Our First Year of Design Thinking

Recently, our senior team was meeting to review initial designs on a high-profile internal project that will change the course of our agency. We had asked our designers to take everything they knew about the brand and deliver their interpretations of it, as website comps. We gave them full creative liberty with only one rule – be bold. From those concepts, we would select a path to move forward. As usual, our designers exceeded expectations, with two very different takes, both with tangible roots in our brand. They were wildly creative, refined, and brought an energy that excited us all. After they finished walking us through the options, we all looked around the room. Everyone knew the stakes were high: this decision would set a direction that would influence how our brand would be portrayed and perceived for years to come. 

Which direction would we pick?

A year ago, this type of decision could have caused decision paralysis. Even as a digital agency that’s used to pushing out creative designs and websites every day, it’s easy to fall back into the trap of arguing based on preference and opinion, and making decisions based on gut rather than facts. We practice and preach user research and validation testing to all our clients, and yet… the lure of trusting “internal expertise” and making “fast decisions” is hard to resist. But this time we all knew what was coming; before anyone voiced their opinion, we all reached for our pink dot stickers and began placing them next to the design elements we felt were the strongest. In short order and with minimal back and forth, we had identified a clear direction, pinpointed areas to keep iterating on, and, perhaps most importantly, the entire team had agreed on the path forward and was excited about the project.

This shift can be attributed to our adoption of design thinking as a philosophy, process, and decision-making framework. While we’ve followed the foundational tenets of design thinking for years – gaining empathy through user research, clear definition of problems and goals, ideating multiple solutions and testing – adopting the design thinking process provided a consistent framework to come to consensus and make better decisions more quickly.

In that meeting, I could see firsthand how our culture has evolved in the past year. There was an excitement and energy, and definitely some relief, around the progress we had made – and the way in which we did it. Years of research and work were finally taking form, and everyone was all in on the project’s success. Beyond just this one meeting and project though, our overall work has improved, and our clients are happier with what we’re delivering. And I couldn’t be more impressed and proud of the results.

What is Design Thinking?

In case you missed this explainer I wrote last year,  here’s a refresher:

Developed by IDEO and Stanford Design School, design thinking is an iterative approach to creative problem-solving that helps groups get to know their users, frame problems in a way that helps you find solutions, come up with creative ideas to solve those problems, and test those ideas with real data so you can move forward with confidence. Teams come up with many different potential solutions for a particular problem, then narrow down those solutions using tests to see which option performs the best. That way, you’re able to make decisions based on quantifiable data rather than a single person’s opinion.

A graphic of the design thinking process.

This framework quickly took hold in Silicon Valley and spread across startup culture, but has quickly spread across all industries, from nonprofits and education to healthcare and financial services, and of course agencies like our own. In fact, this approach has been adopted by the world’s most innovative companies

What Led Us Here?

Our path to design thinking started like I imagine many others did: with a desire to be more creative and innovative and make better, faster decisions based on data rather than opinion. (And the financial results of the companies on that “most innovative” list didn’t look too bad either.)

We knew that getting the team to adopt a design thinking mindset would involve more than just pushing through a new process, because it was more than that. It was a culture shift, and if we wanted to change the culture, well, that would be an undertaking, and for that we needed a change management process. The team found a process by which we:

  • built awareness of the need for change
  • increased the team’s desire to change
  • taught everyone the skills needed to change

We started socializing the concept internally through workshops and exercises that described the design thinking process and used examples of how design thinking exercises could have been implemented to avoid some of the hiccups that have occurred in previous projects. As they became more familiar with the concept, the team soon realized how this approach would open up new opportunities for them personally, such as greater inclusion in strategic decision-making and doing more creative work.


These meetings were supplemented with a reading list of news articles, blog posts, videos, and webinars that we sent out to reinforce the ideas we discussed. Once team members started finding and sending around their own articles, we knew the process was starting to work.

We also started rolling out design thinking exercises in our own meetings and with clients. Some of the earliest exercises included:

How Might We Notes: “How Might We” (or “HMW”) notes are used to capture opportunities to improve an existing experience. These notes, typically written on a single post-it, allows your team to capture the problems they hear and reframe them as opportunities that the team can improve upon. Then these notes are shared and discussed by the group.

Crazy 8s: This is a fast sketching exercise that forces people to sketch out eight different ideas in eight minutes. This process forces people to push beyond their first (often obvious) idea, and to create many different solutions to the challenge. 

Solution Sketches: Solution sketches are used to expand and refine an idea (frequently created during a Crazy 8 session). The goal is to create one fully fleshed-out idea. Individuals create sketches that can include a few frames to help explain the user flow of a specific idea and how it works.

Dot Voting: When it’s time to choose a direction, a moderator hangs up all the sketches on a wall and presents them anonymously, so the team doesn’t know who created each solution. The team agrees on voting criteria, and the team votes by placing dot stickers directly on their top choices (usually three). The results are easy to visualize based on dot clusters.

Prototypes & User Testing: Once a direction has been chosen, a simple prototype is created to test your target users’ satisfaction. This typically involves observing the user attempting to complete a set of tasks while using your prototype. Prototypes can be anything from a sketch drawing, wireframes, Power Point, or software like InVision.

Right now, of course, some of these exercises are happening virtually – it helps to have a great facilitator to lead these exercises, and to use programs like Mural (read: above) to virtually collect those pink dot stickers and lead anonymous voting exercises. But whether it’s by Zoom or face to face, the fast-paced structure and controlled decision-making of these activities has allowed us to welcome in more people to help  generate ideas. And, as you might have guessed, the best ideas frequently come from people who aren’t the most senior or even involved with UI design—we found that the more people you involve, the greater the diversity in perspective, and the more likely you are to find a unique solution.

Challenges Along the Way:

While we’re enjoying the benefits of our new process now, it wasn’t without its bumps. For one, changing from a top-down culture where the “most important person in the room” makes all the decisions to an anonymous, merit-based system requires time, trust and humility – trust that your team members may know better than you, and trust that your managers won’t just drive their opinions through anyway.

Within our individual projects, we have needed to shift our typical project plans to accommodate for the new decision-making process and prototyping. At first, some clients can see this as a hindrance, delaying the start of production design and development. But, as we’ve learned and as we tell our clients, that extra week or two devoted to this more than compensates for the avoided risk of investing in the wrong solution.


A year into our dive into design thinking, the entire team has bought into the process. Our staff is more engaged and is even seeing personal benefits to this approach. In fact, our annual employee survey showed a 15% increase in feeling that they are contributing to strategic conversations and that their input is heard. Similar increases were seen in commitment to delivering quality work, individual recognition, and overall job satisfaction.

Our staff aren’t just happier; they’re doing better work. The process encourages the team to explore less obvious solutions – the ones that often get killed in pitches as being too “out there.” But now, they’re encouraged to take big swings, because the best ideas will always be tested and it’s much harder to shoot down an idea when you have data backing you up.

Finally, as a leader in the agency, I’m personally loving the shared decision-making process. The pressure to always have “the answer” is replaced by having “an answer”—a validated approach for the entire team to learn together and choose the path that will be most successful in hitting our goals. The entire team understands and welcomes the process, resulting in fewer tangents in our meetings because we know how we’re making decisions. 

From here, I’m excited to see how we move forward. Obviously, the world is changing quickly and brands need to adapt with it in order to survive. I’m just glad we have a framework to help us get there.