Nautilus spiral shell

Starting the design thinking process

The Samford Wellbeing Trail started off as an idea – how do we make it a reality? On face value it is a simple project involving designing, communicating and promoting an event. However, as a community project involving multiple stakeholders, there are a number of complex issues to be addressed before the visual communication design can start. Design thinking can help drive this project, but what process will give the best outcome?

The design thinking process

Design thinking is based on the principle of putting people at the centre of the project, and solving complex problems in a way that addresses human needs and aspirations.

The commonly used five-stage design thinking process involves empathising with users/stakeholders, defining the problem to be addressed, generating ideas, prototyping solutions and testing and refining them iteratively. This process could work for this project, but I feel it does not include a couple of key steps at the beginning and end of the process, and does not really reflect the organic way a community project develops.

Organic design thinking

I decided to define my own design thinking process – one that reflects the organic nature of community projects, but could also apply to commercial design projects.

In my experience, projects often start from the nucleus of an idea (where a need is recognised), and spiral outwards from that as the idea grows and develops. In visual terms, this is similar to the way a nautilus shell develops in nature – as the nautilus grows and matures, it creates a series of new chambers and forms a beautiful logarithmic spiral. I have used this analogy as a basis to visualise an organic design thinking process.

Design thinking process diagram
Organic design thinking process

This organic design thinking process diagram is also available as a printable PDF version. Here is an explanation of the steps in the process:

  1. Investigate: this stage is about researching and understanding the context after a need is recognised, before jumping in to start the design work. It involves identifying known issues, stakeholders, roles/relationships/needs, project scope, assumptions, constraints, and current/previous solutions.
    In community projects, the first concern is usually how to get funding and support. Understanding relationships between stakeholder groups and knowing who has the power to make or influence decisions is crucial, and may affect whether or not the project proceeds any further.
  2. Immerse: this stage focuses on really understanding stakeholders and getting them on board to help drive the project forward. It’s about immersing in their environment, building empathy, developing personas for different stakeholder types, identifying and defining problems, testing the waters (with prototypes where relevant), deciding which problem/s to address, and getting buy-in to proceed.
    Sometimes a community project will stop at this stage, if there is not enough commitment to proceed, or if resources are too stretched. Alternatively, the project may be adjusted to address a smaller, more specific problem, with other problems put aside for when more resources are available.
  3. Ideate: this stage involves generating ideas by looking at the stated problem/s with fresh eyes, gathering insights from the previous stages, and asking how we could help answer the needs of stakeholders in various ways. Ideas can be tested against the stated problem/s and personas, and prototyped in any suitable way to get initial stakeholder reactions and feedback. Where possible, stakeholders would be directly involved in the ideation process.
    Any ideas that don’t address the stated problem or are too resource-heavy to implement can be ‘banked’ for later – especially for a community project where it’s important not to lose enthusiasm for good ideas (which can sometimes be implemented as part of other initiatives).
  4. Experiment: once ideas are selected, they can be prototyped and tested with stakeholders, revisited or reworked, then refined and developed into workable solutions.
    For community projects, it’s important to identify possible sources of stories that can help get ongoing commitment from stakeholders, so that these can be benchmarked and set in motion before solutions are finalised.
  5. Integrate: designing a solution does not end with implementation – it has to be integrated into systems, processes and behaviours if it is to work effectively. Where solutions create new opportunities for people or change the way they do things, communicating those changes is essential. This is especially true for community projects, where sharing success stories can boost the success of a project, while sharing frustrations or misunderstandings can just as quickly kill it off.

A project rarely ends at the integration stage – it evolves (along with the people it was designed around) and may lead to further initiatives, or grow to be something else entirely. With community projects, spin-off projects often result from a central initiative, and their success will depend on the enthusiasm and availability of people (usually volunteers) to see a project through.

Next > Step 1: Investigate the Wellbeing Trail context


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Design thinking in action: the wellbeing project
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