be messy, so be prepared to surrender some control and live in discomfort for a bit. Trust me, the freedom this engenders is worth it!


The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA:, 2015.

Methods: Design Thinking for the Non-Designer — Part 1

Last summer, I gave myself something I had long dreamed of – I took a mini sabbatical for three months. My intent wasn’t to retreat or laze about soaking up the sun (although I did some of that) – it was to learn and reflect. I spent most of my time reading to inform my work with cultural organizations, exploring subjects one never has enough time for when deadlines loom. I read books on leadership, change management, organizational theory, group dynamics, mindfulness, salesmanship, social media and design thinking, among others. 

What most captured my attention was design thinking, the concepts and practices of which I was introduced to during the year I spent at the Rhode Island School of Design as interim head of advancement. I still remember one of my first conversations there with a group of artists and designers on the faculty. They were fine-tuning a corporate sponsorship proposal about a methodological approach to teaching that incorporated design thinking. It felt like everyone else in the room was speaking a different language! That’s another story, but part of this one, too –  to demystify what may seem foreign, but really isn’t.

Design thinking is a system-based, iterative, group process intended to uncover new ideas to address challenges and solve problems. Originally conceived back in the late 1960s to aid the fields of engineering, architecture and urban planning, it was introduced to the business world in the early 1990s by David Kelley. He’s a mechanical engineer, entrepreneur and Stanford University professor of design, best known as the founder of IDEO, an award-winning global design firm based in San Francisco. 

IDEO practices and proselytizes human-centered design, a non-linear, design-oriented approach focused on the end-user that can be applied to nearly any creative endeavor (how to design a new product, service, space or experience, for example) and is especially useful in innovation. The best books on design thinking applicable to organizations describe anywhere from five to seven stages of progressively linked actions, but IDEO has simplified its process to three – inspiration, ideation and implementation – which I’ll explain in a moment.

Human-centered design relies on our ability to be intuitive and to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves in media beyond words or symbols.
— From "An Introduction to Human-Centered Design," + Acumen

IDEO believes so strongly in this human-centered approach that it created, in partnership with Acumen and NovoEd, a free, online course to train social entrepreneurs in design thinking to tackle the world’s toughest problems. 

Recognizing that learning from a book is one thing and putting lessons into practice another, I accepted an invitation to participate in the course. And since design thinking relies heavily on collaboration and team-based effort, I invited Providence colleagues Jane Androski and Ann Woolsey to join me. Jane is co-founder of Design Agency, a nonprofit branding and graphic design firm, and Ann is an art historian and museum consultant. We’ve been getting together every week since mid-August to unpack the coursework and apply what we’re learning to a real life situation – in this case, how to design a retail experience for locally-raised, fresh foods targeted at a low income population.

How, might you ask, could Jane, Ann and I tackle such a challenge when our professional expertise is in the cultural sector? That was one of my Eureka moments about design thinking. I never previously understood how design firms like IDEO could address such disparate issues for a wide range of clients. IDEO has worked in the fields of digital learning, hospitality, medical products, food, financial services…you name it. I’m accustomed to working with cultural and educational organizations as a field and subject matter expert. What IDEO excels at is applying the practice of design thinking to formulate new ideas and achieve new solutions in any field.

The comparison that comes to mind is a more traditional McKinsey-like approach to management consulting, where the consultants aren’t subject matter experts either, rather practitioners of a highly developed and road-tested process that helps organizations to change. Design thinking doesn’t seem as formulaic to me as McKinsey because it’s people-focused and emphasizes the stakeholder over the corporate product, service or bottom line. (And I'm predisposed to that way of thinking, especially after my work with Magnetic Museums.)

IDEO’s process operates from a set of shared assumptions – that there is merit in experimentation and learning from failure; that making something physical trumps conceiving of something theoretical; that everyone is creative and all ideas have value; that demonstrating empathy is key to this work, as is remaining optimistic; that not knowing the answer and being open to learning leads to new discoveries; and that iterating ultimately produces the finest solutions.

There's a great deal of utility in applying design thinking to cultural sector issues, and many organizations are already doing so, with or without this labeling. What follows is my condensed version of IDEO’s process, adapted from its Field Guide to Human-Centered Design:

From "An Introduction to Human-Centered Design," + Acumen


The first phase involves framing your inquiry to allow for open-ended discovery rather than ready answers. It also involves research and learning directly from the people who represent your target market or who ultimately will be affected by your efforts – in other words, your end-users. For cultural organizations, that could be program participants, audience members, patrons, K-12 students, teachers and the like. 

Here’s how to begin:

  • Articulate the problem you’re trying to solve – what IDEO refers to as the “design challenge” – in a way that allows for flexibility in your exploration and ultimately leads to impact. This requires framing the task ahead neither too broadly nor too narrowly, which is more difficult than it sounds and takes some practice to do well.
  • Assemble a cross-disciplinary team of “thinkers, makers and doers” who bring different perspectives and experiences to the challenge. If you’re a theater seeking younger audiences, for instance, include on your team a dramaturge, marketer, set builder, educator, comptroller, fundraiser and box office attendant to ensure that diverse viewpoints inform the problem-solving.
  • As a team, develop and execute a plan that outlines what you need to learn, the preparatory research you need to do to better understand the problem at hand, and with whom you should speak to provide hands-on insights. Make sure to include “users” on all points of the spectrum, especially the extremes, i.e., the one-time attendee vs. the repeat subscriber. Break into small groups and divvy up the tasks.
  • Then go out in the field and conduct interviews with stakeholders, one-on-one and in groups, preferably in their own environments, such as their places of business, homes and neighborhoods. Be attentive to their surroundings and, with their permission, record conversations via hand-written notes, drawings, video and photography. Note the tactile, visual nature of the design thinking documentation process.


This next phase involves reflecting on your fieldwork, analyzing and then synthesizing the collected data to identify recurring themes and important insights. Taken together, these provide a guided pathway for brainstorming ways to address your challenge. I’ll delve more fully into this second phase, followed by the third phase of implementation, in my next post.

Citations & Image Credit

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA:, 2015. 

An Introduction to Human-Centered Design. San Francisco, CA: + Acumen, 2015.