Defining Design Challenges Aid In Targeted Ideation

The Design for Good Changemaker Series unites teams of creative professionals with nonprofits and social impact organizations. Teams then work to advance the organizations’ missions using design thinking tools and sustainable frameworks. Each year we rally around a new issue. This year, it’s housing and homelessness. Tickets are still available for the Changemaker Showcase to see the results and to learn more.

The first and most critical part of the human-centered design process is to empathize and learn about the people at the center of your design challenge. Creative team member Matt Swecker captured what this meant to him in the first blog of the Changemaker Series process. Once you really understand and can empathize, the second step is to see your problem in another light. When you can examine your problem more effectively, how can you brainstorm ways and means to serve the right outcome for your clients?


Change organization partners All Home, DESC, Northwest Youth Services (NWYS), Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS), Real Change and Sea Mar Community Health Centers came to AIGA Seattle with problem statements and questions they wanted to address. Once the teams went through the empathize phase, they began to understand how important it was to revisit and reframe their challenges.

The DESC project team ended up focusing their challenge in a different direction after careful consideration and research as part of the empathy phase. Kristen Faiferlick described her team’s process; “Redefining the problem was an important step in our design process. It was a bit daunting to reframe our problem to focus on an entirely different design challenge, but our weeks of research research and empathy-building made us confident that this change was the right thing to do. Our client made a good choice in presenting us with a clear, concrete design challenge: building where donors could supply “Move In Kits” which are pre-made packages for individuals moving into new homes. However, as we discussed the million tasks and activities undertaken daily by our client and his team, we came to the mutual realization that connecting donors with Move In Kits was only part of the problem.  Even if we created a world-class solution to this challenge, there would still be disabling communication issues between his team and other stakeholders within the organization that would prevent our the In Kind team at DESC from reaching its full potential. So, we decided to step back and tackle a larger, yet more crucial problem: building a communication platform that would allow the In Kind team to better communicate with case managers and volunteers so that in-kind gifts could be processed faster, with less email, and less effort.”

The All Home team digs into their problem statement.

The All Home team digs into their problem statement.

The NWYS team started with this quote in mind when determining how to define their challenge:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein

NWYS team member Jesse Baker noted, “Everyone has heard this quote, but I think it’s absolutely imperative to not only getting to great creative work but to great creative work that drives results. Far too many people try to find solutions first before truly evaluating the validity of the real problem. Working with a group of highly-talented, motivated creative professionals, it would have been easy to jump in and start creating beautiful things. But, would they really help our nonprofit client who really can’t afford to miss their goals?”

These examples are why “define” is an important step to bring clarity to the design process instead of jumping head first into a project. With limited time, teams might have missed the mark by working on a solution that doesn’t properly address the causes and impact of problems. Hard work and beautiful deliverables could ultimately go to waste. It’s an important reminder as the community seeks to address homelessness as a whole.

“Through the process evaluating the business objective that our client had identified, we identified what’s stopping potential donors from giving: a lack of empathy. And through questioning why people lack empathy, we finally landed on the key insight that drove all creative—most people have forgotten about the little things that have made their success possible. Our goal is to remind them and demonstrate that the people our client serves won’t have access to those things that many of us take for granted,” Baker reflected.

Faiferlick added, “In the end, revising our design challenge meant that we were able to solve a much more crucial issue for our client, and hopefully help them accomplish so much more with our solution than if we had settled on our original design challenge."


Brainstorming is fun for some but daunting for others. It’s easy to get caught up in ideas and groupthink rather than develop something innovative. Once teams were able reframe their project challenges, they were ready for the ideation phase.

The All Home team had an inspiring way to kick off idea generation. Patty Miller remembers, “I liked some of the creative ways we got ideas going. For one exercise, we stood as a group of three people with our backs to each other. One person told the person to their right a story about why they volunteer.Then we changed groups. The recipients of that story had to tell it to a new person. It was like a game of telephone except we bonded over why we all volunteer.”

James Pearson and SL Rao from the DESC team ideating.

James Pearson and SL Rao from the DESC team ideating.

Rachael Cicero of the Sea Mar team (also known as the Tin Shoe Creative Agency) experienced some groupthink but ultimately thought this phase was integral. “Traditionally, brainstorming has been seen as a way to share ideas out loud with one another and seeing where you end up. While we definitely had time to share with one another, we realized once we started talking about things out loud we kind of all start sounding the same,” she said,  “This is something we wanted to avoid, especially because we all have varying levels of work and creative experience and really wanted to capitalize on the potential of bringing diverse perspectives.”

Studies show that the traditional method of brainstorming is not very effective. An alternative is to combine individual ideas and build upon them in a group, which this team ended up embracing.

“This was achieved through first, just using words to describe our ideas, then sketches and maybe even a combination of the two. We even made quick prototypes of our ideas with cardboard paper, pipe cleaners, etc. so we could really make our ideas come to life,” Cicero added. “Through this process, we found we were able to be much more expressive and innovative. This gave everyone in the room the ability to highlight their own strengths, though processes and individualistic vision. We realized that some of us had similar ideas to one another, but maybe with a different spin or flair to it.”

After additional ideation and refining ideas, the Sea Mar team came back to their define phase and their problem statement. They wanted to make sure they were ultimately impactful rather than fanciful. “As the next few sessions continued, we displayed all of the ideas we each came up with and were able to slowly narrow them down and discuss them in a more meaningful and impactful way. It was such an amazing experience to debate and give feedback to one another about whether or not each of these was the direction we wanted. In the end, if we all felt strongly about an idea it went in our “Top Ideas” list and if not, it went into what we called ‘The Parking Lot.’ Through this method we honed in on what was truly going to make a difference to our change organization and what wasn’t.”

Ultimately, all of the teams were able to focus on the right challenge, reign in their brainstorming and hone in on ideas for solutions that had the potential to enact change rather than come up with beautiful concepts that might not be feasible for the organizations to implement. Next, the proof is in the pudding so the teams continued the process by prototyping and testing their ideas.

The next blog in the series will cover the prototype and testing steps: turning ideas into something real and receiving real feedback to better understand if an idea works or falls flat.

Attend the Changemaker Showcase to learn more if you’re interested in a deep dive of the processes involved and the outcomes from the creative project work. These volunteer creative professionals will not be able to solve homelessness in the Puget Sound region, but they are passionate and inspired to help their change organizations with their challenges.

By Ann Vu
Published August 31, 2016