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Skills & Resources

The “What’s Innovative?” Debate: Try Using First, Best, and Only

By: Sarabeth Berk, PhD

Innovation is the currency of business strategy, models, and management, yet the term has become ubiquitous to the point where it oftentimes feels meaningless or inauthentic to both employees and customers. People are dubious around its use because best practice or mere improvements have become supplanted as “innovations.” Nowadays, as companies strive to strengthen their position in the market and create value, too many things are being mistaken as innovative. How can we tell whether or not processes or creations are innovative?

To avoid the snake oil sales trap of ideas, services, or products that aren’t actually innovative, I’ve started using a simple strategy I call First, Best, and Only. This rule of thumb quickly squelches claims and shines light on true innovations versus good practices. I’ve been using it at my organization as an effective tool for flipping the “aha” switch on and bringing about universal understanding.

After all, half the battle with delivering and measuring innovation is agreeing upon what is innovative and what’s not.

Framing Innovation

How do we know when something is innovative versus a new, different, better, or best practice? Innovation is the execution of ideas (big and small) that are novel, unique, or haven’t been tried before—and it can apply to anything from products and processes to systems and experiences. In products, there are tangible features to compare, but in systems or services it can be fuzzier.

Companies have a hard time defining what innovation means for them. Innovation is often malleable and context driven. In workplaces where innovation is set as a goal or vision, I’ve seen employees crave a concrete, crystal clear definition from leadership to use as a measuring stick. “Tell us what you mean,” they implore.

When employees lack universal understanding around innovation, debates and skepticism ensues. This is where firsts, bests, and onlys come into play. The way to resolve unclarity is to show models, and the way we find models of innovation is to point to the firsts, bests, and onlys within our organization.

Moreover, in a world where news cycles, case studies, and conferences are devoted to disruptive innovation, it’s easy to forget that the majority of innovation is small and incremental.

Quick Review of the Innovation Continuum

At one end of the spectrum, innovation is undeniable. It is breakthrough and disruptive ideas that create new markets and displace the status quo. The Ubers, Airbnbs, Apples, and Amazons of the world fall into this category. However, only a small percentage of ideas are disruptive innovations.

Soren Kaplan’s Innovation Continuum

At the other end of the spectrum, innovation is almost imperceptible—more of an undercurrent. It is the incremental evolution of an idea from one form to another. Think pagers to bulky phones to flip phones. Cellphone technology occurred as a progression of successive changes built upon older generations that eventually enabled an entirely new kind of product. This type of innovation doesn’t happen overnight because it’s slow and steady. Importantly, it isn’t just additional features, it’s a series of small steps and tiny risks that haven’t been tried before or tried in that combination before.

It’s important to call attention to incremental innovations, disruptive innovations, or anything in between because firsts, bests, and onlys can be found at all levels. How do we find these in our organizations? I’ll describe the background of how I discovered this strategy and an overview of how it works.

Origin of First, Best, and Only

I discovered the First, Best, and Only strategy when I was sitting through a presentation by a consultant who was a Director of Development. (Yes, we were talking about fundraising not innovation.) I was in a room full of senior staff, and the consultant asked us to reflect upon what made our organization unique. “When you approach donors,” she asked, “what do you tell them makes this organization great?” People popcorned out standard facts and figures, things you see on our website and in our brochures, and she kindly listed them on the whiteboard.

As we watched and read the list, it was noticeable that we were struggling to come up with things. Not only were we weak in calling out our greatest strengths, but the items we listed didn’t sound too different from those of our competitors. Our list was lackluster and obviously didn’t reflect our greatness.

She prodded us to continue, “C’mon, where are you the first, best, or only at something?” and with that remark, the room lit up. People started calling out amazing discoveries, inventions, programs, and other accolades. Not the normal spiel. Suddenly, our list had teeth. It was clear what made us stand out from the crowd. In the process, I was surprised by how much I was learning about our organization, and I felt invigorated.

Weeks later, I was facilitating a meeting, and I was struggling to extract stories of innovation from my colleagues for a new marketing campaign. However, their suggestions didn’t showcase how our organization was more unique than others in our field. They were interesting stories with heartwarming messages, but they didn’t scream innovation. As a facilitator, I could tell I couldn’t push the brainstorming any further with prompts like “tell me something that’s truly innovative, different, or unique.” Out of the blue I blurted, “What about instances where we’ve been first, best, or only at something?” From that moment, the energy shifted—a new layer of stories was unblocked, and those were truly innovative.

Since then, I’ve noticed strong results from the First, Best, and Only strategy because it resonates. It’s easy to understand, and people quickly digest it as if being struck by lightning. Hence, my recommendation is to translate the abstractness of innovation into three ingredients: Firsts, bests, and onlys. These words help draw out innovation stories you may not have thought about in terms of your company’s greatest successes and areas of impact.

In fact, until I used First, Best, and Only with my coworkers, they didn’t even realize things they were already doing were innovative. In one case, our purchasing department realized they were the first department to implement Docusign in order to speed up and streamline processing. The adoption of this tool spread across the organization and became embedded in daily business. Now, the purchasing department gets to take credit for this internal innovation they brought to the organization.

How to use First, Best, and Only

What if I think a new meeting format is innovative because I’ve never seen it done that way before, but you say it’s not innovative because your last five employers ran meetings that way. Am I wrong? Are you right? Can we both be right?

In the schema of First, Best, and Only, if the meeting format is being used for the first time by that company, then it’s a “first,” and it’s innovative in that regard, and I’m right. Although, if other companies already do it that way, then it’s not a first, and it would not be considered innovative, and you’re right. Notice that the key criteria here for innovation is being first, therefore the metric in this situation is against internal or external innovation firsts. Is this a first for the company or a first for the marketplace? This is an important distinction because firsts, bests, and onlys can be perceived on many levels and throughout the innovation continuum.

If something is the first, the best (or one of the top 10 or top 20), or the only, then there’s a high probability that it’s innovative since, by definition, innovations are novelties or one-(or a few)-of-a-kind. This protocol can be applied to both internal or external innovations, as well as to incremental through disruptive innovations.

The strategy is fairly self-explanatory. Play around with the scope of comparison. For instance, are you comparing yourself to other departments, others in your industry, within a specific geographic region, or within a certain period of time? Define your filters to get clarity of scope. I recommend that you start wide (on a national or international scale), and then apply filters to find other kinds of innovation examples within your company.

To start, simply ask: “Where are we the first, best, or only?” You can do one word at a time, or ask for all three at once, and then let them trickle in randomly. These can be lists on three separate sheets of paper or in three columns on a page. The process is up to you.

Clarifying Information and Tips

Firsts: These are time-based. The most obvious are first to market, but it can also be when your first website went live or the release of your first newsletter. It’s easiest to track these down by looking at historical records, archives, institutional artifacts, or interviews with current or former employees.

Bests: These can be drawn from rankings or reports. It’s awesome to be number 1 or number 2, but what does “best” means to your organization? Maybe being in the top 10 is good enough, or even top 20 depending on how steep your competition is.

Onlys: These are where you’re one-of-a-kind. You are the only one creating, serving, or doing this thing. It could be the only one in your market or industry, or it could mean in the state, country, or world.
This is not a perfect strategy for finding innovation, but I believe it does an incredible job at helping us ascertain bright spots that may not have jumped out on the first pass. And it transforms how people think about the question “what’s innovative?” If anything, I hope that by using this strategy, it can help alleviate tensions around defining and identifying innovations. Please share your suggestions so we can learn more about this strategy together.



About Sarabeth Berk

Dr. Sarabeth Berk is the Assistant Director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at CU Boulder, a cross-campus effort to connect the university and surrounding community. Sarabeth considers herself an artist/researcher/teacher/designer and is known for her talent in blending, bending, and negotiating across disciplines to transfer knowledge and practice. In her previous work, Sarabeth led school innovation and design thinking in the Imaginarium at Denver Public Schools, taught art, creativity, and entrepreneurship in K-12 and higher education, and managed children’s programming at Anderson Ranch Arts Center.



