David Kelley on the 8 Design Abilities of Creative Problem Solvers

“Wallowing in that state of not knowing is not easy, but it’s necessary.”
—David Kelley

In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Stanford d.school, and IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard sat down to discuss the core abilities of the most successful design thinking practitioners and personal stories and learnings from David’s friendships with several of today’s most innovative CEOs and leaders. Hear from more innovative leaders on the IDEO U podcast.

Since founding IDEO 40 years ago, David Kelley has never stopped pushing the boundaries of how design thinking could be used to navigate complex problems. He’s helped shape a culture at IDEO with a deep appreciation for using empathy to relate to people, designing small scrappy solutions to learn what works, and gradually iterating and upping the fidelity until an elegant and desirable solution is reached.

Over this time, forward-thinking CEOs and leaders looking to solve crazy challenges — think the future of mobility or how to educate a growing middle-class population in an emerging market — have been drawn to David’s pragmatic approach. These leaders are increasingly very aware of the need for creative thinking as the level of uncertainty grows. David says “the number one strategic thing on their agenda is “How do I make my company more creative?”

Historically, he’s led them to design thinking as a “way for companies to routinely come up with new-to-the-world ideas.” But design thinking, like the scientific method, is a process, not a solution. The solution lies in developing the creative capabilities of people.

Carissa Carter, director of teaching and learning at the Stanford d.school, says early practitioners often use design thinking like a recipe in a cookbook. “The order and process of a recipe helps new cooks get started,” she says, “but it’s only with practice, inventiveness, experimentation, and constraints that you might begin to call yourself a chef.”

8 Core Design Abilities

David and his colleagues at the d.school are helping students develop a deeper appreciation of the eight core design abilities necessary to solve problems creatively and expertly maneuver within the design thinking methodology.


8 Design Abilities


Navigate Ambiguity

The bedrock of the design abilities, those who are comfortable navigating ambiguity know that “if I’m going to get to a new place, I’m going to have to live in this state of feeling ambiguous about what’s going to happen.” Ambiguity arises when the problem is not well defined, which, David points out, is when many companies turn to IDEO and design thinking for help. You can only get comfortable with ambiguity from experience — having felt it before and knowing it turned out well. “Wallowing in that state of not knowing is not easy, but it’s necessary,” David says.

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)

There’s a general feeling these days that you have to do it all yourself. That if you just go back to your desk and work harder, that the solution will reveal itself. In design thinking, it’s critical to get over that fear of talking to others and shift to a mindset of learning from and with people. Better ideas come from working with others and being open to their improvements.

“The main mistake I think we make in trying to innovate is we get wedded to our first ideas,” David says. Showing your ideas to others helps break through early cliched solutions and get to the real exciting stuff.

Build and Craft Things Intentionally

The best way to engage somebody is to show them something. It’s a skill to know the right time to share your ideas, how to be light and fast with how you build things, and to be comfortable with those ideas not being completely polished.

When David’s students at Stanford were working on an interface for buying train tickets, they created a prototype that required users to press enter after each screen. It seemed like the obvious solution, but passengers really didn’t like it, which they only discovered by testing their prototype. “If you got to that point in the first week, you could fix it really easily. If you got to that point in the first year, it would already be baked in.”


“Storytelling has become one of the real skills designers have been building over the last few years”
David Kelley


Communicate Deliberately

In David’s eyes, “in some ways, it’s our job as designers to paint a picture of the future with our ideas in it.” The ability to understand your audience and communicate your ideas in a way that will activate that audience is a skill that’s critical to a project’s success. In doing work for a hospital, for example, you may think of doctors and patients as your audience, but hospital administrators are the ones making purchase decisions.

“Storytelling has become one of the real skills designers have been building over the last few years,” David says.

Design Your Design Work

Instead of thinking of a decision as work, if you think about it as a project and a design problem, you get to apply all the benefits design thinking. “Driving everything to be a project is another ability that is empowering to students and designers because once it’s a project we feel more comfortable,” David says.

Three more design abilities — Synthesize Information, Experiment Rapidly, and Move Between Concrete and Abstract — round out the core skillset of a design thinking practitioner. Read more about each on the Stanford d.school’s site.

Human-Centered Thinking at the Leadership Level

As mentioned above, David has worked with many of the world’s most innovative leaders and developed friendships with them in turn. He often provides advice and council and values these relationships for the many lessons he’s learned as well.

How these leaders are utilizing design thinking can give valuable insight into ways you can apply the methodology in your own workplace. Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, and David set up a wormhole for direct access to each other. Jim often turns to David for advice on hiring the right people to lead human-centered design work. Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, Peruvian entrepreneur and CEO of Intercorp, embodies a growth mindset and appreciation for creativity. “He believes that working harder is the way to come up with good ideas,” David says. “And he’s right.” The challenges he’s working on — poverty, education — are “so big they hurt your head.” David sees Rodriguez-Pastor’s ability to break large problems down into smaller ones where progress can be made as a key factor in his success.

For those looking to engage senior leadership in a discussion around design thinking, David’s advice is to first understand what is meaningful to these leaders and then see how design thinking can help them make progress toward those goals. Today’s leaders are looking to build innovation engines within their companies — so help them do that. Begin putting some ideas on the shelf and be ready to go when they’re inevitably needed in the future.

Learn more about building the skills and abilities to deepen your design thinking practice with our Advanced Design Thinking Certificate.

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