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Earlier this year, I attended an all-day workshop hosted by AIGA Chicago about how to leverage design thinking in the social impact space.

As a designer for Do Big Things, I’m always searching for new and creative ways to tackle the problems and challenges that our clients present us with. Sometimes, it isn’t enough to fire up Photoshop, because design’s reach isn’t solely limited to Adobe Creative Cloud or a sketchbook. It affects everything around us, even down to the way we navigate things like airports or the check-out line at a grocery store (wayfinding). So, what do you do when you need to solve a complex problem without sacrificing creativity or the human touch? This is where design thinking comes in. Design thinking is the radical idea that we should put humans and empathy at the center of problem-solving, and I knew this workshop would be the perfect way to learn how to bring this technique to DBT’s work in the nonprofit and political sectors.

It was an incredible day.

AIGA Chicago paired us with a nonprofit called Casa Central. Founded in 1954, Casa Central is the Midwest’s oldest and largest Hispanic social service agency. For decades, Casa Central has played a pivotal role in the Midwest’s Hispanic community, specifically in Chicago. From early childhood learning services to domestic violence prevention to home care for seniors, Casa Central is dedicated to serving its community with positive, family-centered programming. However, in recent years, the organization has found itself at a crossroads. It has struggled with issues like community engagement, membership retention, and funding, especially for critical programs like its Early Learning Academy.

With this in mind, Casa Central and AIGA Chicago posed this question to us:

“How might Casa Central better connect with and serve parents and children in their Early Learning Academy in order to expand and deepen the relationship between Casa Central and the community and help cultivate lifelong advocates, improve community engagement efforts, and ultimately improve access to funding?”

Together, in one afternoon, we would use design thinking to answer these questions for Casa Central, formulate ideas, and then pitch them to Casa Central Vice-President of External Affairs.

Needless to say, this task felt daunting.

But it turned out to be one of the most energizing, meaningful experiences I have ever had.

As we learned about design thinking and its process, we were able to go from this Post-It wall:

… to low-fi prototypes and concepts that we pitched to Casa Central…

… with empathy, user research, and ZERO traditional brainstorm methods.

But, before I go any further, let’s explore an important question: What is design thinking?

Design thinking (or human-centered design), at its core, is a creative, solutions-forward methodology used to solve problems. But, like any method, it has a specific process.

During the workshop, AIGA Chicago broke down these steps in a simple example for us to understand:

By diving deep into the needs of students and teachers through empathy, comprehensive research, and a few wild ideas, IDEO (a leading design thinking firm) was able to innovate and create a chair that better fits the needs of a modern classroom. No detail was too minor for IDEO when they designed this chair: students have a better place to put their backpacks and materials, the wheels enable teachers to rearrange their classrooms and facilitate group projects more easily – and, while no whitepapers say this, I can only imagine that this chair is infinitely more comfortable than the hard (and, for some reason, ALWAYS cold) plastic chairs of our childhoods.

So, without further ado, here are my top 3 takeaways about design thinking:

01. Innovation isn’t magical. It’s a process.

Too often when we think about innovation, we think of it as a byproduct of coincidence and luck. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Innovation is a process, and design thinking should be a part of that process. When you think about it, design thinking is just another form of ethnographic research: it’s not enough to simply observe something, instead, you must experience it in its real-life environment as an active observer to discover how it truly works and what makes it valuable and significant to those that use it. How can you innovate if you don’t truly understand your audience and their unique needs?

02. There’s a much better way to brainstorm.

Let’s face it: traditional brainstorming doesn’t work. When you cram your colleagues into a room and expect them to solve your problem as quickly as they can in 30 minutes, no one wins. Instead, we should come back to design thinking and its ideation process:

  • Step 1: Set a time limit
  • Step 2: Ask a “How Might We” question to identify your goal
  • Step 3: Have everyone write down their ideas (no matter how wild) in silence
  • Step 4: Create a visual display (e.g., a Post-It Note wall) of your ideas
  • Step 5: Identify patterns, groups, and the strongest ideas by using a voting system, such as dot-voting.

Once all the votes are cast, everyone should be given the opportunity to explain their votes. I found this to be the most exciting part of the workshop – it was so much fun to hear about what everyone in my group had come up with after a morning spent learning about Casa Central, interviewing their employees, and experiencing this new way to brainstorm. Our ideas ranged from a simple welcome box for new Casa Central families to setting up a community carpool to a parent-child book club to a peer-to-peer texting service for Casa Central parents.

And, while all of these ideas are very different in their own right, we were able to ultimately combine them in our final product: a welcome box that featured pamphlets about Casa Central’s many services, a parent directory, a neighborhood map, and other items that could help facilitate parent-to-parent engagement within the Early Learning Academy to help foster a lifelong relationship with Casa Central. I can’t imagine what ideas we would have come up with if we hadn’t spent the morning learning about this process and taking the time to interview Casa Central employees and parents to learn about their needs.

However, I do know that those answers would have only touched the surface.

03. We need to empathize with our clients, not sympathize.

As the day continued, it occurred to me that, sometimes, I spend a lot of time sympathizing with my clients versus empathizing with them. The ability to empathize comes more easily when you experience it in the context of comforting or listening to someone you are close to, but what does it mean to empathize with someone in a professional setting? This is the beauty of design thinking: its methodology requires that you psychologically identify with your client so that, together, you can find innovative, bespoke solutions versus acknowledging the problem and running off to fix it.

Here’s to active listening, productive brainstorming, and a commitment to human-centered design as we build and design ideas that meet the needs of our clients with empathy, understanding, and greater success.

Interested in design thinking? Have some favorite resources you want to send our way? Email me at! I’d love to hear from you.


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