Design Thinking Learning vs. Doing: Stories and Lessons from the Front Lines


When I teach design thinking in a training environment, my goal is to expose people to how design thinking works conceptually and generate excitement about how the mindsets can help them work more collaboratively and effectively. But in the real world, the pressures of solving problems, the ambiguity of the process and the challenging nature of group work can make it more frustrating than practicing in a learning environment.

Each problem is unique and comes with different variables that impact how you apply design thinking. The process gives you a set of tools and a framework for thinking, but doesn’t tell you how to address your specific challenge. That comes from intuition built through experience.

I’ve put together a collection of stories and lessons I’ve gained through my own practice of design thinking over the years. Hopefully, they can provide insight into what it is like to use design thinking day to day, as well as tips for overcoming some of the harder parts of design thinking in the real world.

Research seems easy, but is actually really hard.

Research in practice can be tricky to get right. Asking deeply personal questions of strangers and suspending personal biases takes skills developed through experience. Research also takes rigorous preparation. In the classroom, we focus on jumping into conversations with others to quickly learn about conducting an interview. While this gets the lesson across, it overlooks the real work required to generate quality research outputs.

Preparing the Research Plan:

Setting up quality research starts with a brainstorm of questions related to the topic you’re exploring. Always start with the question, “what are we trying to learn from this research?” Brainstorming things you already know about the topic, as a way of highlighting gaps in knowledge and opportunities for further exploration, is also productive at this point.

A couple years back, I was leading a project related to exploring unmet needs in financial advising. We weren’t the first to explore the topic and there was already a wealth of knowledge from past project teams. So we started there. We combed through old research, created a simple framework to organize the insights that had already been generated and let that process reveal the gaps we needed to research further. Only then did we design our research plan with the questions we wanted to ask and the people we needed talk to.

The process of rigorous planning may seem in contradiction to the bias towards action we encourage in design thinking training, but it’s critical to conducting quality research. It sets the stage for the questions you ask, the people you talk to and the research methods you use. One resource I consult at the beginning of the Examine phase is Universal Methods of Design. It’s full of research methods beyond the empathy interview and can help inspire the types of question you could ask.

Unpacking the Data:

The other overlooked part of research is the unglamorous work of unpacking the data gathered, before synthesizing it into insights. When you’re deep in qualitative research, it’s critical to unpack the research as you go, while it’s fresh. This is no easy task, but you’ll thank yourself later for making the time investment. Plan to spend as much time unpacking as conducting the actual research. Having all the data clearly written on Post-its, with photos of each person you spoke to, will help your team get on the same page about what was learned and allow everyone to analyze the data together.

Insights require a leap of faith.

Synthesizing research into quality insights is a process wrought with ambiguity and frustrating moments of circular discussion. That’s because a good insight gets to something that’s not obvious, through a combination of gut instincts, nuanced observations and leaps of faith. If done well, you’ll come to a differentiated understanding of the problem. If done poorly, you could end up with a bland and broad problem statement that you could have written on day one of the process.

People get stuck in synthesis when they focus on making their insight universally true. But an insight is just a hypothesis—an educated guess about what the problem is and what is true for your customer. Because it is an educated guess, it’s better to be provocative and inspiring than socially acceptable.

The nuance involved in generating insights is hard to explain in theory, so I’ll share an example from a project I led on a homepage design. Our brief: Explore how people use the homepage of their bank. What we heard from almost every user we spoke to is that they only use their bank’s homepage to log into their account. If we synthesized solely based on what we actually heard customer say, we would have ended up with an insight like, “Users don’t care about the bank’s homepage. They see it as just the first step to getting what they want: their account information.”

So what? We already knew that at the beginning of the project—without talking to anyone—which meant we couldn’t stop there with our synthesis of what we had learned. We needed new perspective about the problem and that didn’t position us to solve for anything. The easy part is identifying what is going on, the hard part is explaining why people feel and behave a certain way. Instead, we tapped into our gut instincts and beliefs about how people behave, and asked tougher questions like:

  • Why do people feel differently logging into Facebook than to their bank?
  • What makes Instagram so engaging and how do people feel when browsing the app?
  • What beliefs exist about banking that influence people’s perception of the homepage?
  • How do people get distracted online?

These questions forced us to peel back the layers of the stories we heard to make assumptions about how people think and what drives behavior. Filling in those gaps yielded a set of insights and design principles about the browsing process, as well as inspiration—from people scrolling through their social media feed—that we could use to redesign our homepage.

When I teach the Understand Phase, we usually spend 15-30 minutes on a quick needfinding activity to move from a set of stories to a reframed problem. In reality, this process took my team over a month and was the most challenging part of our project. We were designing our point of view about what we’d learned. This work can be grueling and exhausting—it takes trial and error, patience and perseverance. But, there is tremendous satisfaction in breaking through the fog of ambiguity to arrive at an insight with such clarity.

The brainstorm is just the first step.

Ideation represents a shift in the design thinking process, moving from problem identification to solution exploration. In ideation, the common mistake is not being specific enough. It is much easier to describe a desired outcome than it is to articulate a specific way to achieve that outcome.

I recently had a team in a workshop trying to make the workplace more collaborative. They were energized by their idea: “people should know the moods of other people in their office so they know how to approach them for collaboration.” I asked them how they’d actually make that happen and the group paused. They didn’t have an actual idea, they just had a desired outcome: people knowing each other’s moods.

Discussion continued and each person had a different picture of the solution for achieving the outcome. But, because they hadn’t been specific, they actually had no idea what their solution was. Eventually, the team landed on a simple flag system that allowed people to display a mood flag at their desk, signalling to others how (or if) they should approach them.

Was it a good idea? That’s not the point. The point is they articulated a specific way to achieve the outcome they were describing. There are also hundreds of other ways to achieve the same outcome and the purpose of ideation is to uncover those.

Ideation doesn’t stop with the initial brainstorm of ideas. That’s just the first step. The real work is sifting through all the ideas (and desired outcomes) generated and refining them to be concrete, testable ideas.

The idea dashboard is a really helpful tool at this phase. Even when you think you have the idea right, there are probably other ways it could be executed. The dashboard helps explore many possible ways an idea could come to life before determining how to prototype it.

A prototype is nothing without a hypothesis.

When we teach the Experiment Phase, the emphasis is on putting unfinished ideas out in the world for the sake of learning and getting feedback. However, there is an important nuance to prototype testing that will determine how successful it is. Just like in science class, experimentation should always be designed to test a hypothesis.

I remember teaching a workshop to senior executives and one team had come up with an app that would encourage weight loss and healthy behavior through setting goals and taking bets about whether or not people would reach those goals. Their first prototype of the idea was a series of screen mockups of the user flow. Sure, that might be a fine prototype if you were trying to test how someone moved through your app experience and if they knew which buttons to click. But that wasn’t the question they needed to answer.

They needed to validate whether betting for or against someone would influence behavior and create motivation. Did their paper screens test that? No. So instead, my co-facilitator encouraged them to recreate an experience that answered the question: can we motivate someone to complete a goal by having others bet for and against them?

Before I knew it, they challenged me to do 50 push ups in under two minutes and people around the room were placing bets with real money. I had a growing and engaged audience and the pressure to perform was on. For the record, I completed the challenge and a few people lost some money.

That little experiment taught them so much more about their idea than showing someone fake screens of an app and asking what they thought. They were able to see the dynamics of peer pressure and betting, and they understood how I actually felt, not how they imagined I’d feel. They saw the experience play out for real and they validated their hypothesis.

While making something is a really important part of prototyping, if the thing you’re making doesn’t help you prove or disprove a hypothesis, it doesn’t serve much value. The goal is to derisk the unknowns of your idea through testing and feedback, so be methodical about how you design both the prototype and the test to ensure each iteration is helping you answer a critical question.

The success of your idea depends on the story you tell.

In the classroom, storytelling is the fun end to a long day where everyone shares their idea, usually in form of a skit. But I don’t want the silly and fun nature of storytelling in the classroom to diminish the importance of strong storytelling in the real world. Will you perform a skit in real life? Maybe? I hope so, actually. But the point is to find a compelling way to convey your message to others so that it engages, inspires and motivates.

