Design Thinking

Turning Design Thinking to Design Doing

Getting started: insights from experiments in Southeast Asia.

Design thinking can be a powerful approach that helps organizations break through their limiting assumptions of what is possible. It creates deep empathy and gets us out of the abstract debate over ideas in meeting rooms, to a place where we can collaboratively create and test tangible concepts. The theory is great, but getting to implementation is often difficult. Why is that?

When one of us (co-author Glenn Fajardo) started organizing the TechSoup Asia Program Design Session, an event that convened leading social innovation professionals in Southeast Asia to collaboratively prototype new ways of using technology for social impact, he decided to use design thinking for the first time. He encountered questions and worries that we think most first-timers have. The first was:

“OK, so I’m convinced that using design thinking is a good idea. I think I understand what it is after reading Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt’s article “Design Thinking for Social Innovation,” and it sounds great, but I'm not sure how to put it into action.”

Since then, we have experimented with using design thinking in several projects. Based on our collective mistakes and experiences, particularly in organizing two recent events in Southeast Asia (Changeweekend and the TechSoup Asia Program Design Session), it’s clear that it’s not always easy to put the theory of design thinking into practice.

We agree with Brown and Wyatt that “most [people] stop short of embracing the approach as a way to move beyond today’s conventional problem solving,” and that “one of the biggest impediments to adopting design thinking is simply fear of failure.” However, to better understand how we might help more social innovators with “design doing”—actually applying design thinking—we need to better understand how people learn to use it effectively.

Learning “design doing” is experiential and social

There are already good learning materials available online, including the The Stanford d.School Bootcamp Bootleg and the HCD Toolkit. So what makes it tricky to learn and teach design thinking in a way that helps people embrace it more fully? These current materials might provide some sense of security and help, but are toolkits and workbooks enough?

Written materials alone cannot capture all the nuances of design thinking because the approach involves a structured approach with a lot of unstructured elements. Design thinking, like jazz, requires an appreciation for improvisation; learning how to apply it is an experiential and social activity.

Like learning to ride a bicycle, it is experiential. You cannot learn how just by having someone explain it to you—you have to actually try to do it yourself to find your own balance. You also need to practice to get better.

You can also increase your understanding by observing and interacting with more advanced practitioners—in this way, it is social. You enhance your understanding by practicing with your peers, sharing perspectives, and giving each other feedback.

This learning combination of the experiential and the social means thinking of design as craft rather than design as a codified process or design as an outcome. Think “knitting circle” rather than “classroom.”

From knowing to doing

As an example, let’s look at just one part of design thinking: how to prototype. A prototype is a simple simulation of the experience of a new product or service—a simulation that a user can interact with. It is often quick and dirty, and it makes an idea tangible and real. Prototyping helps you surface questions about the desirability, usability, and feasibility of your idea. Iteratively making and testing a series of prototypes can help you gain a deeper understanding of your users and help you refine your solutions.

We’ve seen anxiety from newcomers about making their first prototypes. They understand the concept of a prototype, why making a prototype can be useful, and how others have made prototypes. But the part about them actually making a prototype themselves…scary!

We saw this in the first design challenge for Changeweekend, where participants were tasked with developing new ways for currently unbanked populations to gain greater access to financial services. As we dived into a 45-minute session to create the first prototype, panic ensued:

“Aaaaack! Now what? I understand what a prototype is supposed to do, but not how to make one.”

“Prototyping is for creative people. I’m not creative.”

“Aren’t there more detailed process steps? Tell me what to do next, not just ‘start building.’”

After about 10 minutes of spinning, and with some prodding from the facilitators (“You won’t learn it until you do it...”), one small group finally started to build a “business in a box” prototype out of cardboard and construction paper. 

Design Camp at The SYNC in Bangkok. (Photo by Klaikong Vaidhyakarn)

As they started to engage in the experience of prototyping, they overcame considerable fear and inertia, despite feeling like they didn’t really know what they were doing.

Conversations broke out: “I like what you did with this. Can you tell me more about your thought behind it? What if I tried this too?” The richness of the learning increased with the social interactions throughout the event, as participants had a chance to iterate and get feedback from their teams, other teams, the event facilitators, and other invitees who work in social enterprise development.

Once they started to work experientially and socially, and as their creative confidence grew, participants were able to start applying prototyping to their own design challenges, ones they face in their day-to-day work. One group took an idea for a “charity gift card” and started building prototypes that it could actually put in front of its intended users. This practice led to significant changes to the organization’s business model, to the product offer itself, and to the product’s presentation.

