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Design Thinking Overview

Lesson 2 from: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

Design Thinking Overview

Lesson 2 from: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

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Lesson Info

2. Design Thinking Overview

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

The lesson discussed the concept of design thinking and how it can be applied to designing one's life. The instructors explained that design thinking is a methodology that is human-centered and involves building and discovering solutions through prototyping and testing. They also introduced the idea of thinking like a designer, which involves starting with curiosity, reframing the problem, collaborating, and taking biased action. The lesson emphasized the importance of accepting the problem and being open to change and experimentation. The instructors also introduced the framework of designing one's life, which includes the meaning-making layer and the support layer. The lesson concluded by discussing the balance problem as a starting point for making small changes in one's life.


  1. What is design thinking?

    Design thinking is a methodology that is human-centered and involves building and discovering solutions through prototyping and testing.

  2. What does it mean to think like a designer?

    Thinking like a designer involves starting with curiosity, reframing the problem, collaborating, and taking biased action.

  3. What is the meaning-making layer in the framework of designing one's life?

    The meaning-making layer encompasses one's point of view, work view, and worldview and helps answer questions about what is working and what is true for oneself.

  4. What is the support layer in the framework of designing one's life?

    The support layer helps in discovering and supporting what is true for oneself and includes steps for gathering information, making good decisions, and sustaining the process of life design.

  5. What is the balance problem mentioned in the lesson?

    The balance problem refers to the work/life balance and is a common issue faced by many people. It is suggested as a starting point for making small changes in one's life.

Lesson Info

Design Thinking Overview

So what do you get? If you follow us along, and you do all the ideas and tools that we're talking about today, what do you get, Dave? What do you get? Okay, you get a bunch of stuff. You're going to get an introduction to design thinking. This is the executive director of the design program at Stanford. The 54 year old eldest inter-disciplinary program at Stanford University. The place where design thinking was invented. How cool is that? You know, you're gonna ... I haven't been teaching since 1963, I'm not that old. Yeah, he's been teaching for 30 years, but we thought it up even before he got there. You're gonna get a whole new approach to this work/life balance problem. You're gonna get three completely different plans for the next five years of your life, and tools to get started on them, even before the week is over. Which means one day from now, 'cause tomorrow's Friday. And you're gonna get secrets to cracking the hidden job market. How do you find the hidden job market? ...