A couple months ago I had to give a presentation on how artificial intelligence could impact the workforce as it automates knowledge-based work. I started to put together a typical PowerPoint presentation outlining some research I’d done on AI trends and it hit me: what better way to tell the story of AI automating our jobs than to have AI automate this presentation? So rather than give the presentation myself, I built an automatic presentation narrated by a Siri-like voice. I hacked it together using auto-advancing slides and a script I’d written and recorded using the text-to-speech feature on my computer. The result was my audience got to experience what it could be like if AI actually takes our jobs. No one paid attention to the information on my slides because they were so fascinated with the experience of a self-presenting artificial intelligence PowerPoint.

That’s just one example of how to take the power of storytelling to move past conveying information to creating a moving experience. When the default is powerpoint slides, think about how to break the mold and draw your audience in. Because. at the end of the day, if you can’t captivate your audience, it doesn’t really matter how great your idea or message is—they won’t hear it.


People spend their entire careers building expertise in design thinking. While the tools and mindsets are often easy to try out yourself, don’t get discouraged by the fact that this work is hard and it takes time to build confidence, intuition and fluency. Like anything worth doing, you can’t become an expert overnight. But consistently applying the mindsets and methods to understand what works for you is the best way to master the art of design thinking.



This week’s blog post is from Lead Trainer Reilly Carpenter. Reilly has a background in marketing and branding and is now a Design Strategist for Capital One. In his current role, his focus has been championing internal education and adoption of design thinking into his organization’s culture as well as leading large-scale design thinking projects. Reilly is your go-to guy for questions on securing buy-in and implementing design thinking projects. You can ask him all about it at an upcoming Design Thinking Bootcamp.



Close Before Open: Using Design Thinking Mindsets for Your Year-End Reflection

Over the years practicing, teaching and continuing to learn about design thinking, I’ve experimented with applying the process, methods and mindsets to projects outside of my day-to-day work with The Design Gym and our clients. Whether it be my home yoga studio, advising on a friend’s startup, or solving the wicked problem that is my life, I use elements of design thinking to identify needs, to outline options and, most importantly, to reflect and make decisions.

One of my favorite (and most useful) design thinking concepts are the mindsets of Open, Explore, and Close. To start, we Open our thinking and go wide and generate many possible options. We don’t stop at the obvious or the impossible. Then, we Explore what we’ve laid out by looking for patterns, trying out different combinations and asking “what if?” with a genuine sense of curiosity. To make progress on any project or new idea, we need to Close. We sort, evaluate and select the most appropriate option to take forward. The mindsets of Open, Explore and Close are equally valuable, but should not overlap with each other. You can’t successfully Open and Explore ideas if you’re simultaneously trying to Close.

If you’ve ever led your own design thinking project or attended one of our workshops, you’ll have directly experienced what we mean when we say, how well you close determines how well you can open on the next phase. The same goes for thinking about how to design your life. Closing out a project or year of your life with confidence and clarity will set you up to be truly Open for whatever is coming next.

The Process of Closing: Self-reflection

December is a natural time to be in a Close mindset. The shift in season encourages us to spend more time at home, to be more introspective and to narrow our drink choices—exclusively whiskey and mulled wine.

You likely feel this in your organization as well. Projects are wrapping up, budgets are being spent down and reviews are happening. Hopefully your team is also making time to reflect on the past year—the progress made, the evolution of your processes and the shared experiences that shaped your culture.

We use a lot of frameworks in our work as design thinkers. They help us make sense of information and facilitate a shared understanding of complex data points. And in many cases, they can be used for broader application beyond just design thinking projects or team-based reflections—in this case your life!

Here are three of my favorite frameworks along with examples from my life this past year.

1. Personal Journey: Time + Emotion

This is most similar to the classic stakeholder journey map—plotting a person’s experience from beginning to end and correlating each moment to a positive, neutral, or negative emotional response. This activity is helpful in closing out the year because it allows you to objectively see a snapshot of events, milestones, achievements and bummer moments all together on one page.

Map the events of the past year from January to December along a spectrum of emotional state with neutral, ”meh”, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ feels towards the middle, happy and positive feelings up top, and negative or bummer feelings at the bottom. Include significant moments from your personal life, relationships and your work. Seeing all the aspects of your life, laid out on a single page, can be illuminating. You might be surprised at how many events come to mind immediately, and the ones you have to scan for.


2.   +     ∆     <3

This is an iteration of the framework we use for our monthly and weekly team reflections. Listing out the Pluses (things that went well), Deltas (things to change) and Heart State (emotions and feelings) can be a helpful way to document and process events.

I find this framework most helpful for weekly reflection, so I can avoid feeling like everything is blurring together with no clear end or beginning. No worries if you haven’t been doing weekly reflection, you can start at the end of the year and work to make it habit in the New Year.


3. Insights Statements: Closing the close

You’ve laid everything out, now it’s time to make sense of it and identify your themes, learnings and insights.

One of my favorite tools that we frequently share with our community and clients are the Insight Mad Libs questions. Insight can often be an intimidating word—we can get so caught up in striving to have profound statements to summarize our research that we forget sometimes the best insights are the simplest. The more clearly you can state your findings, the better. Same goes for how you frame up your learnings from the past year before you start planning the next.

Here are three iterations of Insight Mad Lib statements that I’ve adapted for self-reflection.

“I thought _________________, but learned ___________________.”

“I spent a lot of energy on _______________, which made me feel ________________, and moving forward I want to __________________.”

“I feel ______________ when I am with / doing _______________, and therefore _____________________.”


Ready to Open

Through the process of leveraging these frameworks to close, you’ll examine all of your varied interests, dreams, passion pursuits, challenges, likes and dislikes. Your insights from closing will enable you to more clearly open in the New Year and harness all of your strengths to crush your goals and be your best self (or selves) come 2017.

Fully acknowledging that closing is not always easy or as fun as Open and Explore mode, it’s essential to developing your whole self and iterating over time—you’ll truly thank yourself for taking the time.

Now, it’s your turn. Take these frameworks for a test drive and let me know how it went. I love hearing from the community on your experiences with design thinking. Also, if you enjoy this blend of design thinking meets life planning, keep an eye out on the newsletter for future dates for our Design(Think)ing Your Life workshop.

And with that, Merry Closing and a Happy New Year!



The Design Gym’s Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Stocking stuffers for the creative

‘Tis the season for holiday parties, hot toddy’s and buzzfeed-style gift guides. And here at The Design Gym, we have a burning passion for awesome shit. So we’ve decided to join in on the holiday cheer and create a shopping list of our own—one we’re dubbing the ultimate stocking stuffers for the creative.

Pulled together from The Design Gym staff and lead trainers, here are our top suggestions to get you through gift-buying this holiday season.


Machine Era Brass Pen | $38

Andy Hagerman, Co-founder


This is one of my favorite gifts to give right now because it balances classy, creative and useful in one affordable gift. Machine Era encompasses those principles lovingly in all the products they come up with. Pens are one of those timeless items that have unfortunately become throw away pieces, so this brings back some of that spirit of having a pen you’re proud to pull out whether you’re in a client session or a bar stool brainstorm. Best accompanied with a fresh sketchbook or a pint of whiskey.


In the Company of Women | $24.06

Erin Lamberty, Community Education Lead


This book is everything you want in a great coffee table centerpiece. Wise words. Beautiful photos. And sparks of inspiration to get your brain gears turning. I’ve purchased this for myself and a few friends already! Santa said it was OK to deliver early 🙂


100 Questions: A Toolkit for Conversations | $30


Interesting prompts are sparks for creative exploration, so why not bring some fuel to your holiday conversations? This card deck is the perfect size for a stocking stuffer, keeping in your facilitator bag, or keeping out on the coffee table. Warning: convo prompts can sometimes be a little existential!

And, just for fun…

Field Notes: Expedition Notebooks | $12.95


When we ask folks in our workshops where they get their most creative ideas, they often say “in the shower!” Be prepared with a waterproof notebook so no idea is forgotten.


