Revamp your workout, your meals—even your family dynamic—with IDEO U and design thinking.

When is a visit to the local garbage dump a trip for inspiration? “When you’re practicing design thinking,” says Suzanne Gibbs Howard, founder of IDEO U.

“Design thinking,” Howard explains, “is a methodology for creative problem solving,” and anyone can use it for just about anything. It starts with understanding people and their needs. Then, through a series of small steps, design thinking helps find the right problem to solve and makes solutions tangible through an iterative process.

IDEO is best known for changing the world through design, having worked with clients such as Apple and more recently Bosch, Ford, IKEA, and Fender. Their philosophy and approach to solving almost any challenge have allowed the company to evolve their initial product design focus into service design, experience design, and now, Howard says, “tackling complicated systems to come up with better-designed, more human solutions.”

What design thinking entails

When taking a human-centered design approach, Howard shares, “we start by getting inspired and developing empathy for the people we’re designing for. We study people and their culture. We observe their behaviors, talk with them about their desires, and then use that as fuel to come up with different ideas to solve people’s needs in ways that will make lives better.”

There are four phases of design thinking: 1) gather inspiration through observation; 2) generate ideas through brainstorming; 3) make ideas tangible by prototyping; and 4) share the story—that is, the story of how the service or product solves a pervasive problem. Problems are framed as questions, and at IDEO, “how might we” begins those questions with an optimistic invitation to explore more. “How” is solutions-oriented; “might” encourages optimism; and “we” is collaborative.

It’s a process that also allows ideas to move into action, which makes it effective for service-related problems too. One goal for prototyping service design experiences is to make intangible experiences tangible by depicting how the experience might play out over time and gathering feedback early and often.

Human-centered workouts

From Howard’s perspective, design thinking makes perfect sense for fitness and provides a method for trainers to be in touch with the people they’re designing for. The key is to understand the client’s needs and design a routine, assuming it may not be right the first time. This is where prototyping comes into play. “Just give the person something to try, and that can be a really interesting way to see what’s right for this person to incorporate into his or her life,” she says.

Howard adds, “What’s beautiful about that is when a newly designed fitness routine is successful, it just unlocks so much else in life—a person’s confidence, sense of well-being, and health.”

Playful problem solving

Design thinking improves the life of the customer or client, and there are several additional benefits to the team (beyond the satisfaction of solving a problem that helps people). One of those is unity. In the first phase of understanding people’s needs, Howard says people become curious. “You can have someone who has an incredible amount of experience, and someone who has complete beginner’s mind, and they’ll see different things—equally valuable things.” The exercise of understanding people’s needs provides the individuals with common ground. As a result, “they can trust each other’s observations, and learn from each other. And that conversation is incredibly fruitful and can really stimulate great ideas.”

Another benefit is a greater degree of comfort with experimentation to get things done. Howard says that with design thinking, play and prototyping lead to learning. “We need to have a powerful sense of play, because it allows us to experiment, fail, and learn. We can learn a lot through how kids play with toys like blocks, experimenting stacking blocks to discover how they balance—or not.”

She acknowledges that it can feel risky to “play,” in the workplace. At IDEO U, the solution is to take a playful approach to mistakes. One session that the team runs is called “Make It Awesome.” Instead of trying to figure out what went wrong, the team gets together to brainstorm, beginning with the statement, “how can we make this awesome?” Howard says, “We get a little silly with things and try to design them to make them better.”

Designing better habits at home

Design thinking can also transform a person on a very personal level. Howard reflects back on a project that examined waste issues in cities. “To get inspired and develop more empathy, we visited the San Francisco garbage dump and the recycling center. It was an absolutely mind-blowing experience to see all of that food mixed in with the trash, and talk to the people who are experts in this field.” She says, “it opened my eyes to a lot of the things I was doing at home. In the end, not only did my trip to the garbage dump inspire our team design better solutions for waste in cities, it also changed my own personal habits to be a more conscious consumer.”

Want to use design thinking?

If you’d like to get acquainted with design thinking, check out IDEO’s new class, Hello Design Thinking, to develop a common language and understanding of how design thinking can help your organization be more creative. This flexible, online experience introduces non-designers to the concepts of the design thinking process and offers designers a tried-and-tested approach to creative problem solving. You’ll walk away with a knowledge of how design thinking works and how you can apply it to your day-to-day work. It’s the first step in unlocking your creative potential.

Stay tuned on as our experts use Design Thinking to create and innovate a 24-minute workout, a healthy dessert (yes!), and a New Year’s goal.

Photo credit: Mark Kuroda,
Hair and Make-up: Katie Nash,