Using Design Thinking to Turn Challenges into Opportunities

Using Design Thinking to Turn Challenges into Opportunities

We’ve all heard the term “design thinking,” freely bandied about, but what does it really mean and can only creative people apply this in their work? “No,” says designer, educator, author Matthew Jervis, founder of Make It Creativity.

Every person has the capacity to be creative—not just designers and artists. Being creative is instinctual. It’s a set of basic survival skills that have evolved over time and continue to evolve…and not necessarily in a positive way.

Use design-thinking to become unstuck. Join Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans as they teach a class based on their #1 New York Times bestseller, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

Jervis points out that our ancestors needed to be creative to survive. “We ran buffalo off cliffs because we needed to eat and clothe ourselves since we didn’t have horses yet. We needed to be creative. What’s the best way to run them off a cliff? Where is the nearest cliff? How do we keep from running ALL the buffalo off the cliff?”

He approaches the creative process and design thinking with the idea that it’s a way of living and approaching everyday challenges…not just for designers working with clients. “The ability to see a challenge as an opportunity is key to thinking creatively,” he simply states.

“I feel that parenthood/childcare/teaching are some of THE best examples of design thinking as well as being some of the most creative endeavors out there,” he says. Here is a list of ten tactics devised by Jervis that parents—or anyone for that matter–can deploy in a challenging situation.

Whether it’s a kid having a temper tantrum, or running out of gas on your way to work. How we react to and deal with the circumstances is key to coming up with the best solution.


It’s important to note here that creativity is a collection of skills, not a stand-alone endeavor.

To become sharper and ultimately more creative, we have to dig into the specific parts that make up creativity and strengthen them individually in order to strengthen the whole. Then we can mix and match these skills and apply them as needed. It’s as if any challenge comes with an ala carte menu. A little of this a little of that. Through Jervis’s research, he has developed this top 10 list of his favorite creative skills:

1. Empathy

Strictly speaking, this is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. In design thinking we rely on our empathy to help us more fully appreciate a situation, the people that it effects, and how a particular strategy or solution may be received. As a parent or care-giver, we rely heavily on our ability to think empathetically. Everything and I mean everything is better with empathy on it! How to approach a situation requires us to know just HOW to approach the situation.

Use design-thinking to become unstuck. Join Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans as they teach a class based on their #1 New York Times bestseller, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

2. Negotiation

Simply put, this is a discussion aimed at reaching an agreement with another party or parties. This is an extremely important expression of creativity, and also goes hand-in-hand with empathy. The outcome is to control a narrative, to make or strengthen a relationship, or to move a discussion in the desired direction to achieve a mutually beneficial solution or agreement.

3. Contingencies

When one strategy doesn’t work the individual using their creativity will have a ‘plan B’ ready to go, another characteristic of the mindful parent in full creative mode. When we brainstorm we come up with tons of great ideas. From there we usually move ahead with one of them, but it’s always a good idea, no matter what the situation is, to keep a couple in your back pocket as ‘plan B’ and ‘C,’ just in case ‘plan A’ doesn’t get the job done.

4. Problem-solving

Thinking and approaching problems basically means using a mix of generic or ad hoc methods, in an orderly and focused way, in order to find a solution to a particular problem. As humans, we problem-solve constantly, from what to get for lunch, to fixing a leaky faucet, trying to locate missing lunch boxes, to much larger global issues, like peace in the Middle East.

5. Imagination

Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” What we have come to realize is that imagination is another way to think of “What if.” Once we are able to ask that question, all things become possible. Without asking that question or being able to imagine, we stall out with no hope of being able to innovate on any level.


6. Create new and worthwhile ideas (both incremental and radical concepts)

In other words, being able to think divergently. This is a technique where there are no wrong answers. Kids are great divergent thinkers. They have no problem thinking of crazy solutions to get a ball off the roof. From using a broom handle to paying off a helicopter pilot. All ideas are on the table. Fluency! Originality! Again, kids are great at this and we are better teachers and parents when we ask them for their ideas and really listen to them. As we get older we poo-poo ideas almost faster than we can speak them. As a result, we miss some great ideas, some truly creative solutions never see the light of day.

7. Permission to innovate

Having permission is the first step to curiosity which immediately precedes innovation. We need permission. Whether we give it to ourselves, give it to others (parents teachers, I’m talking to you), or we have been given permission through our work culture or a manager/project leader etc., we can not move into curiosity without it. If we don’t feel that we have the permission or that our curiosity is not welcome or valued, we will lack the confidence to allow ourselves to be and act with curiosity and we will never explore possibilities or alternative solutions.

8. Working with limitations

When we can see the opportunities in materials and ideas that might on the surface seem unremarkable or inappropriate for the task at hand. If we have everything at our fingertips, then what we create really is not as surprising or incredible as if I created that same thing with very limited materials that I had lying around. If I could just pop over to Home Depot or the local craft store to get everything I needed to fix a leaky faucet, then my solution won’t be judged on how creative I am, but rather if the leak is fixed or not. Now if I fixed that same leak with say a tin can and some twist ties, then I’ll be regarded as an artist. Limitations create value. Take a breath before you throw money at a challenge.

9. Humor

Making someone laugh is an incredible skill. It requires us to be observant, present, know our audience, and to be able to curate our messages appropriately. Humor can be a weapon; it can educate; it can incite behavior, and it can heal. It is a skill that can be applied to negotiation, collaboration, even problem-solving! With a dash of humor, we can make solutions or strategies more inclusive and human.

10. Collaboration

Playing well with others. If you can’t collaborate or deal with people than you have a long and hard road ahead. Being a team player is what 90 percent of life is about. I can’t substantiate that number, but it feels right. If you’re a parent, teacher, bus driver, or whatever, you need to be able to interact and collaborate with people all the time just to get through the day.

All of the above skills are just simple bite-sized ways for us to regard challenges as opportunities to be creative.  To see a challenge as an opportunity is also a great way for us to enter into design thinking and look at the creative process!

Use design-thinking to become unstuck. Join Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans as they teach a class based on their #1 New York Times bestseller, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

Emily Potts FOLLOW >

Emily J. Potts has been a writer and editor in the design industry for more than 20 years. Currently she is an independent writer working for a variety of clients in the design industry.