Using Design Thinking to Empower Your Life

When I first discovered design thinking (which is a methodology used to solve problems) I realized it had amazing applications for empowering one's life.  I then came across Bernard Roth (a very kind, soft spoken man) who is one of the founders of the d.School (design) for Stanford which focuses on design thinking as a methodology to problem solving.  He teaches a course called Design in Society which uses design thinking to solve a life project the students have wanted to work on (e.g. lose 15 pounds, learn how to ride a bike, create something, etc).  He then wrote a book called The Achievement Habit which talks about how one can use design as a way to empower one's life.  I will be talking about my interpretation of some elements of his book and some of my own discoveries about how design can help out this thing called life.


Bernie begins by discussing how first we need to recognize the difference between trying to do something and actually doing it.  If we want any change in our life we will need to commit to the change, not just shoot a few attempts.  When working on projects, designers understand that they will need to continually adapt and adjust in order to solve their problem statement.  We need to do the same thing when it comes to life change.  Commit to the change and do it instead of just trying.

Once we commit to change we can look at our particular way of seeing the world which is strongly associated with the way we interact with it.  It is then up to us to understand all the ways we see our world, understand what is and isn't working, and begin to focus on changing those things that do not work.  In design thinking this is the inspiration phase, where designers go out and understand the group of people they are trying to solve a problem for.  The goal is not to just understand the problem, but to understand the problem in the context of the individual(s) life.  That is what we are striving for, to understand how it is that WE see the world and interact with it in order to have a better understanding of our problem and how we can change it in the context of our lives.

Bernie talks about a 4 step process to stop our impulses and begin to change our behavior (here is the simplified version):

1) When we are about to do the action, stop ourselves for a moment

2) Take a deep breath

3) Become aware of how you are feeling in the moment

4) Recall a feeling that gave you happiness and peace

It takes time and practice and when you do these steps you are developing your self awareness. This is how we expand our "inspiration" to work on the problem.  

Road Blocks

Bernie then talks about how reasons are bullshit (he even has lovely stickers that emphasizes that tag line).  When we blame traffic or our environment, we are trying to hide our short comings for ourselves.  Once we begin to remove those "reasons" we beginning to empower ourselves which allows for behavior change to occur due to the more realistic self image we have of ourselves, not the inflated version we want to believe in.  An element of design is about removing(or at least recognizing)  biases and looking at what people are actually doing, not what people are saying they are doing.

Another road block and way to recognize what is going on with your life is when you project onto others.  Projection is when get angry or frustrated and we blame others for what they have done.  It is often a sign that there is something that you are angry or not happy with about yourself.  At the end of the day people do not have the power to make you feel, act, or do anything.  When you are getting angry at others it is a good time to go back to the 4 steps mentioned earlier and gain insight to where the frustration is actually coming from.  This is a difficult thing to fully do and it can be very insightful into your subconscious/beliefs that you are not fully aware of.   


Problem Understand (not problem solve)

I say problem understand because in my favorite section in the book Bernie discusses an awesome methodology of how to find out if the problem you are working on is even the real problem.  People will spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem that may not actually be the real problem, hence never finding or having a difficult time creating an actual solution.  In design the goal is to help a particular group of people with a particular problem, and many times designers will change the first problem they thought of because it's not the actual problem people are experiencing. 

(Example: A group of designers were to find out how they can keep incubators for newborns consistently working in a country where there were often problems like power outages and so on. As the design team learned more about the situation they discovered the real problem was not how to fix the incubators but how to keep babies warm.  They found that the incubators were not a good solution to the ACTUAL problem and they ended up creating a wax like material that can be heated in boiling water and kept in a pouch to keep babies warm for up to 5 hours.  This was a simple solution that helped the individual families in need.  The product is a success and is significantly more effective, costly, and has saved many new born lives.  So bad ass!!!)