What’s needed to support more design doing?

Even if you’re just getting started, you might be surprised at the kind of help you can find. Try reaching out to your networks. Try posting to the Stanford Crash Course Facebook page. LinkedIn has several design thinking forums, such as Design Thinking, a subgroup of the Industrial Design group, and another (separate) group that is also called Design Thinking. Use these resources to find information and—more importantly—to connect with people. Let people know what you’re trying to do and ask for their advice.

Gawad Kalinga Design Session at Playhouse MINT College in Manila. (Photo by Issa Cuevas-Santos)

We also believe that there’s both a need and an opportunity here for more experiments around how to create systemic support for learning design doing. One could imagine a spectrum of modes for learning (varying in their degree of direct support of the experiential and the social) that lie between reading manuals online and signing up for a formal course on the topic.

One of the most significant challenges we see is enabling beginners to interact in real-time with experienced hands, in ways that are substantive, scalable, and sustainable. Though it wasn’t by design (no pun intended), we saw some promise in something that happened after the TechSoup Asia Program Design Session: several participants who experienced design doing for the first time during the event took that experience back with them and held design sessions where they were based. Organizations that did this include ASSIST and Gawad Kalinga in the Philippines, and ChangeFusion and OpenDream in Thailand. As a result, many more people were able to access experiential and social learning experiences that included interaction with (newly) experienced hands. In the future, one idea is to more explicitly build in an “each one teach one” expectation of participants.

What do you see as the barriers to introducing and applying design thinking in your organization?

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  • BY Adam Lawrence

    ON December 8, 2012 11:13 PM

    For an in tensive, fun and meaningful weekend of “Design Doing”, you could also join or host a site of the Global Service Jam, the world’s biggest service innovation event. The non-profit event takes place next on the first weekend in March, 2013, in around 100 cities worldwide.

  • BY Yulia Kryazheva

    ON December 11, 2012 05:43 AM

    Dear Glenn, John and Kal, thank you for asking this question and sharing your experience, it is very interesting!

    I think I can name 2 barriers, what I see in my practice.

    1) The first one is the overestimation of abstract thinking. It is usually disconnected from the experience of the body – both in the direct sense (meaning our physical unconscious response), and the real “touch” with reality (meaning the intense information exchange with what is happening “out there”).

    Our body can help validating the “livability” even of a non-tangible design. Our cognitive system follows the same self-organisation principles as can be found in other complex systems in nature. So if we just let our cognition do the job - all what we need is to collect sufficient amount of input, the rest is done by our nature. Our mind needs to make sense of all these data, so it will categorize and collapse it, and bring the so much desired eureka-breakthrough. Abstract thinking works like this as well, but the difference is that the input was not reflecting reality (iterative input especially!), so the solution won’t be real either. But if the input was real enough, then the solution will resonate with both the outside world and ourselves – it is the same alive structure, and subconsciously we “feel” it.

    So to overcome this barrier –  we need to show that the design is not about thinking, creativity, but about being in touch with reality, so that our own body & mind IS a designer.
    That is why experiencing/socializing/prototyping works – it brings us direct feedback from reality, it helps cognition collect sufficient input and test its livability right away.

    2) The second problem I find intriguing is that designers tend to ask people to design instead of asking them to share their expertise & experience. As a metaphor - if I come to a shoemaker, and he offers me to make an ideal shoe, I will collapse indeed. Instead, if he asks me to share my experience, what my feet enjoy, how i walk, what inspires me – I will naturally become a part of the design process and will feel appreciated and “on my place”.

    So why don’t we approach our design processes the same way? Instead of confusing people with “let’s design together”, we can help them enjoy their expertise and importance, start on their known territories and head towards the design thinking insights!

  • I would be curious to see how to apply the design thinking concept beyond the prototyping/ hacking phase and integrate it into entrepreneurial ventures.  Is there a role for design thinking to play later in the lifecycle of a start-up?  It seems that most of the focus of design strategies are employed in the conceptualization (ie pre-company) phase and then in later stages for more established organizations.  Maybe startups aren’t ideal from an overstressed/ underresourced perspective, but I would love to hear thoughts on continuing these design thinking strategies as a company’s idea progresses.

