The right place to start your next creative campaign: design thinking

By: Maggie Lewis

Finding the right place to start should be the first consideration when developing marketing communications for any organization. In my experience working with a non-profit client base, we do our best work for our clients when we employ principles of design thinking. And, I would encourage all marketing communications experts to begin projects with a design thinker’s mindset and practice.

You’re probably familiar with the term. But, a decade ago I heard from colleagues, “Design thinking? Why would we want our clients to do that?” Now design thinking is a popular approach not only in its product design origins, but also in marketing communications and even organizational development. It’s no longer perceived as business jargon and hocus pocus. Design thinking changes how people collaborate and produce innovative products and organizations. It makes design outcomes more successful, beautiful and engaging.

When developing, for example, a campaign for a mission-driven organization, instead of beginning a project with application of a best-practice or well-used model, the design thinker starts with the question, “What is the context for our “end user” (e.g., prospective client, student, donor, board member, etc.)? “Where are they when they receive my communications? What are they doing? What are they thinking and feeling?” To answer these questions, we watch and listen to find out what is needed. We engage users in the making process, as testers of early ideas (we call them prototypes) which allows more data to be collected before we explore whole solutions.

The right attitude and a few skills can help anyone be a design thinker.

Let’s start with attitude. Design thinkers have empathy for the user. We care deeply about users’ points-of-view, what motivates them, their values, etc. because we are designing for them. We spend time with people experiencing and watching them to reveal problems and give us clues about to how to solve them. Paying attention to the role that affect plays in decision-making is significant to mission-driven organizations. A user’s involvement with the organization may be heavily influenced by an emotional desire to support a mission about which they care deeply. While rationale thought is a part of the decision to participate, a marketer’s ability to align communications with empathy and value is vital to having messages resonate with stakeholders.

Another trait we share is curiosity. A curious mind notices things— how people move in a space, with whom they interact, emotional reactions. Designers who are curious are also excellent interviewers, quick to ask the follow-up question, “Tell me more about that.”

The ability to take a risk and be uncomfortable may be the trait that sets the design thinker apart from other consultants. Design thinkers derive a solution from what the users are showing and telling. For some thinkers, this can be frightening for a number of reasons. We like to know what the end state looks like— it makes us feel confident and secure. We are operating with limited budgets and don’t have the ability to re-do a program if it’s not a complete success. And, we have a range of constituents with a stake in our work—from board committees to peers in other departments— and they all have an opinion.

There are at least three skills which all design thinkers have. First is the ability to watch a system at work. We observe physical interactions with space, artifacts on walls and desks, rituals and meetings. This process of immersion (think Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction) reveals what those donors, students, service recipients, members, etc. need. Throughout this period, we remain curious about what is happening and don’t rush to propose solutions. Only after the process is complete do we begin to interpret or think about the meaning of what we observed and heard.

Observation therefore leads to the second skill, objectivity. Like a scientist, the design thinker doesn’t assume anything, but works to figure out what is happening in a system to determine what it needs.

Making ideas physical introduces possibilities and questions to the users we’ve observed and interviewed. Using simple tools (e.g., Sharpies, Post-Its, paper), the designer creates a prototype in the form of a sketch, a user interface, a journey map and sometimes even a script or skit. The prototype is then given to the user to experience. The designer resumes his/her role as observer, recording how the user interacts with and modifies the prototype.

Here are two ideas for how to start using a design thinking approach in your organization.

Build a team that includes the client. Involved from start to finish your team should include the client, their constituents and members of your own creative teams. This allows for innovation and assures that multiple perspectives are considered. The client is part of the team as co-creators. At a minimum, they provide a critical perspective and share knowledge in the discovery process; challenge thinking and build on the ideas during presentations. Their inclusion not only provides critical insights, but also ensures successful implementation because they were involved in developing the solution. You can start small by observing your clients’ constituents engaged in their activities. Designers, writers and the client team should participate in observations.

This may require a shift in the client’s way of thinking, but it’s worth the effort to build empathy with users and develop solutions that are distinct and directed toward users’ needs, not only what we think we know about them.

Ideate (yes, this is similar to brainstorming, but with a twist). Ideation is when the team regroups and shares what each learned during discovery (which includes observation). Essential to ideation and the design process, is a comfort with not knowing the answers at the beginning. It is liberating to not be fixated on a specific end result, rather determine the right answers through the process and based on what we learned during discovery. If we knew what the campaign’s logo looked like and the overall voice, the client would essentially be ordering a template and not a custom approach to achieve their distinct goals and express their brand.

When we ideate, for a period of time there are no bad ideas offered around the table. And, eventually we work to discern key themes/categories for exploration. That said, at some point we do find ways to challenge thinking. We frame this part of the process as divergent thinking. It starts with asking questions of the team, sharing thinking and grouping ideas to find distinct directions for schematic exploration. We sketch and begin conceptual design exploring a range of ideas.

Considering including the client in these sessions. We did this once for a website project and involved the client in two half-day sessions. One session involved forming multi-functional teams— curators, operations, marketing, etc. that were given a specific question to consider and design nascent solutions. In another session, teams designed a portion of the website in the form of a low-fidelity prototype made of Play-Doh, paper and pipe cleaners. New ideas came out of the effort because people were taken out of their comfort zones. And, everyone had a great time doing it.

Practicing the skills and embracing the attitudes of a design thinker can change not only how mission-driven marketers collaborate with their internal and external constituents, but also the outcomes of the marketing communications challenges we face. By engaging with users, our service recipients, members, donors, staffs, etc., we not only embrace them, we empower them to be part of the solution.


Maggie Lewis works at Palantir.net doing internal change management and organizational design. She is a former Managing Partner of Studio Blue, a design firm serving non-profit organizations. Maggie also is an Instructor in the MS in Learning and Organizational Change Program at Northwestern University where she teaches design thinking to master’s candidates.

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