Design Thinking May Be Just the Tool Churches Need

 In Articles, Research

By D. Dale Walker
Part 1 of 2

How can churches engage young people meaningfully, keeping them active and growing in faith? Helpful ways of answering this question exist outside of churches and seminaries. One particularly useful tool for addressing this challenge can be found in the professional practices of designers. Called design thinking, this highly iterative, user-focused approach to problem solving has much to teach religious and cultural leaders concerned with the increasing disaffiliation of young people from institutional religion.

What Is Design Thinking?

How do you come up with new ideas? The best answers I have received to this question have come from designers, who offered ways of talking about creativity I have found helpful, illustrating their suggestions with real-life examples and basing their arguments on methods I might imitate.

The creative practices of designers have inspired many. I have encountered articles about design thinking in NewsweekHarvard Business Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as Wired and Fast Company. The concept is associated with Tim Brown and David Kelly at IDEO; the design school at Stanford University; Roger Martin, the retired dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. Many corporations have adopted design practices, e.g., Apple, Proctor & Gamble, Steelcase, Samsung, Kaiser Permanente, PepsiCo,and OXO. Consumers run into the work of design thinkers every day in the webpages and apps that they use.

Design thinking is a structured approach to problem solving. It privileges empathy as the key to understanding people, their desires, and their needs, using observation of people to gain insights into these issues. Making and iterating are two other distinctive attributes of design thinking. Human-centered design is not content, nor does it address a prescribed set of problems. Rather it is an approach to problem solving. It flexes its muscles in product development, business models, service design, and even the Army Field Manual, as each of these relate to the real needs of real people.

Design thinking is a structured approach to problem solving. It privileges empathy as the key to understanding people, their desires, and their needs, using observation of people to gain insights into these issues.

Design thinking involves four key activities (these will be explored in more detail in a subsequent blog):

  • Observe: Gather information and insight through watching and listening.
  • Analyze: Look for generalizations that define the problem and can guide solutions.
  • Synthesize: Explore the discovered insights and principles in order to generate ideas to solve the problem you have defined.
  • Make: Working from the premise that making is thinking, exercise rapid prototyping, using simple models to experiment on ideas and form new ones, iterating toward solutions.

Taken as a whole, the design thinking process fosters creative answers to problems that fit with how people actually live.

Indiscriminate about content, design thinking offers tools and methods that can address problems across many fields. At the same time, design thinking seeks cross-disciplinary input, one of the vital outcomes of collaboration. To describe design thinking expansively, it offers a reliable path to innovation.

Design Thinking and ‘Wicked Problems’

Design thinking can be particularly effective used to address “wicked problems,” those challenging issues that are undefined, multivariable, and open-ended. Unlike spelling tests and math quizzes that seek a single correct answer to each question, wicked problems do not have a stable, predictable, or even uniform solution. You can never turn to the back of the book to find the correct answer to a wicked problem. In the case of design, the designer has to define the problem to be solved (e.g., does the consumer want a less expensive car or one with additional but costly safety features), and then move toward a solution.

Life is full of wicked problems! Design’s most significant contribution to solving such problems lies in its dedicated focus on people. Insistent focus on the end user is the profound contribution of design thinking.

This human dimension of wicked problems is perhaps best evidenced in matters of public good.

Taxation, healthcare, defense, foreign policy, and education are all public issues characterized by all sorts of wicked problems. Defining a problem and intervention at one point creates cascading consequences that change outcomes elsewhere. We have witnessed this in combatting terrorism and nation-building. Whereas traditional military tactics might suffice to overwhelm an enemy position, winning hearts is fuzzier and more complex, requiring a different set of tools. If you look carefully, you may also notice changes in the delivery of healthcare, as it seeks to improve patient care and control costs. Design thinking provides helpful methods for approaching such problems.

If you are trying to figure out how to encourage positive engagement between young people and the church, you have yourself a wicked problem. Design thinking can be a profoundly useful approach, as a subsequent blog will explore.

D. Dale Walker is deputy director of major gifts at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. He earned a PhD at the University of Chicago and published his second book with Anselm Academic: Beyond the Obvious: Doorways to Understanding the New Testament (2014), in which he directly addresses his interest in creativity. While working at IIT Institute of Design he spent four years in conversation with thought leaders in human-centered design.

Recommended Posts