Thinking about Design Thinking

I decided to take 5 minutes out of my schedule today to revisit design thinking. Fortunately for me, the NCSU library grants students access to (actually a LinkedIn product) which is an awesome resource for learning various professional skills. There you can learn about songwriting, 3D CAD drafting, programming languages; you name it and it’s probably got it. (This is by no means a plug for, I was just amazed by the amount of content available.)

So after a couple minutes searching for design thinking I happened upon a short video entitled “Design Thinking: Leading with Innovation”. I thought this was right up my alley, considering one of my MBA concentrations is Innovation Management. The video, led by Anil Gupta, does an amazing job of explaining design thinking and why it is important to the designer. The five minutes and thirty-nine seconds was truly a great investment of my time.

Throughout the course of the video I arrived at the conclusion that I’ve been “design thinking” for the majority of my life. As a Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) Instructor in the Air Force and more recently as a Law Enforcement Officer I’ve been conditioned to take a user-centric approach. As a SERE Instructor it was important to deliver instruction from the end user’s perspective; “What would it feel like for this person to have to jump out of this perfectly good aircraft?”, “What would it feel like for this aircrew member to have to slog through this knee high muck in order to make it home alive?”, “If I were a victim in this crime, how would it have felt and how would I want to be communicated to now?”. Truthfully, if you stop and think about how you communicate with others, you probably do a bit of design thinking too.

Recently, a manager and I were discussing stories of innovation and design. We agreed that innovation and design thinking might not always be sexy, flashy, or highly technological -after all, design thinking is really just “a process to come up with creative solutions to problems”, but it’s all a matter of context and relevance (Gupta, 2017). Take, for instance, paddle-boarding. Never tried it, always wanted to, so I did. My girlfriend and I paid our $7 apiece to rent some paddle boards for an hour. The staff equipped us with our mandatory life jackets along with two telescoping paddles and after some time we shoved off, embarking on our journey across majestic Lake Crabtree. After a few minutes of truly expert paddling we found ourselves in the middle of this lake, I look over and my poor girlfriend’s paddle which looked more like a boomerang, less like a paddle.(For a little context, the paddle is comprised of two shafts; a lower and an upper. The diameter of the upper is slightly smaller than the lower, this allows it to slide inside the lower shaft. And the two pieces are held in place through a cam-lever actuated and clamp system).

Unfortunately for her, one of the screws of the clamp was loose. So, no matter what you did, the cam could not gain the leverage to hold the inner shaft in place. So of course, I would do what any Innovation Management student would do. I traded paddles- let her go on her merry way- and began to ideate and prototype a solution to this new-found problem.

My first thought was to tighten up the screws that held the clamp in place. All I had were keys, so I attempted to turn the screws…no luck. I went back to the drawing board. What else do I have at my disposal? I had an extra key ring on my keys — the really thin one they use for a temporary key ring — so I thought I’d bend that in a way so that it could be wedged underneath the cam-lever. That didn’t work either. The newly-bent key ring just kept falling out, too much contour on the clasp I surmised.

Back to the drawing board. Again, I thought, “what else do I have”? (Mind you, I’m drifting now, in the middle of this lake, trying to focus, intently, on this task all while trying not to fall into the water.) Ok, I had my wallet with me. I opened it up to see if there was anything I could use: credit cards, an old receipt, my health insurance card, and a dollar bill. “Maybe if I fold the bill up and place it inside the lower shaft, right at the clamp”, I thought. I could then slide the upper shaft inside and gain the volume I need from the inside, so the cam-lever does its job. (Also, rest assured I knew I wouldn’t damage the dollar bill, its waterproof and was in no real danger.)

Eventually I was able to fold the dollar bill to the correct size and shape, slide the other pole inside/along with it, close the lever, and call it a day. I was a hero on the lake that day, call me Aquaman.

Seriously though, the point of the story wasn’t to highlight paddle boarding (which I do highly recommend if you are looking for an inexpensive diversion on a Sunday afternoon), but rather how design thinking can occur anywhere. We often think in terms of “technology, technology, technology”, when rather we should be thinking about what the most relevant solution is, given your user and their context. Design thinking really puts the user at the center of the problem. On the lake that day the problem was a tired and worn-out paddle. In that situation the goal was to create a solution to not only a physical problem (a faulty paddle) but an emotional one as well (ensuring a pleasurable paddling experience). And that’s really the point of this story: to remind you what this five minute and thirty-nine second video reminded me. When you are a design thinking, you are really just a bridge builder. You are the one who creates the connection between the problem’s solution, and the user.

There are five ways to bridge these gaps:

  1. Physical Distance — Closing the actual, physical gap between you and the consumer.

Regardless of whichever gap you are trying to bridge, it all begins with the user. Your process needs to consider a “deep understanding of the user” and will require an “immersion into the user’s world.” (Gupta, 2017). Lastly, just like in the paddle board story, Anil Gupta suggested that its critical to iterate the various design prototypes repeatedly until your solution gets as close to the user’s world as possible, given today’s technologies. So whether you are on a paddle board in the middle of the lake or brainstorming that next start-up, understand your user first so you can design a better product. Don’t be afraid to get into their head, all while taking stock of the resources you have available. Who knows, maybe all the “technology” that’s needed is a simple folded up one-dollar bill.


Gupta, A. (2017, August 03). Retrieved July 31, 2018, from

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