  • John Rehm's avatar

    BY John Rehm

    ON December 11, 2012 05:34 PM

    Thanks for your comments, both.

    Yulia, I get what you are saying by “let’s design together” being confusing and you analogy is apt. I guess that the difference, for me, is that while not everyone can be a cobbler I do believe that everyone is a designer. There is a serious difference between being a professional designer and a novice, though, and I think that much of the DT rhetoric has blurred or confused this. I’ve met with to many organizations who once they run some staff through some workshops seem to think that they won’t need designers any more. Anyway, for me it’s a question of being on a continuum and providing people with the appropriate level of support depending upon where they happen to be, rather than a one size fits all approach.

    Julie, the social enterprises we worked with for Change Weekend were along the developmental continuum from “just an idea” to already running. There is certainly a role for design thinking approaches to be used, and I’d argue that it’s an efficient use of resources to do so. I’m not sure that literature/resources have really addressed this aspect, though, which may be why there is that perception. Perhaps that needs to be the next article!

  • BY Yulia Kryazheva

    ON December 12, 2012 12:55 AM

    John, I absolutely agree with you.

    In the previous comment I rather focused on the difficulty of engaging people in the design thinking process, but I didn’t mean they instantly become designers for the rest of their life. One thing is to taste and understand what it actually means, another thing – to become professional facilitators of this process. As in any other profession, besides a feeling/talent it is a lot of practice, experience, technology/tools. We need to communicate it to our clients in some way, to clear up this confusion.

  • BY Mohan Arun L.

    ON December 12, 2012 06:15 AM

    @Julie, design thinking approach applies to the entire lifecycle of the startup -

    - Design is an essential element within the startup.

    - Design is no longer something you slap on at the end,
    but rather, as Ev Williams said, “a part of everything that you do.”

    - Bake design in, from day one - take the time to design
    the entire user experience…

    - Embrace design as a way of running your startup.

    More design-savvy companies means more holistic, richer products.

  • Stephanie's avatar

    BY Stephanie

    ON December 14, 2012 12:38 AM

    i can appreciate reading this experience of applying design thinking, especially since hearing other discussions on the topic have often felt vague and abstract to me, sometimes purposely so. the fundamental step of prototyping and the common inertia of fear associated with that process seem to sum up the most significant barrier to implementation. yet i wonder if the tendency to assume a known outcome (or lack of genuine openness, curiosity, and optimism) could be considered a separate and just as common/significant barrier.

    to your point, it’s always helpful and interesting to have shared insight. thanks!

  • Julie—

    Yes! I think there’s a huge amount utility that can come from combining design thinking with some lean start-up approaches for start-ups. One of the biggest advantages is the ability to figure out whether you’re on the right track early on (not after spending months building a product and putting it out) and better discovering user needs.


    Something I think is really useful in applying design thinking in one’s own organisation is making sure the group that you’re working with includes some outsiders—possibly stakeholders or potential beneficiaries. It helps a lot to bring in some fresh perspective and break up group think.

  • Glenn Fajardo's avatar

    BY Glenn Fajardo

    ON December 14, 2012 06:20 PM

    Thanks everyone for your comments so far!

    @Stephanie - I think you raise a good point. While I believe that everyone is capable of openness, curiosity, and optimism, sometimes beginners need some support and nudging to find that openness, curiosity, optimism that they have within them! I believe that this is part of the “social” aspect of learning that we describe, and well as “creative confidence” (see link in the post).

    @Julie - I complete agree with John that there’s a strong argument to be made that applying design thinking can indeed be an efficient use of resources, and can be especially useful for overstressed/underresourced organizations!  And I agree with Mohan that it can be applied to the entire lifecycle. For example, later in the lifecycle of a start-up, design thinking can be applied to deepen your understanding of your users and improve your products and services.  It’s never too late to start. (Well, maybe not literally never, but you get the idea!)

  • As a participant of TechSoup Asia Program Design Session, and as the organizer of the First Design Thinking Session at ASSIST, I clearly see a general misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) of the “prototyping” concept.

    Design, which naturally comes before the prototype part, is quite straight-forward: you can dream all you want, I wouldn’t say that you have to stay in touch with reality (or, rather, you should, but you often fail to do so due to the very abstract nature of designing and inability to perform any sanity checks of the idea/project at such early stage - stage of designing). But then you are offered to prototype your idea and the struggle begins…

    It’s easy to design and prototype a car, a building, a <insert anything tangible here>. That’s a fact. But how do you prototype an abstract idea or an experience (kudos to John Rehm - he definitely knows:))? How do you materialize something non-material? That’s a question.  A good one. It requires out-of-the-box way of thinking but let’s be honest - how many people can boast to have developed one? As a result, prototyping can be futile - at the very least, and frustrating - at, perhaps, not even the very most.

