Elements of Design Thinking

design thinking

Image by Stephanie Dooper.

Design thinking has always been this fuzzy, abstract concept to me—something that was reserved for entrepreneurs, innovators, and programmers. The people who built or created a product for the market. With an academic background focused heavily on the social sciences, I never imagined I would understand how to prototype an idea, generate themes from coding interviews, or record and edit audio. I am a writer, explorer, and adventurer, but not a design thinker. Or so I thought.

As a Citizen Lab Library Resident for the Shapiro Design Lab I have found that design thinking is not an abstract, unattainable skill. In fact, when I think back to elementary school projects, creative Saturdays at home with my mom, or even the process of furnishing my first college apartment, I realize that I have always been utilizing some elements of design thinking; I just had not yet refined the tools. Design thinking is a process of empathizing to understand your audience and users, defining the problem, ideating a solution, drafting a prototype and testing your product. The process can be both simple and complex, messy and organized, and daunting and inspiring. Even better, the results can be monumental. And, my favorite aspect of design thinking is that I have found it to be exceptionally liberating. At the core of design thinking is the prospect of trying, testing, and trying again. There is no harm in failure; from failure stems the best of ideas.

This semester I am using design thinking to aid in my citizen science project of creating a podcast about the non-economic loss and damage associated with climate change. In other words, through this podcast am exploring the ways that climate change affects culture. Over the summer, my research team and I—a group of five interdisciplinary graduate students—partnered with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe to explore this topic. Over the course of our time there, we gathered oral histories about their relationship to the environment and experience of adverse environmental stressors. Our time there was truly inspiring and the tribal members we spoke to were incredibly insightful. The Bad River Band graciously welcomed us into their community and shared many of their stories and cultural heritage with us. It was an honor to get a glimpse into their lives.

Now, as my team and I are back in Michigan and processing all that we have learned, I am trying to use design thinking to synthesize what we experienced and translate it into a podcast. As this is my first rodeo with audio production and editing, you can imagine it’s been a bit of a learning curve! Yet, as I look at my walls covered with brightly colored post-it notes and stacks of papers strewn across the floor, I am excited by the organized chaos that I see and am eager to share what my team and I learned over this summer. From this, I hope to create three podcasts on our research and share the unique and real perspectives of Bad River Band tribal members. Already through this process I have found that design thinking does not have to be this fuzzy, abstract concept. Rather there is beauty in the rapid brainstorming and prototyping and energy in exploring something new and unknown.