Try Design Thinking Your Career

Published: Sep 30, 2022

 Job Search       Law       Workplace Issues       
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If there’s one thing this writer loves, it’s fusion. In cuisine, fusion brings us such gustatory treasures as the “kimchidilla” and the “sushirrito,” both of which are next level delicious. In music, fusion has led to the entire genre of mashups, as well as recent hits like “Bad Decisions” featuring Snoop Dogg and BTS—which is a great song from a truly unexpected pairing. 

Today, the fusion we’re exploring is broader and more abstract, but it still manages to produce amazing results. That fusion is the merger of design thinking and legal careers. In this first blog post on design thinking, we’re going to explore what design thinking is and why it’s so effective, with the next post in this series turning to applying design thinking in making career decisions.

Step one in making career choices is approaching the problem the right way 

There is a widely recognized fundamental difference in how the scientifically-minded vs. the creatively-minded approach problems. The former tend to take a “problem-based” learning approach; in a nutshell, this approach relies on properly identifying and articulating a problem and then developing a viable solution through research and application of skills. The focus is very much on what would be feasible within real-world parameters. 

The latter—those creatively-minded folks—are more prone to taking a “solution-based” angle; in other words, working backwards. These thinkers, when posed with an issue, focus first on identifying the optimal solution to be achieved; once that solution is identified, they cast a wide mental net to capture the various possible ways to achieve that solution. 

Both models are incredibly valuable, as long as they are used in the right context. For scientists, a problem-based approach is absolutely essential in order to discover objective truths. This approach is the foundation of the Scientific Method, which is the process scientists use to validate observations while minimizing observer bias. 

In the context of making life choices, however, we’re not dealing with objective truths and inalienable facts. Life is full of different possibilities, if we cast a wide enough net to capture them. This is where design thinking comes in. 

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is not new; as a recognized cognitive model, it’s been around since the 1970s. At risk of oversimplification, we’ll summarize history by saying that design thinking began as a means of teaching engineers how to approach problems creatively, as designers do. But why? 

It is our natural tendency, as human beings, to use our accumulated life experiences to dictate future actions. As an evolutionary trait, we rely heavily on habits and patterns; while this has served us well, it can also seriously limit our creativity when it comes to tackling problems. When confronted with a challenge, we tend to only consider solutions that fit into our past experiences. 

Unfortunately, this also means that we can be our own roadblocks when it comes to innovation. After all, to “innovate” means “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” In order to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems, therefore, we have to teach ourselves to break out of our established patterns. This is what design thinking does. 

Design thinking takes a problem and asks us to cast the widest possible net in solving it, ignoring many of the limitations that we typically impose on our problem-solving processes. Design thinking is throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Design thinking tells us to imagine a world in which money, time, and power are irrelevant, and dream up solutions that could exist in such a world. And design thinking works. 

How does design thinking work?

Our previous description of design thinking might sound…unstructured. In fact, design thinking does have structure from problem to solution, albeit not necessarily a linear process. Here’s how Tim Brown, founder of international design firm IDEO, describes the process: 

“The design process is best described metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a predefined series of orderly steps. The spaces demarcate different sorts of related activities that together form the continuum of innovation. Design thinking can feel chaotic to those experiencing it for the first time. But over the life of a project participants come to see…that the process makes sense and achieves results, even though its architecture differs from the linear, milestone-based processes typical of other kinds of business activities.” 

Let’s take a quick walk through the five “spaces” of design thinking: 

  1. Empathize. Gain a truly deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. Design thinking is known as user-centric; in industry, this means starting out by really getting to know your target product user, their pain points, and their desires. 
  2. Define. Organize the information you obtained in the empathy space to clearly articulate the problem you are trying to solve, from the perspective of the user. 
  3. Ideate. Challenge assumptions and generate ideas. This is the fun part, when you throw away constraints and brainstorm. In this phase, don’t dismiss ideas; write down everything, no matter how wacky. 
  4. Prototype. Start trying to create solutions. This is the experimental stage, when you implement some of the solutions you brainstormed to figure out what works, and what doesn’t. 
  5. Test. Does your prototype actually solve the problem? This stage is rigorous, and can often lead you back a few spaces as you identify new problems. 

Again, keep in mind that design thinking is not meant to be linear, or even sequential. These stages can, and often do, overlap or even happen simultaneously. 

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So how is all of this relevant to making career decisions? In the next design thinking post, we’ll explore how the five stages of design thinking can be applied to career development—and produce some amazing results.