Design thinking for planners


I have a lovely girlfriend who, among other things, is a user experience designer. She helps companies - mostly digital - to create products that people can actually use. I have to give her credit for introducing me to design thinking, the thought process and approach made famous by David Kelley of IDEO, but it recently came back into the forefront of my studies during a design studio class.

What I formally study is community planning. Most planners are not designers - they live in a world of process and policy, more comfortable with words than graphics. However, there is a growing need for planners who understand design and who appreciate it, who can actually communicate with architects and savvy engineers about the relationship between the design, the policy, and the implications of both in the real world. Miko Betanzo, one of my professors, is an urban designer at CitySpaces, and an advocate for the planner-as-designer. He brought the design thinking movement and its relevance to planners back into my consciousness, and I’m certainly grateful for it. It’s not that you have to be great at sketching, but you need the confidence to tackle a problem that you may not have much information or formal education regarding.

Design thinking, however, is not just about the design. It’s the process by which you arrive at a solution, and a good way to understand if something will actually work. In my understanding, at the center of it all is the understanding of the end user - what will be the human response to interacting with the product?

The beauty of this approach is that it’s not about capital D design. It can be applied to anything. What comes to mind, in this case, is the planning process itself.

We often claim to be planning for people, but the proof isn’t always there. A lot of communities in North America are difficult to live in, let alone thrive in. Too often, we jump straight to the solution without understanding the problem, or gloss over parts of the process in an effort to tick boxes.

The first step in design thinking is to generate an understanding of the people you are trying to serve, to create a sense of empathy for their lived experience. What is it that they do? What is missing from their lives that could make it better? What you are looking for is the core need, using verbs to describe what they are looking for to improve their situation. It is only then that you can actually define and begin to brainstorm possible solutions. Without the baseline research you are simply acting through your own lens on the world, which is useless when planning for a community of diverse needs and interests.

More than anything, design thinking can give us the confidence to be creative - to think in innovative ways that normally we would relegate to others who have the formal training or title that allows them that luxury. With that confidence, everything from organizing an open house to drafting a white paper becomes an opportunity to do something, based in empathy, that creates a situation to better the lived experience of all those involved.