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. 

The Lessons Behind Why It's Never Too Late to Learn

Earlier this year, I was looking for an outlet and respite from work, so I decided to take lessons and learn to play acoustic guitar. I grew up in a musical family – all of us played an instrument and sang at church and in school choirs – so turning to music seemed a natural choice, even though it hadn’t been part of my routine for a long time. 

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit: , October 3, 2013

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit:, October 3, 2013

In fact, it had been over 30 years since I took piano lessons from the Vienna-born, classically-trained, diminutive Mrs. Troy in her low-ceilinged, 18th century cottage filled with silk-upholstered antiques in the New England town where I was raised. Like my teacher and her home, my piano lessons were very proper: she assigned scales, exercises and pieces by Bach, Mozart and Schumann. At each session, I played while she gently corrected me and marked up the expensive sheet music with her perfect penmanship.

I was a good student and by all accounts a fine player by the time I went to college and gave up the piano. But I retained a good ear, have natural rhythm and can still read music. So I thought returning to music would be fun and entertained a not-too-distant future vision of pulling out my guitar after a nice evening meal and playing some old Joni Mitchell or James Taylor harmonizing with my husband.

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

By sheer good luck, I found my way to the East Providence studio of Mark Cutler, formerly front man of The Schemers, a wildly popular 1980s rock band from Providence, RI. His studio is cluttered with guitars, electronic equipment, computers and mismatched furniture. In his dark T-shirt and jeans, Mark is the real deal, a charming, talented musician and songwriter who has never stopped making great music, with a rich singing voice that marries Tom Petty with Bob Dylan and guitar playing to rival Eric Clapton. Fortunately, he loves to teach people how to play guitar and write songs, which he does when he’s not performing solo, writing film scores or leading his new band, Men of Great Courage.

But as I all too quickly realize, learning to play the guitar with Mark bears little resemblance to my past formal piano instructions. Each week, he shows me new chords and strumming patterns and how to play some classic songs, like the Stones’ Dead Flowers or Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He scribbles notes on lined paper and hands me song lyrics annotated with basic chord changes. We play together the songs I practice – I try to keep a simple beat while Mark improvises and makes his strings sing. I long to do that, but the 10,000 hours needed to produce this kind of mastery, as Malcolm Gladwell references in Outliers, are a long way away.

I can’t yet say that this is fun. Actually, it’s work that requires daily practice. I’m often frustrated because I want to go farther and faster than my current knowledge and skill allow. Mark is a kind and patient teacher, but I’m embarrassed in front of him when I play wrong notes or veer off rhythm or can’t remember a chord progression. I feel like I’m learning a foreign language. (Well, I am – it’s called "Tablature," which is shorthand notation for fingering fretted instruments, and it doesn’t look anything like the staffs and staves and notes that I remember from my days with Mrs. Troy.) Uncharacteristically, tears well up when I can’t make my fingers stretch to reach the right strings or hold my wandering fourth finger on the E.

I’ve been reflecting on what it’s like to learn new things as an adult and how different that is from learning as a child. I don’t remember studying piano to be as difficult – maybe my mid-life brain is simply less malleable than when I was younger. Many of us in the arts community strongly believe in lifelong learning and I’m experiencing on a very personal level how the act of learning something entirely new as an adult, though challenging, has great merit. University of Stirling (Scotland) emeritus professor of education John Field reports that lifelong learning, among other benefits, is “associated with better health, higher levels of social and civic engagement, and greater resilience in the face of external crises.” 

New research by UK neuroscientists Victoria Knowland and Michael Thomas confirms that that the brain is most responsive to input during early to middle childhood and “plasticity” does wane with age. But they conclude adult learning is optimized when these seven key elements are in place:

  1. Practice, which is essential to achievement.
  2. Motivation, both self-directed and supported by others. 
  3. Learning from a real person with real materials, which is more effective than passive presentation (i.e., sitting in front of a computer and watching a videotaped lecture).
  4. Starting with the fundamentals and moving on to “higher order” skills.
  5. Providing a quiet learning environment.
  6. Making connections with pre-existing knowledge that the adult student already has.
  7. Ensuring rest and a good night’s sleep.

What does all of this have to do with the cultural workplace? We’re constantly asking our staff members to learn new things or embrace new ideas – we upgrade to a more complex database management program that we expect our teams to master; we urge participation in professional development workshops or conferences to enhance skills in any number of areas, like management, fundraising and marketing; we adopt new modes of conduct that shift internal cultures and expect everyone to follow. All of these require active learning and the right environment in which to learn. 

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

According to a May 2010 report by The Maritz Institute, the right adult learning environment can foster “behavioral change and improved performance” in the workplace. That environment, as underscored in Knowland’s and Thomas’ more recent research, recognizes that learning is a process requiring time for assimilation (aka practice). It also requires drawing on past knowledge to build bridges between the known and unknown (like me trying to find connections between piano and guitar playing). Social interaction is key, as is bringing emotion into the learning process and engaging multiple senses to create a deeper, more memorable experience. (It seems my welling up on occasion is a good thing!)

As we encourage learning in our teams, let’s make certain to provide a supportive environment to learn and give our people the time and tools to make the learning stick. And give me six more months and I’ll let you know how things are going with the guitar. It really is never too late to learn.