The Designer’s Toolkit for Tackling Tough Problems

The Designer’s Toolkit for Tackling Tough Problems

Jocelyn Wyatt
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When we launched six years ago, we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. The organizations we partner with are tackling some of the world’s toughest problems, like access to clean water, reproductive health, and the global refugee crisis—big, systemic challenges that have been around for decades.

The constraints and complexity of working on those challenges can be overwhelming. To help us all push through, we developed a few simple tools to keep in your back pocket. Here are three of them, drawn from the Design Kit Travel Pack, a new deck of bite-sized exercises we’re working on to help social impact organizations and busy professionals unlock their own creative genius.

1. Write a postcard from the future

In the social sector, the language we use is all about fixing things that are broken. We talk about reducing unintended pregnancies or increasing the number of people with access to financial services. It’s important work, but not always framed in the most inspiring way. Before you kick off a new project or initiative, take the time to paint a more audacious vision. Close your eyes, picture a time 20 years in the future, and imagine your work has been a resounding success. What does the world look like? How are people’s lives different? Be as specific as possible. Then, write a newspaper headline for a New York Times story capturing this impact and sketch an image to go with it. Share your vision with your team, and use it as your North Star as the creative process becomes more murky and new challenges emerge.

2. Take an inspiration tour

When we’re designing in conditions with tight constraints—like a tightly-packed informal settlement outside of Nairobi or a rural village in India—it’s vital that we understand and work within the local context. But to unlock fresh solutions, we also need to look elsewhere and gather inspiration from other (sometimes unlikely) places. To design your own inspiration tour, start by naming three adjectives you want your product, service, or experience to embody. For example, maybe we want the new health clinic we’re designing to feel safe, fun, and community-affirming. Then, quickly brainstorm 10 places, businesses, or brands that do this well in your city. (Examples: a sports team’s locker room, a Bible study group, a Weight Watchers meeting, a co-working space, or a comic convention.) Choose a couple of places that are most interesting to you and take a day to visit them in person. Note down your observations as you go, take photos, and look for clues about what might inspire your project. By casting off the constraints of the context you’re working in, you’ll start to see new possibilities.

3. Make time for retail therapy

When you’re feeling stuck and not sure which direction your project should take, try getting tangible (even before you might feel ready). One fun way to do this is a trip to your local hardware or container store. Give everyone on your team 15 minutes to explore the store and create their own scrappy set-up of the product or service you’re designing. Then, one at a time, walk each other through the prototypes you created. Forcing yourselves to use materials available in the store and using a timer helps narrow the scope of what you’re working on from a big, nebulous problem to an immediate and concrete one, often unlocking fresh thinking in the process.

Visit to download a free PDF, or get your own hard copy.

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Jocelyn Wyatt
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