157. The Design Thinking Pyramid: The process behind the process

As an Experience Designer and Behaviour Designer, I often end up in situations where I need to teach someone not only what Design Thinking is, but also how to apply it.

This blog post isn’t an introduction to Design Thinking. If you want that, I recommend this video by Sean VanGenderen.

No, what I’m going to do is to provide one of the main tools I use for teaching this mindset, and for getting people into the habit of thinking like designers.

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In essence, the Design Thinking Pyramid is a way of thinking about experiences that you have from a design viewpoint. It contains four layers, that build upon each other. The layers are, in order of applicability:

Copy: You can more or less do a 1:1 transfer of what you’ve experienced and use it in a different context. If you learn at a conference that seeing a fist raised in the air is a powerful way of spreading silence, you can take that with you to your workplace and introduce it to your co-workers. Your new social media manager’s tactic with always including cute images of puppies in community outreach posts can be easily turned into your friday posts on facebook always having a penguin picture attached. If you’re the type who likes models, you might even take this blog post and teach your students about the Design Thinking Pyramid during your next lecture.

Adaptation: You can take the idea in its current form and re-skin it, making it useful to you in an only slightly changed form. Starting a meeting with being asked to “check in” and share how you feel may make you think that you want to use that for your own meetings, except not asking how people feel, but what they’re focused on right now. A trip to a local train station could make you take the idea of countdown clocks and put them into classrooms at the university you run. If you go to a class reunion where everyone is supposed to bring a memento from their school days, you could use that for a family party and ask guests to bring something that reminds them of dear Aunt Asha, who isn’t with us anymore.

Inspiration: You are inspired by the experience and can create something meaningful based on the idea, if not the execution. Maybe you’re watching a two-minute video about your school, and it makes you realise that you could do a short video presentation of yourself as part of your CV. It could be as simple as coming by a crayon drawing on a sidewalk and thinking “We could paint the house in splashes of colour!”. Perhaps you are a dentist leafing through a magazine at the doctor’s office and conclude that you should invest in some iPads for YOUR waiting room instead of the traditional magazines.

Element: You can take an element (or more) from this experience and use it elsewhere. You may be a filmmaker watching a film that doesn’t inspire you, but where the opening credits were made in an interesting way. You could be a photographer who didn’t care much for a particular photo, but found that it still taught you something useful about using a flash. Or maybe you are an airline passenger that learned nothing new from the security briefing, but felt you were inspired by the way the cabin crew inserted jokes at key moments.

And how do you use it, you may ask?

One way to use the pyramid is as a discussion tool after an experience has ended. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just watched a film with a couple of friends, pick up the wreckage after a festival or burn through TED talks one evening. You simply go through the process of asking yourself the following questions:

What could I copy directly (if anything)?

What could I adapt (if anything)?

What inspired me (if anything)?

Which element could I use elsewhere (if anything)?

Now, of course it happens that we have experiences where we can’t find a single answer to even the last of these questions, but it’s rare. Most things can teach us a thing or two, and if you start this way, it’s surprising how many interesting things you uncover — and with each new experience, your toolbox grows. Whether you’re a guitarist in a metal band, a truck driver or a stay-at-home parent, the world is full of experiences to learn from.

And I promise you — once you start getting into a Design Thinking mindset, you never go back. Now, of course, the next question is what to DO with all this new thinking that’s assaulting your brain.

But that’s a question for another blog post.

Thank you for reading.

If you want to get into contact, you can find me at clausraasted.dk, or you can find our company at dziobak.studio.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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