The attitude and skills of design thinkers

Maggie Lewis

Guest author Maggie Lewis co-teaches MSLOC 441 Designing Sustainable Strategic Change for the M.S. in Learning and Organizational Change program, of which she is also a graduate. She is Managing Partner of design firm Studio Blue.




“Design thinking? Why would we want our clients to do that?” is what I heard a decade ago from a new colleague when I suggested we engage our clients with this transformative process.

How I wish I hadn’t listened to that nay-sayer, who put design thinking in the camps of business jargon and hocus pocus. What she missed was that design thinking changes how people collaborate and produce innovative products and organizations. It makes design outcomes more successful, beautiful and engaging. Thankfully, it is now practiced daily at Studio Blue, the design firm I co-own with academic, cultural and civic clients.

Successful outcomes for end users, the people who work, learn and play in our institutions, are what has caused organizations to adopt design thinking to develop new products, processes and experiences. Instead of figuring out how to apply a best-practice or well-used model to solve a need, the design thinker starts with the question, “What are you doing?” and watches and listens to find out what is needed. He/she then engages users (e.g., customers, staff, members, students, etc.) in the making process, as testers of early ideas (we call them prototypes) which allows more data to be collected before we explore whole solutions.

The right attitude and a few skills can help anyone be a design thinker.

Let’s start with attitude. Design thinkers have empathy for the user. We care deeply about users’ points-of-view, what motivates them, their values, etc. because we are designing for them. We spend time with people experiencing and watching them to reveal problems and give us clues about to how to solve them.

Another trait we share is curiosity. A curious mind notices things— how people move in a space, with whom they interact, emotional reactions. Designers who are curious are also excellent interviewers, quick to ask the follow-up question, “Tell me more about that.”

The ability to take a risk and be uncomfortable may be the trait that sets the design thinker apart from other consultants. Design thinkers derive a solution from what the users are showing and telling. For some thinkers, this can be frightening. We like to know what the end state looks like— it makes us feel confident and secure.

There are at least three skills which all design thinkers have. First is the ability to watch a system at work. We observe physical interactions with space, artifacts on walls and desks, rituals and meetings. This process of immersion (think Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction) reveals what the system needs. Throughout this period, we remain curious about what is happening and don’t rush to propose solutions. Only after the process is complete do we begin to interpret or think about the meaning of what we observed and heard.

Observation therefore leads to the second skill, objectivity. Like a scientist, the design thinker doesn’t assume anything, but works to figure out what is happening in a system to determine what it needs.

Making ideas physical introduces possibilities and questions to the users we’ve observed and interviewed. Using simple tools (e.g., Sharpies, Post-Its, paper), the designer creates a prototype in the form of a sketch, a user interface, a journey map and sometimes even a script or skit. The prototype is then given to the user to experience. The designer resumes his/her role as observer, recording how the user interacts with and modifies the prototype.

Practicing the skills and embracing the attitudes of a design thinker can change organizations. By engaging with users, we not only embrace them, we empower them to be part of the solution.

This post published with permission of the author.

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema

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