A Guide to Designing Your Life and Work for Crisis

On Saturday, May 30, I led a webinar to benefit AIF’s COVID-19 relief efforts on how to design your life and work for crisis. The session was an hour-long crash course in some of the most essential and applicable principles of design thinking that can be used to solve both personal and professional problems. This blog post is a readable version of this session. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, you can do so here.

“We live in uncertain times” might just be the most cliched expression of 2020. Between the lockdowns, quarantines, and casualties of the coronavirus and police brutality and campaigns for racial justice, life today is against the backdrop of crisis. For anyone—particularly those communities most impacted by current events—this can understandably be a breeding ground for negative, paralyzing reactions like anxiety, self-doubt, and inaction, personally and professionally, particularly when a challenge arises. In this article, we’ll look to the concept of Design Thinking for ways to get unstuck and into solution mode. 

So what is Design Thinking? If you google “Design Thinking,” you’ll find a dizzying number of frameworks, terms, acronyms, and more. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll define Design Thinking as a set of principles, practices, and processes that you can use to create solutions out of challenges. We’ll walk through three principles of Design Thinking that, if embraced, can help you make order out of the world’s chaos and turn your anxiety, self-doubt, and inaction into creativity, agency, and action. 

Principle One: Embrace Constraints

We’ll start with two scenarios. 

In scenario one, I ask you to draw a picture, but I do not give you any guidelines. I don’t tell you what to draw, what medium to use, or how long you have to complete the picture. Once I issue my prompt, your mind will likely try to answer questions like these: 1) Where do I even start? 2) How long should this take me? 3) What do I already know how to draw so I can just do that? With the exception of the true artists amongst us, you’d likely fall into frustration, paralysis, and ultimately resignation—drawing something familiar, like a flower or something you see in the room around you. 

In scenario two, I give you some guidelines. I want you to spend 10 minutes drawing a picture of a spaceship. It must include 5 aliens, a space garden, and a laser. You can only use colored pencils. Here, I have already made the foundational decisions about what to draw, how long to spend, working, and what materials you can use. This frees your brain up to focus on much more interesting questions, such as: 1) What grows in a space garden? 2) Are the aliens wearing pants? 3) What color should the lasers be? I would bet money that this picture would be more interesting and detailed than what would come out of the first prompt. 

In the second scenario, I gave you the gift of constraints. I provided guidelines that helped you narrow your challenge, and focus the possible solutions you could create. You’ve likely been told that creative thinking comes from thinking outside the box—but the little known secret is that real magic comes when you define a box, and stay inside it. When you embrace constraints. 

There’s a tool I like to use when I’m starting a creative endeavor called a “Design Brief.” A brief is a simple document—no more than a page—in which you answer four defining questions: 

  • What is your design goal? Write down what problem you are trying to solve, in the form of a goal. Here are a few examples: To build inspiration into my daily routine; to engage young people in civic action; to make our company’s hiring processes fairer and more equitable. You’re not asserting a solution—you’re saying what you are trying to achieve. 
  • Who are you designing for? Your solution has to work for the people intended to use it. If you’re designing something for personal use, the user might be you. If you’re designing something for work, the user is your customer, or the group of people your program, product, or service is trying to impact. Describe demographics, motivations, behaviors, preferences of this user.
  • What would success look like? These are your intended outcomes—you can look at these to know if your solution was ultimately successful. For example, with your spaceship drawing, it would only be successful if it depicted aliens and a space garden. 
  • What factors constrain your solution? These are factors that limit how you can solve the problem, such as budget, personnel, resources, social conditions. For example, you only had 10 minutes to draw the spaceship, and you had to use colored pencils. 
A real-life example of a design brief for a personal challenge
A real-life example of a design brief for a professional challenge

Constraints help you channel your creativity so that you can create more vivid, specific solutions and give you a guide to check your solution to make sure it’s actually solving your problem. 

