Design Thinking

About the Author

CED Program Interns & Students

how-museums-can-use-the-design-thinking-process-to-delight-and-engage-visitors-18-638If you feel like things have changed recently in the look and feel of your favorite government website, then well, you might be on to something. In late September of this year, new design standards were released for federal government websites. The focus was on the design of the websites—from the layout to the font, the design of a website impacts how well citizens understand and use it.

Similarly, one of the most prominent buzzwords around business in 2015 is “design-based thinking.” While this approach has less to do with a font style or background color of a website, it is derived from essentially the same way of thinking. What exactly does it mean to think with a design perspective? How could that impact local government and community economic development? This post provides an overview of design thinking and its potential usefulness for local governments in North Carolina. 

Jon Kolko, the director of the Austin Design Center, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article published last month about the rise of design thinking. He describes design thinking as approaching a problem with an emphasis on “empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure.”

According to Kolko, the main principles of design thinking include:

  • Focus on users’ experiences, especially their emotional ones.
  • Create models to examine complex problems.
  • Use prototypes to explore potential solutions.
  • Tolerate failure.
  • Exhibit thoughtful restraint.

Design thinking’s principles focus on simplification and responsiveness. According to a 2013 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, governments at the federal and local level have begun employing design principles to their problem-solving. An approach emphasizing flexibility, customization, and empathy could be a useful way to do anything from making improvements in government websites, like the US Government and cities like Washington, DC and New York are doing, to redesigning other government policies or services.

For governments, this opportunity does not come without its challenges. First and foremost, this can be difficult to get buy-in for a change like this. These changes could come with a cost and do not necessarily make the problem-solving itself any easier (although proponents of design thinking will claim that the process helps draw out more effective solutions). It can also be a challenge to build the capacity to effectively implement design-based thinking and approaches.

Design thinking is a hot topic in the business community and its principles are spreading into the public sector. How does your local government consider design thinking or related principles in community and economic development? Use Twitter (@SOG_CED) or the comments section below this post to share your thoughts and ideas.

Graham Sharpe is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. He is a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.




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