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 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. 

Improvising and Going with the Flow: How to Bring Vacation into the Workplace

The stone facade of our 16th-century rental in Todi, Italy. 

The stone facade of our 16th-century rental in Todi, Italy. 

My husband and I had the great fortune to be invited to join a dear friend, her fiancé and eight of their close pals for a celebration of some milestone birthdays. Our rendezvous point was a gorgeous, circa 16th-century villa in Umbria, Italy with modern amenities, 10 bedrooms, six bathrooms and two kitchens. Obviously, some sharing was going to be involved. 

We were a motley but fascinating group ranging in age from early 30s to 80, of disparate life experiences and talents brought together under one roof to toast our friends while enjoying the breathtaking beauty, rich history and agrarian lifestyle of central Italy. We comprised:

A special events maven

A former hedge fund manager 

A painter

A specialty tour operator

A singer and theatrical performer

A former retail executive

A dancer and choreographer

A professor

A sales director and publisher

A marketing and communications specialist

A realtor

And me, an arts administrator and consultant.

There was no planned itinerary, save for the birthday party scheduled for Saturday evening. But prior to our arrival, our consummate hosts had sent each of us a detailed package about Umbria, supplying information about the house, houseguests and noteworthy medieval sites all within an hour’s drive of our home-away-from-home for the week. We were free to lounge, forage and wander around, on our own or together with our housemates.

There were few house rules:

  • No wet glasses on wood furniture.
  • Only plastic by the pool.
  • Stay clear of the kitchen around meal times unless unloading groceries, cooking or cleaning.
Dining al fresco under the pergola.

Dining al fresco under the pergola.

Somehow, with just a hint of structure (thanks to great pre-planning by our hosts), the week came together seamlessly, like a loosely improvised dance cooperatively choreographed by all 12 of us. Although we had few things in common beyond deep affection for our hosts and a shared love of culture, we enjoyed getting to know one another and learning where we hailed from, how we spent our time and what made us all tick. We soon settled into an easy rhythm – breakfast and strong coffee at home in the a.m.; sightseeing, lunching and shopping in the comunes and cittàs of Todi, Deruta, Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi during the day; swimming and sunning in the afternoon; and dining together al fresco every night under the clay-tiled pergola.

Without being asked or directed, everyone pitched in to the communal experience. Some cooked, some cleaned, some shopped, some drove, some navigated, some tour guided, some became experts at the confounding Italian appliances, some entertained, and some fed the cat.

And throughout, all of us talked. Dinner table conversation was abundant, meandering and rich in personal storytelling. I will admit that a couple of times I found myself bristling from viewpoints I didn’t agree with. But I was on vacation. “Just relax and listen,” I’d say to myself, “Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. Go with the flow.” That attitude, lubricated by delicious Umbrian wine, made for engaging encounters and one of our best vacations yet.

Now that I’ve returned to the real world, I’m keen to hold on to that attitude and translate it to the workplace. Here’s what I’ve taken away from the experience:

  • Assemble a group of interesting, accomplished people of various talents. 
  • Provide some structure. 
  • Give everyone an opportunity to participate and contribute. 
  • Welcome diverse perspectives and embrace all as valid. 
  • Appreciate both the individual and the group.
  • Pitch in and work together, despite differences.
  • Improvise as needed and go with the flow.

I invite you to do this, too. You’ll be amazed at the results, and the richer for it. And when you’re not working, visit Italy.

The fertile landscape of Umbria.

The fertile landscape of Umbria.

Get Back on the Bike: Cultivating Organizational Resilience

Andrew Talansky finishing the 8th stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Laurence Cipriani/Associated Press

Andrew Talansky finishing the 8th stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Laurence Cipriani/Associated Press

It was one of many heartbreaking images in this year’s Tour de France, the legendary bicycle race through the French Alps. Fatigued, bruised and wounded after two serious crashes, Andrew Talansky, a promising young American rider, slowed to a stop and dismounted, oblivious to the picturesque mountain vista behind him. With tears spilling from his eyes, Talansky listened while his coach quietly spoke to him about deciding whether to continue in the race or pull out.

And then the unexpected – in the face of enormous setback and overwhelming odds, Talansky got back on his bike. Accompanied only by the team car, the Voiture Balai (aka the “broom sweeper,” the van at the end of the race that picks up stragglers) and a few dedicated fans, he battled his way, mentally and physically, to the finish line within the proscribed time limit.

Talansky showed not only immense personal courage and grit, but resilience, what the American Psychological Association defines as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, [and] threats." 

Resilience is a trait that can be learned, say Drs. Dennis Charney and Steven Southwick in their 2012 book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. They note that intentional practices, such as cognitive reappraisal, mindfulness meditation, even yoga, can help to shift how to think about situations to overcome emotional stress and persevere. 

Cultural organizations certainly have experienced their share of adversity and trauma, especially since the recession, and some very much in the public eye – consider, for example, the Detroit Institute of Art’s life threatening ordeal caused by municipal bankruptcy. Most often, such distress presents in the form of strained resources – overly ambitious programming, unrealistic audience projections, under-realized earned and contributed revenues, unanticipated leadership transitions – that bring organizations to a breaking point. But like elite athletes, organizations can train themselves to cultivate characteristics of resilience, such as courage, optimism and faith, in order to navigate through dire straits.

According to researcher Michael A. Bell, there are five key traits to organizational resilience:

  1. Leadership – Resilient organizations are guided by stable leaders who set priorities, efficiently allocate resources, define and balance risk, and clearly and regularly dialogue with their colleagues. Such leaders also demonstrate the “four core attributes of [resilience] — optimism, decisiveness, integrity and open communications,” as noted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine associate professor George Everly, Jr. 
  2. Culture – Resilient organizations create a culture of shared vision and collaboration that embraces a collective institutional mission. In addition, they also foster transparency and accountability, nurture relationships built on trust, and empower employees to assume responsibility and authority.
  3. People – Arguably the most important asset of any organization is its people, and resilient organizations ensure that their teams are, as Bell asserts, “properly selected, equipped, motivated and led.” They represent a diversity of talent and perspective within their organizations, as well as among the communities served. Resilient organizations support employees through motivational HR programs that prioritize their well-being and professional development.
  4. Systems – Resilient organizations enable distributed leadership by investing in effective management and technology systems. In other words, they ensure that the proper structures, processes and equipment are in place to facilitate communication, support information sharing and galvanize performance.
  5. Settings – Perhaps an unexpected finding of Bell’s research is the diversity of physical workplaces within resilient organizations that accommodate various types of work and work styles. Resilience is reinforced through adaptive work environments that offer desk sharing, telecommuting and other flexible accommodations, as well as traditional office spaces.

Not surprisingly, Bell concludes that resilient organizations are “operationally superior” and have impressive bottom line performance. The good news in all of this, according to Professor Everly, is that resilience can be learned and permeate an institution through modeling and mentoring by credible leaders.

Peleton, 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

Peleton, 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

So the message here is to get back on the bike, like Talansky, and keep pedaling, trusting that your talent, training, coaching, equipment, support network and team focus will ultimately prevail.