Principle Two: Go Live

When we face a problem that matters to us, or that feels large and overwhelming, or both, it can be hard to know where to start, and harder still to know when your solution is “good enough” to share with the world. We often hold onto our ideas, nurse them privately, waiting until they feel ready to make their debut. Unfortunately, when our shielded ideas see the light of day, they often aren’t as good as we thought—and it can cost us emotional energy, time, reputation, even money (particularly when this happens in a professional context). 

By putting your ideas into the real world early and often, testing them, and continuously making them better—or “going live”—you can avoid this situation. Going live helps you do two important things: 1) minimize the riskiness of your ideas by getting feedback and improving early on and 2) test whether your ideas are even viable in the first place. 

Rapid prototyping is a process that you can use to quickly go from design brief to a tangible, tested solution. It’s possible to prototype anything—a conversation, an event, a product, a website. The key is to build a representation of your solution that allows the user to actually experience the solution, not just understand the concept. It’s the difference between describing the concept for an app, and giving someone sketches of the first few screens of the app to actually navigate through. A prototype lets a user have at once an emotional and practical connection to your solution.

 

There are four steps to the rapid prototyping process.  You can go through this entire cycle fast—in less than an hour!—or you can take a few days (a week-long sprint is a good length) to make more sophisticated prototypes and do multiple rounds of testing and iteration. Here’s the process: 

  • Generate ideas, without judgement! Based on your design challenge, generate as many possible ideas for solutions. One effective ideation tool is an activity called “Crazy 8s.” Fold a piece of paper to create 8 rectangles (you’ll fold it three times). Set a timer for 8 minutes, and generate one discrete idea per rectangle. Once you’ve exhausted your first few ideas, you have to dig deeper and push yourself creatively. For example, your design challenge could be that you want to help your parents be more politically involved. Through Crazy 8s, you might come up with ideas like creating a weekly podcast for them, curating a speaker series for your parents and their friends, starting a book club with a book selected by a local activist, etc. 
  • Build a prototype. Once you’ve generated ideas, pick one that you’d like to see turned into a prototype. A good way to decide what to prototype is to pick your most crazy or more ordinary idea. A heuristic like this removes judgement—you’re not attaching yourself to a concept by picking your “best” or your “worst” idea. A prototype should allow your user to experience your idea, vs. having you explain it to them. If your idea is something long or complex, like an event or a workshop, select a particular segment, or scene, from that experience to turn into a prototype. Using our example above, if you decided to prototype the speaker series idea, you could prototype the first five minutes of the first speaker, where you are explaining to the audience what they are about to experience. From that alone, you can learn about how to hone your message, how to set up the chairs, what kinds of speakers get your user excited, and so much more.  
An example prototype to help Jessie get more inspired
  • Test it! Once you’ve built a prototype for people to experience, people need to experience it. Ideally, you can bring in people who are actually your users; if you’re designing for your parents and their friends, make them your testers. But if your users are unavailable (far away, expensive to reach, etc.) you can prepare anyone to be your user. Just tell them about who they are representing, and share key elements of your user’s motivations and characteristics so they can put themselves in their shoes as best as possible. After giving your user some initial instructions (telling them where to sit, describing their user persona to them), start the test. Remember, you are having your user experience your prototype—meaning it should stand on its own. If you have to pause and explain what should be happening, your prototype doesn’t work. 
  • Iterate it! After you’ve run the test, ask your users for the extremes—what they loved about the experience, and what they hated. You don’t care about the in-betweens because you should not be optimizing your design around the forgettable moments of your prototype. These responses will not only tell you about what features of your solution your users liked, but will help you understand their motivations, or why they liked a particular element. For example, in your prototype of the speaker series, you might simulate a networking activity so that the attendees can get to know each other. Your users might say they loved that, because it let them feel like they were part of a community. Your final solution does not need to have that same exact activity in it, but it should optimize for that sense of community. Once you have this data about how the test went, isolate 1-3 areas to adapt and change; if you redo your whole prototype, you won’t be able to test if your changes improved your solution. Update your prototype and put it back in front of users to test again! 