Notebooks | $3

Hannah Dubin, Lead Trainer


Need a cost-effective, thoughtful stocking stuffer that works for both tiny and adult humans? Amazing notebooks are always great! I write and sketch everything and love having a gift that can be shared with the kids.



Ketzali Shawl or Scarf | $65 – $125

Jane Garcia Buhks, Marketing Lead


From one creative to another—you can’t go wrong with a beautifully designed gift, with a social mission that can be used all year-round. Guatemalan-based Ketzali works with local artisans to create stunning scarves and shawls that can be worn outdoors during the frigid winter or inside to combat the office cold.


Zeichen Press Holiday & Thank You Greeting Cards | $4.50


Nothing warms the heart more than a handwritten, postmarked card. Whether I’m wishing someone a happy holidays or thanking them for the awesome gift they picked me up off this list, I tend to turn to Zeichen Press. Funny and beautifully-designed greeting cards: can’t beat it.


Brooklyn Botanical Gardens Membership | $50

Jason Cha, Director, Training and Culture Strategy


Research suggests that, over time, experiences make people happier than things. So I think the best gifts are ones that enable people to have new experiences by themselves or with friends and family: memberships to local museums, tickets to events or shows, classes, massages, a babysitter so you can have a date night—you get the idea. And on top of that, you don’t contribute to the “burden of stuff” that many of us have to deal with after the holidays.

Alternative Gag Gift:

Flying Fuck RC Helicopter | $25.58


Show everyone how much you care by actually giving a fuck 😉


Classes | Price Varies

Jason Wisdom, Co-founder


My recommended gift is classes! Not to be self-serving but there is nothing I enjoy giving or receiving more than classes. A few of my favorites have been: Murray’s Cheese (Scotch and cheese tasting), UCB (Learn improv), Brooklyn Kitchen (Greek cooking and cocktail making), Parkour at Chelsea Piers, SkateYogi.

I gave my Mom a Greek cooking class that we took together at Brooklyn Kitchen, which was so much more than I expected (it was really a philosophy class where we happened to cook). My girlfriend got me a Scotch and Cheese Tasting class at Murray’s Cheese, which has since been replicated multiple times in our apartment. And finally I’m 10 classes on learning how to skate a mini ramp through Kevin’s courses at SkateYogi. My ankle is an awful shade of blue/green today but I feel like I’m reliving childhood and loving it.



Moleskin Classic Notebook | $17.96

John Bloch, Lead Trainer

It has serious look—it’s black, hard cover, elastic band closure, heavy stock dense enough not to show through, a ribbon bookmark (like a fine old dictionary) and even a pocket on the inside back cover for napkin scribbles. Moleskins come in all sizes and the choice is personal. I like the 5 x 8.25; it’s large enough for shared brainstorming and using bold lines, yet small enough for ideating at your local coffee shop, sketching on the subway and tossing into a backpack.

And to go with that notebook…

Uniball Signo Impact | $21.49


Pens? Again personal. Try the Uniball Signo Impact 207 Rt 65870, black, 1.0mm bold point. The bold line obliges me to draw a little simpler and heavier than I might otherwise = less fussy visuals. Point is retractable and refills available.


Serenflipity | $10.35

Jonathan Jeter, Lead Trainer


A friend and former colleague developed a set of cards after going on a month-long sabbatical to Asia. She had friends give her daily challenges to be completed on her trip, and didn’t look at any of them until each morning when she drew one out of a hat to read it for the first time. Through it all she learned how to be adventurous and the benefits it can bring to your creativity and life in general.


Snapchat Spectacles | $129.99

Karen Hold, Lead Trainer


This TDG D.C. chick is dying for a pair of Snapchat Spectacles. Keeping my eyes on the map for the eventual D.C. Bot to spring up. So fun!


Cards Against Humanity | $25

Kiely Sweatt, Lead Trainer


It’s great for holiday gatherings, parties with friends and I’ve even used it with with colleagues during team building workshops. There are also so many additional packs you can add to your pre existing decks.


Carry On Cocktail Kit | $24

Reilly Carpenter, Lead Trainer


There’s nothing better than a craft cocktail after a long day. For the traveling creative, the Carry On Cocktail Kit is the perfect way to relax at 30,000 feet without settling for whatever they’ve got on the drink cart. This TSA-approved, personal mixology kit transforms that middle seat by the bathroom into a speakeasy for one. Plus, cute packaging!




When is the shiny new toy the right tool for the job?

How to Best Integrate Design Thinking Into Your Organization

Let’s face it, as with anything new, it’s easy to fall in love with design thinking and want to apply it to every challenge you come across. As a leader in an organization that’s adopting design thinking, you may find yourself in the situation where your team, filled with excitement about the new process, is requesting to use it for every project—or as one executive eloquently put it to us, ‘What can I do!? My team wants to design think the shit out of everything!’

However, as someone who’s mindful of stakeholder alignment, budgets and priorities, knowing when to leverage design thinking is essential to its success (and therefore your success).

So, how do you identify which challenges are right for design thinking?

1. It’s a High-Impact Challenge for You or Your Organization

High-impact can mean different things to different organizations. However, what makes a challenge high-impact is its ability to drive significant change for your business. That change can be tied to anything from revenue growth to customer engagement or internal business structure. Whatever it’s tied to, the key here is it’ll lead to an outcome that will shift things.

Several years ago, the founder and CEO of Capital One declared that from that day forward they were no longer a bank, but were now a technology company. The companies they had typically compared themselves to, namely other large banks such as JPMorgan Chase or Citibank, had broadened greatly to include established tech companies, like Google, and rapidly growing tech startups, like Venmo.

Understanding the implications of technology on their business was critical to their sustained success, and thus high-impact. It required them to dive deep into new user research and identify needs-based insights that would drive future strategies. Flash forward to today, and Capital One is recognized as one of the most tech-forward financial institutions with new, user-driven innovation coming out every quarter.

2. There Are Stakeholder Needs, Behaviors and Emotions That We Should Understand but Don’t

When thinking about who your stakeholders are, you have to take into consideration everyone who’ll be affected by the outcomes of your challenge—really anyone interacting with your business, from customers to suppliers to internal teams. Remember, design thinking is not only for customers, it’s for all humans involved. Properly identifying who those stakeholders are and then understanding their needs, behaviors and emotions is critical to one’s ability to empathize.

Back in 2007, in an effort to make a quick buck, a pair of San Francisco roommates decided to open up their couch for people attending an upcoming conference. They decided to call their idea AirBed&Breakfast, which eventually became Airbnb—a company today valued at $30 billion, boasting 2,000,000+ listings across 191 countries.

But before that success, way back in 2007, they were having some trouble. They’d seen some growth in listings, around a few large events (namely President Obama’s inauguration), but otherwise interest had been stagnant. They knew they had a great concept, but something wasn’t quite resonating. So they took to the streets to spend time with some of their core users, hosting MeetUps and even renting out rooms themselves.

Through this immersive research, they uncovered a few key insights about how people were using their platform—one being that the poor photography, accompanying most of their listings, was deterring potential users from actually committing to renting a space. They had never considered just how imperative good shots were, so they immediately scrapped some other initiatives and redirected resources towards capturing appealing photos. All of a sudden growth began to steadily increase.

It’s easy to speculate on why growth might not be taking place, but until you get on the front line and learn about your stakeholders’ needs, behaviors and emotions, you might be missing lots of opportunity.

3. There’s Ambiguity Around What the Best Solution Could Look Like

Frequently, when you set out to solve a problem that you’re familiar with or you’ve encountered before, you typically already have a solution in mind. However, for problems where you’re not quite sure what the best solution could be or have a feeling there are multiple solutions, leveraging design thinking allows you to go wide, imagining several different options, before narrowing in on one to prototype. Ever heard the phrase, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”—that’s exactly what we’re talking about.

