Design Thinking As Worldview

By Michael Graber

Design thinking is considered a human-centered framework for problem solving, used in formal innovation work in many fields: health care, consumer products, software, medical devices, durable goods, services and city planning. Design thinking has been perhaps the most lauded innovation method. In brief, the phases include empathy, define, ideation, prototyping, testing and storytelling.

Here’s the weird factor. The more I practice design thinking, the more the framework acts as an operating system for healthy ways of looking at the world and life itself. Perhaps an analogy will better describe this shift in perception.

Let’s look at science and religion. I know many people who have lost the faith traditions in which they were raised. They claim to be “spiritual, not religious.” If you probe a little, you find that they have faith in science above all else. We’ll call it the romance of science. We can witness it in the reboot of Cosmos and in the film “The Martian.” For some, science is a method of inquiry. For others, science stands as the way, as Bayer says in its famous tagline: Science for a better life.

I am not debating the virtues of either religion or science, but pointing out two things:

1. Religion has lost its hold on the poetic imaginations of an increasing number of people in first-world countries.

2. Many mistake the method of science as a world-view and even a system of faith.

Yet the empirical method of scientific inquiry leaves so much of our humanity out of its paradigm. The future has to be envisioned and designed (art), not analyzed and proven (science). This hybrid framework is design thinking. William Blake called it sweet science, where art and science merge, presaging this necessary melding hundreds of years ago.

A life well lived requires a framework that is both contemplative and holistic. The role of the liberal arts used to provide this character formation, but the decline of religious influence in education, left many students and citizens without guiding moral and ethical sensibilities.

Little wonder that the most popular class at Stanford today is a course entitled Design Your Life. In this course students apply the framework of design thinking to their own lives. The result is staggering. Another class was added and filled immediately. Then, a graduate course was added. As a species we are made for iterative learning and quest for community, purpose and high achievement.

Applying the principles of design thinking in every area of life has made me a better father, husband, son, neighbor and co-worker, and more compassionate and aware.

Also, how refreshing to see a phase of life as a prototype that can be changed, upgraded or augmented as needed. How liberating to look at life as a mode of problem solving rather than as a predicament, a problem without a solution. This way of life keeps one in a mindset of optimizing the level of engagement of each experience – close to the Holy Grail state of being known as “flow.”

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at