Design think your way past big, fuzzy problems

We’ve all been there: that moment when the great opportunity you came up hits a brick wall of, “I’m not sure we can …” or, “Good idea, but …” or even better, “How will that integrate with our database?” There’s nothing like technology constraints or challenging team members to deflate a great idea.

Enter human-centered design, more commonly known as ‘design thinking’ to help your team drive joyfully around the valley of dead ideas in the carpool lane with collaboration and creativity as your co-pilots. Too cheesy? Ok, to put it more simply: this creative framework has emerged to help your team design more creative solutions to the biggest, fuzziest problems holding your organization back. Some of the biggest brands and recognized institutions are embracing it to take their products and experiences to the next level, and you can too.

Creative solutions

Design thinking is a creative, iterative approach to problem solving that places humans at the center of the process. Do you have to be a graphic designer? No way, but embracing a creative mindset is one of the most impactful outcomes. We can all be designers of creative solutions!

So what is it anyway? At its most fundamental level, design thinking encourages us to deeply understand and empathize with the humans at the center of a problem or challenge before solving based on our own biases. By putting ourselves in the audience’s shoes we can create more impactful solutions.

But it doesn’t stop there. After seeking understanding, design thinking methods and tools push teams to create a wide range of solutions that can be turned into working prototypes and tested with the core audience. Quick validation of your solutions is the key to saving time and money. In other words: fail fast!


Design thinking be applied everywhere. However, there are a few areas design thinking has become a great fit for application:

  • HR & Employee Engagement – Employers have begun using design thinking to create a more meaningful employee experience and increase engagement in the company. By seeking to better understand the employee’s work experience and allow them to contribute to its improvement, employees naturally become more connected to the company culture.
  • Social Issues – Social nonprofits are applying design thinking to solve some of the most difficult challenges affecting significant groups of people internationally, such as access to water and clean energy for 1.5 billion people in Sub Saharan Africa.
  • Health care Technology – Health care experience and technology are ripe for disruption, which is what Doug Dietz, a creative innovation professor at GE, has set out to do by using design thinking to improve the patient experience. He shares an impactful story about his experience redesigning an MRI machine that created a terrible experience for his first patient: an 8-year-old girl.
  • Education – Educators tasked with preparing people for the modern workforce are finding they need to help people develop creative thinking abilities.

Interested in giving it a try? To learn more about the evolution of design thinking, start with this Wall Street Journal article. Then, visit the school that started it all: the Stanford D School, for resources and activities to test in your workplace, or attend a workshop to get first-hand experience learning this process.

Dan Fahrner is client service director at Smallbox. Reach him at [email protected]