Sydney’s King Cross neighborhood is known as the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night. With a plethora of bars, nightclubs, sex shops and strip clubs, it’s often referred to as Sydney’s Red Light district. It also happens to be the epicenter of alcohol-related crime, particularly drinking-induced violence. So in 2013, in an effort to combat that violence, the City of Sydney paired up with the research center, Designing Out Crime to look into possible solutions.

Instead of pursuing the predictable, and frequently undesired, solution of just increasing police presence to reduce crime, Designing Out Crime leveraged design thinking to look deeper into the problem.

They conducted extensive research into the stakeholders and their needs; studied similar environments that had high levels of alcohol consumption, yet low levels of alcohol-induced violence; and they looked for common themes. That led them to a solution centered around two strategies distraction and extraction.

Distraction focused on offering different forms of entertainment—like food stalls, interactive games, illuminated seating podiums for chilling out—to distract revelers from the “vacuum effect” and pedestrian congestion that were frequently credited for leading to altercations. Meanwhile, extraction centered around creating efficient and safe methods of transporting people out of King Cross, back home at the end of the night. The two together made for a creative and interesting solution that more than likely wouldn’t have come to fruition without the use of design thinking.

All Three Apply

You’ve been nodding your head the entire time, all three of the above criteria apply—you’re facing a high-impact challenge with unknown stakeholder needs, behaviors and emotions; and ambiguity around the best solution. In that case, the shiny new toy—design thinking—actually becomes not only the an applicable tool, but also an excellent one for the job.

Once you’ve determined that all 3 criteria are at play and your team is all set to design think it, your next step will be to frame your challenge. This post is the first installment in a 3-part series about starting your projects off on the right foot. Next week, we’ll be looking at framing your challenge, how to make sure you’re asking the right questions.



The Mindsets Behind the Methods: Applying Design Thinking in Your Organization


I remember as a child watching the movie Matilda and having a burning desire to move things with my mind, just like Matilda. I wanted it SO bad. I would stare really hard at the TV remote, trying to lift it with all my psychokinetic might. But after minutes of squinting and grunting, giving it my all, nothing happened and I gave up on my dream of being able to make objects fly with a glare. I was just wishing I could make magic happen.


Fast forward to today. As a design thinking facilitator, trainer and coach, I often get the question of how to change the culture of a company to be more collaborative, creative and “design thinking-y.” It can seem like an impossible task getting five, a dozen or even hundreds of people to change the way they act and work every day. And while many people wish for change, frequently they don’t actually make change happen.

So what does Matilda have to do with getting design thinking off the ground at your organization? Matilda taught us that when you put your mind to it, you can make the impossible happen.

You’re probably thinking, “Whaaaaat? Shut up. NEXT!” But bear with me.

A common thing I see after people are exposed to design thinking is a desire to directly apply the methods without being critical of what they’re trying to accomplish with design thinking in the first place. They want to check a box, follow a process, and expect magic to happen. But the real magic of design thinking is in the mindsets behind the methods.

Our actions are manifestations of our attitudes and mindsets. So the easiest way to start changing how people act is changing the way they think. You can’t expect people to completely overhaul the way they work overnight. But you can be a role model by demonstrating the change you want to see through your own behaviors and mindsets.

To get you started, here are a few, simple design thinking mindsets you can start modeling within your organization.

Make It Human

People assume doing empathy interviews is doing design thinking, and in many cases, talking to customers is a big part of the process. But an empathy interview is just one tool to help us think from the human perspective. The mindset is about shifting your frame on any problem from your own point of view, or your business’ point of view, to that of your customer to challenge your assumptions and biases.

Ask Yourself: How might I get my team and I thinking from a perspective that’s not our own?

Apply It: Next time you and your team are facing a problem, challenge everyone to think of three ways they can learn about the customer’s point of view. For example, they could actually go talk to real customers, strike up a conversation with their next Uber driver, or just browse online reviews or social media to get a sense for what customers are thinking and feeling. Then, have everyone complete at least one of those activities and come back with a story to represent the customer. This will start to train others in your organization about the many ways to understand a problem and how to continually bring the customer into the problem-solving process.

Make It Real

Ideas are only meaningful if they are put into action, which is why the mindset of making it real is so critical to design thinking. Often, it gets associated with prototyping with popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners. But making it real is actually about making our ideas tangible so we can understand them, critique them and share them with others. You don’t always have to build a physical prototype (though you can!). It can be as simple as visualizing your ideas in a sketch or a storyboard that someone else can see, understand and react to.

Ask Yourself: What can I create right now to bring this idea/concept/discussion to life?

Apply It: In your next brainstorm or problem-solving session, if the discussion begins to circle around the merit of a particular idea or concept, ask everyone to take a moment to draw what’s in their mind, making it as concrete and detailed as possible. Then have everyone share their drawing and ask the rest of the team to provide feedback, starting their thought with either “I liked” or “did you think about…” This will help make the discussion more tangible, grounding it in real artifacts as opposed to hypotheticals and opinions.

Make It Inspiring

When presented with a problem, we often jump immediately to the first solution that comes to mind and the problem-solving stops there. That’s because most organizations reward solutions over curiosity and creativity. But finding innovative solutions requires being able to explore lots of possible solutions before choosing a particular one to move forward with. This is called flaring before focusing. If you’ve ever been to a Design Gym workshop, you’ll remember this Open and Exploring before you Close.

Ask Yourself: How might we get inspired about this particular problem or challenge?

Apply It: The next time you catch yourself or someone on your team jumping right to the solution, ask each person on your team to say something that inspires them. Then, set a 10-minute timer and have everyone brainstorm other possible solutions to the problem as well as unanswered questions about the problem. Then, spend another 10 minutes sharing and discussing the unanswered questions and other possible solution areas. At the end of twenty minutes, you should have a few different avenues for further exploring and solving the original problem.

With three new mindsets at your disposal to start reshaping how your organization thinks and acts, here are a few tips for affecting the magic of change:

1. Start With Baby Steps

Sometimes the best way to make a wave is with a ripple. Don’t expect you can change the entire culture of your organization overnight. But you can change your next meeting, working session or conversation in a matter of minutes. Aim to exhibit just one of the above mindsets a day in your work and with your team, and soon enough, you’ll start to notice the culture shifting the way you want.

2. Make Some New Friends

If you’re sitting around saying, “we should be working differently” you’re probably not alone. Find the others secretly wanting change too. Practice your small mindset changes with them and then begin to recruit more allies. Before you know it, you’ll have a small army of changemakers helping reshape how your organization works. Remember, it can all start with finding your partner in crime.

3. Coach the Change You Wish to See

Everybody has problems they don’t know how to solve. Find these people and become a coach for them using the mindsets above. Use inspiration and exploration to help them see the world of possibilities, or help them gain new perspective on their challenge by thinking human-first. But remember, the key to coaching is helping them arrive at their own ah-ha moment—not telling them the answer. But once they do, you can be sure they’ll be hungry for more and you can rally them to become a change agent with you. You’ll also build a reputation as someone who has a toolkit that can make things happen.


Changing an organization is no easy job. Be patient, but start today. Apply a design thinking mindset—big or small—any chance you get. Look for small wins that start to nudge people towards bigger change. Focus on practicing and exhibiting new ways of thinking and, like magic, new habits and behaviors will follow. I can’t promise that you’ll ever be able to move a fork with your mind like Matilda (let’s be real, that will never happen), but adopt the right mindsets—and teach others to do the same—and you’ll start to see your world changing around you.



This week’s blog post is from Lead Trainer Reilly Carpenter. Reilly has a background in marketing and branding and is now a Design Strategist for Capital One. In his current role, his focus has been championing internal education and adoption of design thinking into his organization’s culture as well as leading large-scale design thinking projects. Reilly is your go-to guy for questions on securing buy-in and implementing design thinking projects. You can ask him all about it at an upcoming Design Thinking Bootcamp.


What Color is Your Pen?

Black, Yellow, Red Pen People: Which one are you?


