How Can Design Thinking Improve Your Work?

Design Thinking, People looking at stickie notes

Work can have a different purpose for every person—a way to grow professional skills, a place to build close relationships, an opportunity to make an impact in the world. When you understand your own personal goals and values, you can then use your learnings to experiment with new ideas and move closer to your dream career. 

Design thinking is a human-centered approach that can help you tackle career questions by uncovering insights, testing ideas, and building prototypes. Through observation, iteration, and a bit of creativity, the design thinking process can be a powerful tool to improve your work life and craft a career that is right for you.

Graphic of the steps in the design thinking process, including framing a question, gathering inspiration, generating ideas, making ideas tangible, testing to learn, and sharing the story.

IDEO U's design thinking process framework


Find your career question

Before you jump into brainstorming new career paths, reflect on what question you’re trying to answer. Start from a place of curiosity—a good question is designed as a mechanism for learning and doesn’t assume solutions from the beginning. As you navigate through the workplace, think about the aspects of your career you want to focus on, and allow what you see and feel to guide you. 

For example, if you’re feeling a lack of purpose, you could ask, “How might I find ways to incorporate more meaning into my work?” Or, if you realize that you aren’t fully utilizing your strengths, your question might be, “How might I find opportunities to demonstrate my unique superpowers on my team?” 

When you’re crafting questions, try to follow the Goldilocks principle. Avoid questions that are too broad and abstract, as well as those that are too narrow and specific. Effective questions provide just the right amount of scope for creative exploration and meaningful insights. By taking the time to figure out your career question, you ensure that you are solving the right problem.

Diagram of the Goldilocks Principle with abstract, specific, and “just right” questions.


Gather career inspiration from the real world

Once you’ve settled on a question you want to explore, go out into the world to look for insights from your own routine. If you are looking for more meaning in your career, pay attention to the moments in your life when you feel a sense of fulfillment—whether it’s running a 5K, tutoring a student, or volunteering at a food bank. This can provide you with a better understanding of the types of activities that make you excited and engaged. 

Oftentimes, there can also be tremendous value in looking at the perspectives of others, particularly those who may have different backgrounds and lived experiences. Having open conversations about your work, purpose, and aspirations can shift your thinking and give context for what you want out of your career. 

Maker Mix Activity

Bill Burnett, author of Designing Your Work Life, encourages people to evaluate how they receive value in their work through an exercise called the Maker Mix. In our careers, we have a balance of being compensated financially (money), making a difference in the world (impact), and sharing our personal creativity (expression). Assess your work life from 1 to 100 in all three areas—money, impact, and creative expression—and then decide where you want it to be. After you understand the different ways that you receive value, you can design an ideal mix and start coming up with ideas to move toward it.


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Superpowers Activity

Another exercise that can help you to gain insights about yourself is to find your superpowers at work. We all have individual attributes that, when identified and activated, allow us to realize our full potential with our teams. Superpowers is a tool by consultancy SYPartners that presents 21 different strengths, such as empathy, grit, and decisiveness. When you embrace your unique superpowers, you can then lean into them and focus on them in your career journey.

Illustration and description of the empathy superpower.

Illustration and description of the grit superpower.


Test and prototype ideas in the workplace

As you begin to see what gives you energy within and outside of the workplace, find ways to try ideas that address your question. If you feel fulfilled when tutoring kids, you might find opportunities to mentor new employees or lead a lunch share with your team. By running small tests and discovering what works, you gradually redesign your career in a way that fits with your goals.

Using your Maker Mix and Superpowers, you can incorporate your interests and strengths into your job. If you’re looking to have more expression at work, focus on ways to add creativity to what you do, whether it’s reorganizing your office setup or playing music to kick off meetings. If your superpower is empathy, find moments to practice it when you’re discussing challenges with clients or leading a complex project. As you experiment with improving your work experience or environment, continue to refine your ideas through prototyping and iteration.


Share your experience

After you’ve prototyped your ideas at work, talk about your experience with others. Telling powerful stories can enable your team to find ways to support your career growth, and help others to design their own careers as well. 

What did you discover about your career journey, and what ideas did you try to prototype? Share your experience by tagging us on Instagram or LinkedIn, or email us at hello@ideou.com.



Learn more about the design thinking process or sign up for Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate, IDEO U’s online certificate program on the core concepts of design thinking.

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