So you take a problem that you are having such as wanting to lose weight.  Then you ask, "what will that do for me if I solve that problem" and then an answer may be "I will fit in my cloths better", or "Have more energy", or "Feel better about my body".  Let's go with "Feel better about my body".  Then that becomes the actual question we are trying to solve, "How do I feel better about my body"?  The "lose weight" was not the problem, but actually a solution that may not work best for you.  So now that you have a better understanding of the question now we can find a variety of solutions such as get a tan, or learn how to dance, do sports, be naked more often, and so on.  Once you have a better understanding of the actual problem, then you have a better chance at finding the right solution. 

Solution Focused and Ideate

Now that we have a better understanding of the problem it is time to, what designers call, Ideate.  Now we are trying to come up with as many ideas as we can for a possible solution to our problem.   The goal is not to try and come up with the right solution as quickly as possible, but to try to get as many possible solutions as one can and then choose the best one.  There are a variety of ways one can do that.  In addition to The Achievement Habit another book that you can read that will help you better understand the process of design thinking, and give you a variety of ways to solve problems is the book called Human Centered Design by IDEO.  It is a fantastic book and if you are interested in learning more, that book is an amazing resources and its free (for the ecopy, and you can pay for a well designed hard copy). 

Here are a couple of simple ways to get solutions:

-Talk with people who you know and care about you, also those who are good at what you are trying to do (design thinking usually involves teams of people coming together for a specific cause)

-Use your hands (white board(personal fav.), journal, paint, draw)

- Get inspired by a known or an unknown environment

- Learn about it (books, podcast, articles, blogs, research papers, documentaries)

Action is Traction.  Implementation.

This comes back to the original part of the post.  You have to DO, not just try to do.  You have done your best to understand, which was the easy part.  Now it's time to execute and here is a big reason why I love design thinking.  This is the implementation part of the process.  Designers will create a prototype which is meant to be a simple/cheap way to see if you are going in the right direction for the answer.  Designers understand that it is very rare to get it right the first time (or several) and that you will have to reiterate the solution.  If you fail, as most of us will our first few times, we look at what happened, what did we learn, and how do we make it better?  Then try to make a small adjustment, have another crack at it, and see what works this times, what doesn't, and keep working to get closer and closer to the solution.  The goal here is to not push for the final product or solution but to be in a process of working towards the goal. 

Baby steps get us closer to what we are trying to accomplish. 

Example:  You goal is to feel better in your body and you make a plan to try a diet of a week.  As you go on through your week you record your progress and see how you feel, what works, what doesn't.  At the end you look at what was it that worked and figure out why.  Then look at those things that did not work and try to see how you can make better choices.  For example you know that you decided to eat out twice a week which was something you did not want to do.  You ask yourself why that happened and you recognize that for those two days you did not want to cook.  A new solution that you can try is to make your food for the week.  Then the next week happens and you see that you ate out once, it was at the end of the week and the reason it happened was because you got sick of eating the same thing for dinner.   Now when you make food for the week, you cook two different meals so you change it up.  Now you ate the food that you prepared for the week, which was healthy and you are making strong changes in your diet. 

Be in the process of adjusting and adapting, do not try to just try one solution, fail, and quit.  Know that change will be part of the process and you will handle it as you get closer to the solution that works for you. 

One final note.  This work can be done on one's own and it works better with a group of people.  IDEO is a design company that works with teams of people for each project.  They believe in the T model meaning that each person has a specialty and they work on others aspects of the project that are not their main focus.  The idea is that since people have such different life experiences and perspectives, that everyone can contribute in a variety of ways since they see the world in different ways. 

Same idea can be used when trying to empower our lives.  People have a variety of perspectives, ideas, and concepts which can help you see different solutions to what it is you are trying to create or change.  If you can, get a few friends and help each other with different life projects.

I hope this was helpful and gave you some new insights into a new way to problem solve issues in your life.  What is something that you would like to work on or change?