In his book, The Back of the Napkin: How to Solve Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, Dan Roam uses different colored pens to symbolize or represent an individual’s comfort level with sketching. “Black Pen People” are take-charge types who can take a marker and jump right in sketching on a whiteboard or flipchart. “Yellow Pen or Highlighter People” are adept at looking at other people’s sketches and finding insights and connections that make ideas come to life. If you often say “I can’t draw BUT…” you’re probably a Yellow Pen person. Lastly, “Red Pen People” are deathly afraid of having to step up and scribble ideas in public.


So which pen are you?

We use the “Which Pen Are You?” question at the start of sketching workshops to help gauge comfort levels in the room and set expectations for the night.

While getting people to admit to a certain comfort (or discomfort) level is one way to breakdown the barriers to sketching. Here are a few other things to keep in mind to help yourself, your teammates and your entire organization embrace sketching as a practice:

1. Close enough is good enough in sketching.

Sketching is about creating new ideas, capturing other people’s thoughts, solving problems and communicating ideas more effectively with others. It’s not about art. You don’t need an art degree to be proficient at working at a flipchart or whiteboard. Most of the time you’ll be drawing boxes, circles, lines and arrows anyway to get your point across. So it’s not important that your sketch of a building or giraffe look EXACTLY like a building or a giraffe. Close enough is definitely good enough.


2. Fast and loose wins the day.

Two basic skills in sketching you need to hone are active listening and quick sketching. #HearSomethingDrawSomething. Once you develop an understanding of the basic sketching vocabulary (i.e. circles, squares, triangles, arrows and simple icons), you can work quickly and with greater confidence and ease. Getting an idea down is what you’re after. And, as with most things, with plenty of practice you’ll become better and better at this.


3. Generate a variety of ideas quickly.

When you’re not trying to be perfect, you’re free to generate lots of ideas rapidly. Rather than spending too much time finessing an early idea, sketching enables your team to explore different territories, push past surface ideas and allows you to get deeper concepts out of your head faster. There’s no better way than sketching to get the ideas in the back of your brain to the front of the room.


4. Weed out the weak ideas or non-ideas.

Sketching is a great early detection system for ideas. It’s easier to tell how “doable” a potential idea is once you’ve sketched out its basic framework and uncovered its components. Sketching out an idea makes it more tangible and real for people, and therefore makes it easy to qualify the idea or identify if it’s worth pursuing. Doing this early in the process helps your team avoid wasting valuable time working on a “non-idea.”  Many times in our brand design sprints, we eliminate ideas that people love initially but realize there “isn’t a there there” once we had a chance to see it on paper.


5. Sketches invite discussion.

When a “fully baked” idea is shared, it is often with the intention of selling in order to get buy-in to move it forward. But when an idea is shared early and in sketch form, feedback is not only more useful at that phase in the project, but the rest of the team feels that they contributed to the idea and are more likely to be champions in bringing it to life. We often say that design thinking is a team sport, and sketching is a great way to get everyone on the same page (literally) and collaborating together.


6. Sketching is the oil in the design thinking engine.

When everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas and be a part of the design process, people tend to be more collaborative and productive when sketching is a central activity. When you make paper and markers a part of the discussion, people are more engaged, big ideas materialize more rapidly and participants spend less time “selling their ideas” which can sap a group’s energy and patience.

Sketching also helps democratize the ideation process. It’s a great equalizer. When you have multiple roles and experience levels collaborating together, getting everyone to draw an idea and put it on the wall gives everyone a voice in the conversation.


7. There’s data behind those doodles.

There’s compelling data going around that supports the growing popularity of visual thinking and sketching. According to IBM, 90% of all data in the world was created in the last two years. 90% of all data on the internet is visual, this according to Cisco. Lastly, Entertainment Weekly claims that seven out of the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon recently were coloring books for adults—its fastest growing segment.

So there it is. A few things to consider about using visuals and why building a sketching mentality within an organization is a good idea. From a culture standpoint, sketching is a great way to engage people, bridge language or expertise barriers, and enable teams to turn meetings into visual conversations. Getting better at sketching is also a great way to make sure that you’re a part of those conversations.

Interested in learning more? Join us for an upcoming sketching workshop.

Gary Kopervas is VP Brand Strategy and Innovation at 20nine, a creative branding agency, and a TDG Lead Trainer. You can contact Gary at Gary@20nine.com or tweet him at @GaryKope.

Recharging Creativity: How To Plan an Inspiration Field Trip

Inspiration field trips can take many forms, but at their core, they’re an experiential way to cultivate team culture while learning and recharging your creative battery packs. Getting out of the office, learning something new, and creating a shared experience together, as colleagues, is also one of the fastest ways to establish greater trust and empathy amongst teammates.

As a company that’s focused on delivering amazing educational experiences, inspiration field trips are essential to our creative process and keeping our brains and workshops fresh. Over the years, running these for our own team, guiding our clients through them, and hearing stories from other organizations, here are some of the most common field trips and how to bring them to your team.

Project Inspiration

If your team is about to tackle a new challenge it can be helpful to hear from other companies and practitioners who have already solved something similar. You’re not looking to copy or steal, but rather to seek out trends, understand the ecosystem, and to see how other organizations approach problem solving. As a team, it’s your choice on how you integrate the inspiration into your existing culture and work style.

We recently wrapped up an 8-week design thinking sprint with a team from New York Life and we kicked-off the project with an entire day of inspiration hunting. The teams were looking to amplify their own culture of curiosity, so we brought them to a handful of companies who have their own innovative approach to learning and development. We closed out the day with a short panel discussion and tableside Q+A with three digital and education industry vets here in the TDG office.

Industry Inspiration

Looking towards companies, products, and services that are tangential to your core industry can often times be a new source of inspiration. Work in sales or retail? Try going to a restaurant that is known for great customer service. We recently did this with the team at Kiehl’s and dropped by a Danny Meyer’s restaurant for lunch to learn from the masters of hospitality. And to keep ourselves up to speed on emerging technology, we swung by the new Samsung 837 lifestyle store for a taste of virtual reality. Who knew that a virtual roller coaster ride after eating ice cream feels just like if you were on the real thing!?

Inspiration field trip to the @samsungusa 837 #inspiration #fieldtrip #instagram #digitalart

A photo posted by The Design Gym (@thedesigngym) on

Creative Inspiration

In our workshops we emphasize the importance of getting into alpha brainwave state (Open and Explore mindsets) to foster creativity, which is a different headspace than being in beta brainwave mode (Close mindset, or what I like to call “get shit done mode”). Literally getting out into a field (or on a boat) might be exactly what your team needs in order to collectively experience a more open and free mindset together.

Our recent surfing trip was scheduled right after what had been a crazy couple of weeks, so it was really important to us to plan the day around an activity that got us reconnected to our bodies in order to free our minds. We’ll often go for walks, take a bike ride, or work from home to change up our physical spaces, but the ocean is literally a sea of creative potential. Pun 100% intended.

Some days you just gotta play. #inspiration #surfsup #playday #teambonding

A photo posted by The Design Gym (@thedesigngym) on

How to Run Your Own Inspiration Field Trip

Leading an off-site adventure requires just as much planning and facilitation as any other gathering of people. If you’re taking on that role, here are some tips on how to guide your team without glitches or needing chaperones.

Set the Intention

Having a clear objective for your field trip is important for setting expectations with those attending, as well as your leadership team. Ideally, leaders within your organization will join. However, whether or not they’re able to join, you’ll need to get them on board—it’s really important that they not only sign off on the field trip, but make clear to all employees that they can attend it without having to worry about what the boss thinks of their afternoon away from their desk.

If possible, your intention for the field trip day should also reflect your company’s mission and core values. For us, we value experiential learning so a day at the beach taking surf lessons actual ticks that box! We also believe in the power of a shared meal together, so we hit the Rockaway Beach Club afterwards for tacos and tequila-infused drinks. This time was incredibly valuable for us to be able to catch-up on our personal lives and share fun-fact style stories in a more relaxed environment than our office or any other lunch spot in NoMad.

Set the Date

Find a time during business hours that works for everyone on your team—perhaps the biggest challenge, but totally worth it. You’ll have the most success if all teammates can join. These outings shouldn’t feel like extra work or cut into personal time, they are part of the job and should be viewed as such. You can get a lot of of value out of two dedicated hours if planned properly, so even if you can only get your team together for a short period of time, still do it!