You can use this process to create an entirely new solution, but you can also use it to improve something that already exists. Let’s say you’re struggling with a fundraising campaign you’ve launched at work. You can isolate a component of it—for example, your social media presence—and prototype your way to a better version. 

Principle Three: Kill Your Darlings

Our last principle is perhaps the most important of them all. All too often, we have an idea—probably even a good idea!—and immediately fall in love. When we get too attached to our ideas, we can be blinded to the reality that they just might not work as well as we think they do. Like any relationship, you need to know when to get out; and that means Killing Your Darlings—or, the act of knowing when a beloved idea has run its course and should be stopped. 

It can be hard to let go, but there are four steps you should take to help decide if its time to kill your darlings: 

  • Check your hat. When you’re designing a solution, you have two hats. There’s the designer hat, when you’re building your prototype. With this hat, you are a bold, confident creative who is convinced that their instincts and judgement are impeccable. You need to believe in your ideas to design a strong prototype because you want to give your users something with a point of view. But after you’ve built your prototype, it’s time to wear your evaluator hat. When you’re evaluating your prototype, you should be looking for all the ways in which it is insufficient and not solving the problem. When you feel too attached to an idea, check if you are operating from your designer hat, or your evaluator one. 
  • Review your brief. In our section on embracing constraints, you learned how to create a design brief that articulates your goals, success factors and other constraints to narrow your solution. No matter how much you like an idea, if it doesn’t meet the brief, then it is not a successful solution. By checking your solution against your brief, you can decide if it does what it is supposed to do. 
  • Trust your users. In our section about going live, you learned how to take an idea, make it tangible, and put it in front of users. No matter how much you like an idea, or a feature of your prototype, if the user does not like it, it is worth revisiting. It can be tempting to discount your user—to say “yes, but they don’t get it”—but if that’s the case, it means your prototype was ineffective at conveying your idea. 
  • Check your biases. Even if we know we are wearing our evaluator hat, and we review our brief, and we test with our users, we might still allow ourselves to be convinced that our idea is good. This often comes because you have collected and interpreted data with bias. Did you ask your users leading questions to get them to respond in a particular way? Did you focus only on the positives and ignore the negatives? Did you discount the data altogether because you had a gut feeling that you were right? Each of us has biases that we tend to fall into, but if you are conscious of what they are, you can stop yourself from pursuing an idea just because you like it, and not because it works. 

In this guide, you learned three big ideas: embrace constraints, go live, and kill your darlings. When life feels scary and uncertain, and you need to find your way out of a challenging situation, you can use these principles to design your life and work for crisis—and turn your anxiety, self-doubt, and inaction into creativity, agency, and action. 

Anjali is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Frontier Markets in Jaipur, Rajasthan. For her Fellowship project, she is creating a distribution model that is cost effective and efficient in providing rural households with access to clean energy products through a network of rural women entrepreneurs. Anjali graduated with a degree in American Studies, where she focused on how the design of the build environment—from school buildings to housing developments to monuments—shapes culture and society. While at Yale, she launched a consulting practice that paired Yale business students with undergraduate organizations to improve their strategy, infrastructure, and ultimately, impact. For the past five years, she helped grow The Future Project—a non-profit organization focused on helping young people develop the purpose and agency to build a better future for themselves. After wearing a variety of hats at the organization, Anjali found her professional passion as the company’s vice president of innovation, leading teams to incubate and launch new products, programs, and services to increase reach, quality, and economic sustainability. Inspired by her time working with young people, Anjali plans to devote the next phase of her career to pursuing this purpose through environmental work—developing clean and sustainable products, services, and systems that will ensure that we have a healthy planet for our young people to inherit. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Anjali is excited to dive into the world of clean energy and rural empowerment, reconnect with her Indian heritage, and spend time with her grandmothers who she hasn’t seen in years.

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