How do you get inside of it? You're gonna get neuro-scientific insight on how to make really good decisions that work for you, and a whole bunch more. So that's just the starting list, that's what we're sticking around for. Now, who are these guys? I mean, where do these guys ... Chris said some nice things about us, but I mean, really? So Dave, in addition to having worked at Apple in the early miles, and co-founding a little company you might have heard of, called Electronic Arts, has been teaching this kind of stuff. First at Berkeley, and for over 18 years. So he came to me in 2006, 2007 and said, "I'm doing this class in Berkeley, but I'd really rather teach at Stanford." (audience laughs) And who wouldn't? "But I do think that your students have this issue." I said, "Absolutely, I hear about it all the time in office hours." Yeah, we had lunch one day and I called Bill. I mean, who's Bill? In addition to being a cool early Apple guy and running a design firm for many years, actually really doing the design work that has resulted in lots of Silicon Valley successes. He always loved teaching, he started teaching at Stanford almost the second he got out. And when David Kelley, the founder of Ideo, who runs the design program at Stanford, founded the D School Institute. He said, "Who can run the program for me, who can run the program that graduates all of our design students, here at Stanford?" And he picked Bill as the best teacher that he had. So Bill's been teaching this stuff for over 30 years. Together, we have somewhere between a century or two of teaching experience. So we've been practicing for long time to come to you today. There were dinosaurs roaming the campus when we started, and now ... Yeah, now. But really can. We know what we're doing theoretically, we've done a lot, but can you trust us? Well, you're not the guinea pigs, okay? Thousands of people before you have done this. And it's been working for them. Now again, Bill mentioned research. Where at Stanford, you can't just make stuff up, and say it's cool. You actually have to have research. So two studies out of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, were done to demonstrate the efficacy of the format of our curricular intervention. Which is the way they talk about it, kind of sounds like proctology. But none-the-less, what it really means is, sure enough, the guys in the white coats came over and crawled all over us and said, "Sure enough, this thing really works." The data demonstrates that it does. And perhaps most importantly, this is the first time, after having had a 54 year old program in human-centered design at Stanford, that it occurred to us, maybe we should apply human-centered design to the human experience. How do I design myself as a human being? So that's like a big deal. Let's zero in on that. That's like one of the really big ideas today. As Chris said right off the top, said this design thinking is kind of like the secret sauce. Tell us about the secret sauce, Bill. Well, it's become a fairly popular phrase to say that you have design thinking. It's a methodology we teach people to do innovation. How many of you here is a design thinker? Everybody, yeah. So, normally it's applied to products and services. We work with banks, we work with big organizations. And we teach them how to do this, we teach our students this as well. It's a methodology that's fundamentally human-centered. But, to frame it, let me just explain what's design thinking? Well, there's lots of kinds of thinking. We are in the engineering school of design, the design program is in the engineering school at Stanford. So engineering thinking, very powerful tool in your tool belt. Think of these, not one replaces the other. It's just a good tool. If you have an engineering problem, you want to use this kind of thinking. So if you want to build this bridge, right? You need to know the length of the bridge, the strength of the steel, and how many cars are gonna be on the bridge. But if you know all of those things, we have the equation that solves that problem. The bridge will work, it will work for as long as the bridge stands. And, if you take that exact same set of parameters, and put it someplace else ... This is a bridge in Oakland, but you move the bridge to Boston, it'll work there, too. Because it's a very bounded problem, and all the data is reliable. Now, if you went to business school, you were probably taught, what we'll call business thinking. A little bit different in that the data's not so precise, but you can get information and some data about business decisions. Do I want to buy this company? You're now a company. Or do I want to buy this company? Well, I can look at the rate of return on their assets. I can look at their profitability. I can project forward when you think the value of their future earnings will be. We have all these little figures of merit, and we can optimize a decision. But again, lots and lots of data in that problem. Stanford, we do research. Researchers use the Scientific Method. It's really what powered the humans since the dark ages, and the enlightenment. You have a hypothesis, you form a very careful experiment to isolate a variable that you want to test for. You perform the experiment, get a data set, and then analyze your way into the solution. In that case, you can't change the hypothesis, that'd be cheating. 'Cause if you change the hypothesis to match the data, you're not a scientist, you're, I don't know, cheating. You're cheating, you're cheating. I'm gonna try to not make any jokes about the current administration, and their lack of scientific thinking. But again, you have to be able to analyze a data set for this to work. Now you got people. Now we've got people in the equation. When we first started using design methodologies, we were trying to understand human-centered design, we went to the anthropologists. How do you study people? How do you study people in a non-biased way? And we went to the psychologists. We said, "What are the hierarchy of needs?" Maslow's Hierarchy. And we started looking at that, and we said, "Okay, well this is very interesting, 'cause people are at different situation." Let's say I had studied this group of people here, this table over here. I studied the strange tribe of cell phone users, and you all had different cell phones. And then I came up with all of the needs, and I asked everybody what they wanted, and then I produced the perfect cell phone for you. But this is what would happen. I would show you my prototype, and you would say, "Yeah, I know I said I wanted that, but now that I see it, I changed my mind." It's maddening. This happens to designers all the time. It's terrible. People change their mind. But you told them you wanted it, Bill. I know, but what happened is, you didn't know exactly what you wanted. You knew what you had and what was wrong with it. When I showed you the possible future, that you could have, you said, "Oh, if that's possible, you know what I really want." And that just keeps happening. It's what psychologists call a wicked problem. But we've developed a way solving those problems. We've developed a way of inventing futures, right? That's what we do as designers, we invent something that's never happened before, and then if it's successful, if it really hits a need and it resonates with our users, we have a product that's successful. Or a service, or anything. We're just redesigning financial services, now. All sorts of things this way. So, in design thinking we say, 'cause you don't have data that you can rely on, and you can't predict the future. The only methodology for moving forward is to build. We build and we discover. And we discover together with users. And that's really a fantastic methodology to use when you're designing your life. 