We usually schedule these on Fridays, year round. Sometimes a full day, but we’ll also do a half day: meeting for lunch, going to 1-2 inspiration spots, and then closing out the day by grabbing a beer(s).

Commit to Guidelines

No emails allowed! Instagramming is OK 🙂 In all seriousness though, taking calls or answering emails during the activity can cause anxiety amongst your teammates. Be sure to lead by example on this one. We will put fun out of office auto-responders on our emails for the days that we’re out with our team. It’s a reinforcement of the culture we are creating for our team and for our client partners and community members. And from what we’ve seen, people look forward to what we have to share when we get back to them the following week.

You can also build in a reflective component to the day. Arm your team with pocket sized notebooks to capture sparks and ideas along the way (we love our pocket-sized Scoutbooks!). A follow-up debrief meeting can be scheduled for the next week to share out what everyone learned and found most impactful. As the leading facilitator, you should capture themes from the debrief to share back with your leadership team, colleagues who weren’t able to join, or other teams who are curious about that awesome inspiration field trip that they heard about through the grapevine.

The Why Behind Inspiration Field Trips

Depending on your current team culture, asking your boss for a small budget to take the team offsite for a day of discovery might be met with several “but why?” questions. Here are a couple of final takeaways from our experience trying out many forms of inspiration field trips that you can use to make the case for why they are effective and valuable.

We’ve learned over the years that creating shared experiences to establish common reference points is important in building and maintaining a tight knit team culture. You can empathize with others all day long, but having been through the same experience alongside one another builds camaraderie and builds a well of “remember that time when” moments your team can draw upon.

These trips also allow your team to learn something new, which adds to the overall skills and reference points your team can draw upon when approaching any project challenge. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and the various strengths present within your teammates by getting outside your comfort zone.

Ready to try one out on your own? Let us know what you’ve got planned and how it goes! Better yet, invite us along if you can 🙂



Leveraging Design Thinking to Launch a Business

By: Jess Do

Starting a business is like most endeavors in life—if you reflect and incorporate lessons as you go, it can be a lot easier to move forward and even find some success.


Listen to this smart man! This absolutely applies to businesses.

My entrepreneurial project is Palmpress, a personal craft coffee press for hot and cold brew coffee. And I’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons, but one in particular stands out: success comes from learning as much as you can about people as quickly as possible. Our first job is to understand. Once I realized this, the next steps became clearer, decisions became easier and progress came faster.

This is a story (a slice of, rather) of what the path to launching my business—and learning all about my customers—looked like. It’s rooted in design thinking because design thinking is rooted in understanding.

Ideation: Stretching Your Brain

Every business starts as an idea. If you’re like me, you love thinking of ideas for products and services, and you get them all the time. But most of these ideas fade. Maybe the passion isn’t there, it feels like it’s way beyond your experience and resources, or it’s already being done. So how do you get an idea that sticks?

For me, the key was starting with a theme that intrigued me—how to make our mornings better (this doesn’t have to become the premise for your business, just a prompt to get you thinking). I’m not a morning person so I started thinking about my morning routine and jotting down scattered thoughts and ideas, quick, quick, quick. Eventually, I got to the coffee part.

Brain dump.

Brain dump.

I get really excited about coffee. A few years ago I started making really good coffee for myself, and now my daily, late-morning cup is such a treat. I had tried many coffee brewers and experienced my fair share of annoyances—things like waste, toxins, clunkiness, bad aesthetics, inaccessibility… I wrote all of those thoughts down. Then I brainstormed solutions, including a compressible thingamajig that made bomb coffee without it contacting plastic, and was entirely reusable and beautifully designed. And so the concept of the Palmpress was born from a brainstorm. It wasn’t a business idea yet, but it was a starting point.

That process of going from nothing to an idea with legs takes practice. In workshops with The Design Gym we worked on just that. I learned to start with a hunch and quantity over quality of thoughts, which stops you from overthinking and gives you a much wider range of ideas to work with. I learned to then build upon and edit those thoughts until something compelling bubbled to the top, something that could make sense for me to tackle! If nothing stuck, I’d do some exploration to get inspired or revisit brainstorming another day.

Examining and Understanding: Building a Business Case

Once I had my idea, I wanted to find out whether or not it was viable and how it could fit in the marketplace. So, it was time to leverage the Examine and Understand phases of design thinking—two phases that lay the groundwork for a customer-focused offering or business.

If you’ve looked into the design thinking phases, you may notice that I talked about ideating before researching. That’s okay because design is not a linear process. It’s often initially taught in a linear way to make it digestible, but with enough practice, all the concepts slowly start to become permanently cached in your brain and can be called upon whenever needed.

During the Examine and Understand phases, I leveraged a variety of tools—the following are three that I found extremely helpful.

Tool 1: Tip-toeing in with Reviews and Forums

I’ve never invented, built a business model around, and manufactured a physical product before. When people ask me how I went about figuring things out, I tell them I googled. A lot. It’s the simplest answer I can give. We are so lucky to be able to research anything we want, whenever we want. This includes important competitor and industry research. No matter how unique your idea is, you always want to know the different options currently on the market, the trends in the industry, and where you could fit in.

Here’s what’s incredible—tons of raw user feedback has already been nicely typed up for you to digest at your leisure over a pamplemousse LaCroix. It’s in the form of Amazon reviews, forum discussions, blog post comments, and the like! You literally can read what customers are saying about your space and your competitors—what they love, what they hate, what questions they have, even what they wish were different. Do you hear this?! Users are telling you how you could provide unique value to them!

I began to understand the pros and cons of other coffeemakers without ever having to buy one. I saw that people commonly asked about the materials of coffeemakers. I saw how people reacted to different types of coffee filters. I collected so much information to work off of on day one of examining!

So browse those reviews, scour (and even participate in) those forums, and take note of those comments. Copy and paste any interesting data into a Google doc—or for design thinking points (and fun points), jot info onto post-it notes so that it’s easy to sort and visualize later. Then use sorting techniques—like cluster and label, quadrant/axis and venn diagram—to connect some dots and gain insights.

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much :)

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much 🙂

Tool 2: Talk to People! Conduct Surveys

Online surveys are something so simple and so valuable, yet totally underutilized! But I’m telling you, seeing feedback magically appear into a nice spreadsheet is as fun as getting likes and comments on your Insta post. I put together a simple Google form with non-leading questions and accompanying images—including an early rendering of the Palmpress with a scrappy how-to diagram (remember, prototypes come in all shapes and sizes). I sent out the survey to my friends and then asked them to share it with people who didn’t know me.

When the results came in, I started digging for trends and insights. This was great practice in receiving feedback neutrally. There were people who weren’t feeling the early rendering of the Palmpress, and some even hated it. But that was okay, because a significant amount of people were enthusiastic about Palmpress, saying things like “I so want this.” I filtered for enthusiastic feedback and found that those people tended to share certain qualities, such as age range, their perceptions of existing coffee brewers, and what they appreciated and disliked. I was learning what drew them to Palmpress, how much they might pay, and what information they needed to actually get on board. My early adopter was materializing. And I had a good sense of my “anti-customer”—the people who simply weren’t going to be interested in this kind of product.


I was analyzing the feedback and learning things left and right. This early, scrappy research led me to begin identifying a positioning for Palmpress. Positioning is how you’re perceived, your angle, what you lead with, whether it be low-cost, high quality, excellent service, super portable, extremely convenient, eco-friendy, luxurious, masculine, healthy, philanthropic, for this type of person, for that type of person, for harmonica-playing dog walkers—whatever it is, you cannot and should not be everything to everybody or even close. Start with one thing to hang your hat on, and it will push you to think differently, intentionally, and thoughtfully rather than scattered and diluted. And you can always broaden or edit as needed.

My first survey pointed me in a general direction. My next survey allowed me to target a much more relevant audience, and present more details about Palmpress, in order to get more accurate answers. This second survey showed an evolved prototype—a demo video and styled image.

