My Favorite Tools in My Designer Toolkit

“Design Thinking is a human centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” -Tim Brown

I have been an artist, teacher, technologist, designer and entrepreneur. Everything I have done has been accomplished through design thinking. Not intentionally at first… As an artist and teacher, I was not aware of design thinking – tho I was doing it every day in the studio and the classroom.

As I became more involved in technology and innovation, I discovered design thinking and realized that this was the methodology that I had been using to solve problems all my life… I just never knew it had a name or a formal process.

Throughout the years, I have worked with many organization. on innovation and design thinking processes. In a recent presentation, I realized I have a few of my favorite tools that I want to share with you.


Empathy is the tool that we use to gain understanding… Understanding leads to insights… Insight is what informs experiments… Experimentation results in innovation.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than from your own. You try to imagine yourself in their place in order to understand what they are feeling or experiencing.

Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves while sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune or excitement.

When you are trying to solve a problem, empathy is a tool to understand the mental model of your target audience. The power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories.

Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect within a specific context and experiments are a procedure carried out to support, refute, or validate a hypothesis. Experiments provide insight into cause-and-effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is manipulated.

Innovation is powered by a thorough understanding of what people want and need in their lives. Before you can innovate, you must empathize to gain understanding to form insights, run experiments, learn, iterate and invent.

Active Listening

As part of the User Experience Manifesto, active listen requires:

  1. Pay Attention. Give the speaker your undivided attention and acknowledge the message.
  2. Show That You’re Listening. Use your body language and gestures to convey your attention – make eye contact and nod your head when appropriate.
  3. Provide Feedback. Interject with acknowledgement when and where appropriate
  4. Defer Judgment. Active listening is open-minded – a time to expand your perspective, learn, explore and innovate
  5. Respond Appropriately. Give a thoughtful pause before you respond and use diplomacy.

Compassionate Detachment

“Train yourself to let go of what you fear to lose” – Yoda

As an artist, or just someone who is excited about an idea, compassionate detachment allows you to explore ideas with an open mind and the see the whole over the parts.

Oftentimes we get caught up in an aspect of a concept that we really like to the point where we will not sacrifice it, or any part of it, no matter what the cost. As an artist, you may fall in love with a part of your painting, sculpture, music, dialogue, choreography, writing – so much that you would not remove it or change it… even it that is exactly what you need to do to make the whole piece work. Ask anyone who had to finish a piece of art or edit a film, play or book.

This attachment is the enemy of great design. This is also applicable to brainstorming and a business plan or strategy. It is a natural part of any creative thinking and problem-solving exercise.

So how does one get around falling too much in love with an idea or concept and be willing to sacrifice or alter it for the greater whole? Compassionate Detachment is a tool that helps us let go of an idea and be willing to change or remove it for the greater good of a grand plan.


Empathy, active listening and detached compassion are powerful tools to build innovation.