'Cause you don't know what the future holds. And stuff can change rapidly. Your job could go away, or a new promotion could happen suddenly and you want to decide whether you want to take it or not. So, in these uncertain environments, you wanna use this methodology. We have a little diagram. We say we start with empathy, we start with understanding people and the problem. In this case, understanding ourselves, and how the world views us, and how we view the world. We redefine the problem, we come up with lots and lots of ideas. And then we do this prototype test. Prototype test cycle, we build our way into the future. So that's the method. That's the way we teach it. When we teach it in designing your life methodology, we add one step. And that's accept. That's something that everybody has partially bought into today. You accepted to come here and take this class. That means you're interested. You may not be completely bought in on doing all the exercises yet, but at least you got here. And you started. Accept is important. Dave always says you can't solve a problem you're not willing to have. I bet you have a friend, not you but a friend, who's been buggin'. But every time you go out for a drink, they hate their job, they hate their relationship, they hate their boss. And they just keep talking about it, but they don't take any action. So they haven't accepted, "Wow, this is a problem I need to work on. And I need to move forward into some solutions." So accept is the first step in the designing your life process. And then we have this, we call it think like a designer. If you have the culture of the mindsets of a designer, you will act like a designer. It's just behavior. If you act like one, I can't tell the difference between you and a real one. If you start with curiosity instead of skepticism, 'cause when you want to invent the future, there's no reason to be skeptical, you don't even know what it looks like yet. And it's much more generative to start with curiosity. Then reframe the problem. Most of the time, people are working on the wrong problem. And if we can get you to think about the problem correctly, like get rid of this passion thing, get rid of this "I'm late" thing. Then you're opening the solution space, and now there's more places for you to have good ideas. Radical collaboration. That's why you're in a team, we just mixed complete strangers in most cases together, because your experiences are so different. That when you collaborate together, something exciting will happen in the middle. And then design's complicated and sometimes you're diverging and looking for lots of answers. And sometimes you're converging and trying to test certain ideas. You wanna be mindful of the process, so you don't get confused. And then the biggest thing is, we have a biased action. Since the future's uncertain, you can't get any data about it anyway, why are you planning? What are you planning with? That you don't have any data. You're making stuff up. I like to say, "No life plan survives first contact with reality." No matter what you plan, the world is out there changing things all the time. So it's easier to just start. And do something that's active. And we take that design thinking thing, which is the way we teach design, and design innovation, and we put it in a little bit of a framework, to make sure, once again, that you know where you are. And we'll keep referring to this framework throughout the day. Yeah, it's gonna be our visual syllabus, to help us find our way around. Now when we thought up design thinking 55 years ago, it was really thinking about products. The program was originally called The Product Design Program, but it turns out this innovation methodology works more broadly. Now, when you're designing a life, that's really a much wider thing, so a couple more tools are needed. A couple more slots in that silverware drawer. And the top one is the meaning-making layer. On the top, you got what's your point of view, what's your work view, what's your worldview? We'll describe these things in just a minute. You did some homework on that, hopefully. Organizing ideas that help answer the question, is this really working for me? Is this the real me? How do you answer those questions? And then how do you even want to get to the information that you can answer those questions with? That's what the support layer is about. How do I discover and support what is, in fact, true for me? Of all those voices running around inside my head, which one's the real me, and which one's still mom? How do I figure that stuff out? How do you know when you know, you know? So there's steps that we can take, that help support discovering the information, making good decisions, and sustaining this process. 'Cause frankly, the only job we all know we're gonna have to get some day, is the job of getting good at getting the next job. We're just gonna keep doing this life design stuff, over and over again. You could actually make the argument, that life design is what life is. We're all designing our life all the time. You make some big decisions, you live for a while in a chunk. Okay, I think I'll raise these children, I brought 'em back from the hospital, I think I'll keep 'em for the next 20 years or so. You stick with that. But it does change every single day. And so we're always doing these things. Now, we need lots of ideas and tools to fill this out. So, that's what you're gonna get. You're gonna get all these things today. By the time you go home, you'll get that whole set. That's why we have a lot of work to do. Normally it's only a 20 hour course over a 10 week period of time, so in the next 6-7 hours, we're gonna be able to cover all that, I'm sure. So it's really gonna be a good busy day. Hopefully you're gonna go home with your bags full of tools, that you can really use. Now, I gotta say, we've already broken the rule at Stanford, because we're design teachers. And design people do stuff. We don't talk about stuff. We literally don't lecture. We only allow ourselves what we call a lecturette. A lecturette's run 12-15 minutes, I think we're a little over that, so I'm very very sorry. It's time to do something, Bill. Now what do we do? What we do is, let's not worry about completely redesigning our lives, right out of the box. By the way, design your life simply means design a better life, not necessarily a totally different one. Right. So let's grab the low-hanging fruit first. Small changes are easier to get, so the low-hanging fruit, in this case, might include a question we hear from almost every body. A good place to start is the balance problem.

Class Materials

Free Bonus Materials

Designing Your Life Homework
Designing Your Life Worksheets

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Impact Module Worksheet

Ratings and Reviews


A fantastic class for someone seeking to optimize their life for a greater sense of satisfaction and especially for someone who is considering a career transition. We are taught effective methods for brainstorming, examining, and prototyping our options, and we are given an approach for the hardest task of all: how to make a choice when faced with multiple good options! Also great tips for networking and getting your foot in the door. This class was very timely for me as I've been struggling with making a decision on what my next career was going to be. I now feel equipped with tools that will help me make that decision with less agony and more fun! Also, I'm a huge fan of design thinking, so it was great to see how that methodology could be applied to making one of the most important decisions in our life.

Karen Vitto

Great course! Great for who like me is on their 30's starting life in a new country with a new language and have been out of the industry for 4 years. Designing new goals, making new networking and starting a MBA for some updates on my carrear. Really helped with some focus. Super recommend!


Loved this class! It was high energy, fast paced and well organized, as well as inspiring. It helped me to make more concrete things I've been thinking and dreaming about. I'm so glad I took it. I made great contacts and will definitely use this material in the future!

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