  • BY Pramurto Mukhopadhyay

    ON December 17, 2012 12:39 AM

    Having followed the IDEO way of ‘design thinking ’ and prototyping, the most successful ways of ‘design doing’ in generating products involve rapid incremental prototyping.Recent evolutions in rapid prototyping going as far as ‘machine in a box’ allow a design team to churn out iterations of the thought-product and present it before an audience which may like the concept or follow divergent paths.The purpose of this is to collect a bushel of ‘best ideas’ and graft it into a best product.

    Transferring the same into service design, the path would involve allowing a number of pilot projects to incubate after design and taking the features providing the best fit into the final model.

    The caveat of all this naturally being that the service designers or business designers have to be talented , have an individual vision yet be able to share their vision across the team.

  • Garreth Heidt's avatar

    BY Garreth Heidt

    ON December 27, 2012 07:33 AM

    I just read the article for the second or third time.  Wonderful delineation of the process and the problems.  Having posted some of these thoughts on the Linked-in “design thinking” group, I extend them here a bit further.

    Here’s how I see it as a middle school teacher who has been utilizing and moving more and more to design/project-based learning. 

    The work that we do when involved in the design thinking process, if it is to be successful (both the work and the process) requires a few things, and I think Jazz might be as good a metaphor for understanding how I see the issue.  (Now an admission is in order.  I’m not a jazz expert.  I own Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” and several other albums.  I’m not even a musician beyond my 6th grade—9th grade foray into the world of alto sax.  However, I understand the aesthetic of jazz and, as a teacher, have thought rather deeply about the metaphor of jazz as it applies to what I and other teachers do in the classroom.  For more on that, see this blog post I wrote years ago—(  )).

    For me there are two key issues to the workability of the metaphor I’m plying.

    1) All those who played on improv albums, like “Kind of Blue”, are experienced musicians who exemplify the comfort and ease and flexibility that come only with dedicated practice.  So they’ve PLAYED with the rhythm enough to feel comfortable riffing on one version of it.  That’s not such a revelatory observation—in any sport, any endeavor, those who can improvise on the fly are those who live and breathe the environment, for whom the activity is like life itself.

    The impact here is that the freedom of design thinking and its non-linear, recursive nature are intimidating to those who approach it without a playful attitude.  In work, even in school, we’ve been taught that things are linear, that we must start somewhere and constantly progress (as if on an assembly line), gaining things as we go along, inexorably, to some end product. Yet in life, we generally play with things, try things out, in order to create.  Kids with Legos.  designers in a project must have had enough practice to just get in there and play.  The same with Jazz players. 

    Which reminds me of something Miles Davis said, “Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.”  The only way you get to that level is through practice and experience and apprenticeship with someone who knows enough about the imagination to lead you through “what’s not there” without getting lost.

    So the perhaps the first step is to institute an ethic of play.  And then…we’d have to do a lot of it, with an experienced teacher, to make people comfortable in the new “environment.”

    2) Along with the ethic of play comes an erasure of the fear of failure.  I can’t imagine that there’s any such thing as “failure” in Jazz improv.  There are improvs that are more beautiful, playful, intriguing, original than others, but I doubt there are failed improvs, at least not at the level of losing one’s job.

    Perhaps this is where the problem with DT begins.  In improvisation the musicians are “just playing”...They’re not committed to an end product, there’s little on the line, no bottom line, no loss of market presence, etc.  When nothing is at stake, it’s all open (and yet…very frightening).  This is Blue Sky, at least in my understanding, and it’s what makes improvisation possible in the first place.  At the point that there’s something present that instills fear of failure, the innovation falters, the improvisation is still-born.

    So the metaphor works at those two levels—DT is difficult because it requires the mindset of “play” to move within it’s field in a jazzy, nimble, innovative fashion; and there can be (as with all deep play) no fear of failure.

  • Guilherme's avatar

    BY Guilherme

    ON September 30, 2013 06:18 PM

    Does anybody know a good design thinking program outside US? In Ásia?
    Thanks a lot

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