Everything I learned about my users through surveys was used to make Palmpress better for them.

Tool 3: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Immersive Research, Observations and Interviews

I received a lot of suggestions on how to market the Palmpress. The suggestions weren’t right or wrong in and of themselves, but I reminded myself that the people giving suggestions didn’t have a deep understanding of my customer or the market. Their feedback is valuable, you just can’t take it at face value.


Here’s what I mean: figure out why people are saying what they’re saying and how it actually plays out in real life. I did so by using Palmpress in as many real-life scenarios as possible, being a fly on the wall, and interviewing.

For example, some people suggested that work/office and on-the-go use would be a leading application for Palmpress, one reason being it’s obviously very compact. So, I visited six different offices to learn about their coffee game. One thing I observed was that while some offices were equipped to the nines, some didn’t even have a sink or water source that gets hot enough for coffee. I also realized similar things with hotel rooms when I traveled, although I must say that Palmpress is super easy to travel with. On another trip I brought Palmpress to my friends’ apartment and we palmpressed coffee using fresh grounds from their local coffee shop—they LOVED the coffee, saw how much better it tasted than usual, and even made an extra cup to save in the fridge before I left.

I also brought Palmpress to the Caribbean with me on vacation. I made coffee with beans that I had packed, but realized something tasted off. I was baffled for a while before realizing the water there tasted really, really different, and it was the main ingredient in my coffee! I learned so many things that I could’ve easily missed had I not immersed Palmpress into a bunch of day-to-day scenarios.

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity striked. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity arose. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Another suggestion was that Palmpress could target coffee snobs. However, after conducting interviews and visiting homes to learn about coffee habits, I found that most of my audience was pretty unfamiliar with making craft coffee. When they had time, they’d make themselves coffee with a coffee machine or perhaps a French press. When in a rush, they’d stop to pick it up or drink free office coffee. They weren’t coffee snobs, just coffee lovers. And that led to another key insight—Palmpress may be attractive to coffee snobs, but marketing to coffee snobs might actually alienate my early adoptor!

Putting all of that together, I concluded that outside of home my audience would not likely go out of their way to brew their own coffee. It’s just not practical with unknown factors and alternative options, and therefore Palmpress should not lead with things like “on the go.” And to learn all this I had to go straight to the source—the people who would actually be using Palmpress. At this point, I was forming a good idea of what my audience cared about and the simple value they could derive from Palmpress—superb coffee, made by you. And where you decide to make it is not so important as long as it suits you.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Showing Up and Doing

Here’s the beautiful thing. Because you’ve done so much discovery, you’ve formed a meaningful story that you can tell to others—be it investors, media outlets, or colleagues. This is a framework I like that I’ve adopted from The Design Gym and Ariel Raz of Stanford d.School:

We had a hunch that ______. So we researched by _______. We were surprised to learn that _________. So it’d be a game-changer to _________.

You now have the workings of a business case, a position to take, some fluency in the market, tools for research and brainstorming, and data to fuel your prototypes. Now, it’s about showing up and doing—yes, that’s the grand finale! Be a practitioner. Learn as much as you can about people, and then do something about it.


About Jess Do:

We’re stoked that long-time TDG community member, Jess Do was able to contribute a blog post this week on how she’s leveraged design thinking thus far in her entrepreneurial journey. Jess is a product entrepreneur with a background in finance and project management. From trading platforms to local communities, she’s been building things her whole life, most recently the Palmpress coffee press.



Team Retrospectives: The Good, The Bad, The Feels

This isn’t the first time we’ve shared a look into our own processes and how we cultivate open and trusting relationships within our team culture. One of the ways our commitment to transparency and continuous improvement comes to life is through our monthly retrospectives as a team.

There are many business-y names for the practice of reflecting on the past—debrief, post-mortem, retrospective (retro for short)—and there’s a good chance you’ve been a participant in this type of meeting at some point. There’s an even better chance that it wasn’t your favorite meeting. We believe strongly in the benefits of routine reflection and in meetings that don’t suck. Here’s an overview of how we do it.

Plan Ahead + Prioritize

Save the dates for our end of month retros are sent out at least 30 days in advance so that we can all hold the time as other commitments are added to our calendars. If it’s planned ahead of time and understood to be a high-priority meeting, you’re less likely to cancel it or have absent team members.

Retro Gear

If you’re taking on the role of facilitator, you’ll want to be prepared. Here’s a handy checklist I use to run a seamless meeting when facilitating our retros.

  • Reserve a room with plenty of wall space or a large whiteboard
  • Make sure each person has a chair and table space or a surface to write on
  • 3×5” sticky notes in five different colors. Everyone should have a stack of each color
  • Sharpies for each person + a handful of whiteboard markers
  • Chill tunes and a speaker—you can use our massive TDG Reflection playlist
  • Food + drink to keep the humans running top notch for the duration of the session

Retro Categories

Looking back without a framework to guide the conversation can feel more like a dump of “oh shit, what just happened” moments instead of a supportive and positive share-out.


We use the following five categories to capture our thoughts into a shared format for discussion and to identify themes and insights. These categories are not only used to sort through our own projects, but also to call out awesome work that our teammates have been cranking on.

  • Good: Things that went well.
  • Bad: Things that did not go well, but are generally one-off events—things that we don’t expect to repeat.
  • Do Better: Things that we can do better next time. These can include a suggestion on how to do it better.
  • Best: Things that went really well. Celebrate! How can we do more of this?
  • Feels + Open Questions: Emotions, mindsets, areas of confusion, and opportunities to consider.

It’s helpful, from a visual perspective, to use a different color Post-it note for each category.


Here’s how our wall looked, in our most recent retro, after everyone on the team shared out their thoughts for each category. All the Best! So much Do Better!


Retro Agenda

As is the case for any meeting you’re planning, an agenda is essential. We’ve tested out a few different agenda formats and this one works best for us.

Feel free to try it out, but as always, make adjustments based on your own team culture. The time blocks for each section will be different depending on how many people you have on your team and how long you can all be together. We have a five person team and we usually block 90 minutes total.

1. Check-in: Before getting into the nitty gritty, we take 30 seconds to each write down and share one word, a short phrase, or emoji sketch that comes to mind to describe the past month. It helps us get a quick read on everyone’s state of mind about the state of our union.

2. Solo Reflection: We put 15 minutes on the timer, turn on the chill tunes, and review our calendars and notebooks silently while capturing thoughts on each of the categories on sticky notes.

3. Share Out: Each person gets 5-10 minutes to share out their thoughts and add their sticky notes to the board. We try to stay silent and reserve questions and “me toos” for the next phase in order to give each person our full attention while they share.


4. Themes, Insights, and Red Flags: We step back, consider everything that was shared, and call out any recurring themes, insights, and red flags that we want to avoid. We capture these on the whiteboard and document them digitally. This way we can keep them in mind throughout the following month and then refer back to them at the next retro to see how we’ve improved (or not—no judgements).

We’ve had “less but better” on our theme list almost every month since January, and instead of beating ourselves up because we still take on more than we probably should, we acknowledge it, and discuss what it means for each of us and how we can continue to make progress towards refining our work (and load).

5. Commitments: Before closing, we take a few minutes to write, “I will __________” statements for what we each personally want to focus on improving or changing, as well as any shared goals or actions. This doesn’t have to be huge or feel like yet another addition to our to-do lists, but rather it’s something that’s aspirational and has a sense of shared accountability.

For example, in January we all said we wanted to commit to working out consistently and we allowed ourselves the permission to go midday or leave a little early to make it happen. We are all happier, healthier and more productive because of it.

6. Check-out: Similar to the one word check-in activity, we take 30 seconds to write down one word that reflects our state of mind in this very moment having just spent the last 60-90 minutes in reflection mode.

Retro on Retros

(So meta!) In reflecting on our process while writing this blog post, we were able to chat about why we do retros, their importance to each of us, and how they benefit the team as a whole. There have been times when we miss a month (or two) and we double up and have a longer retro, but we fully acknowledge that not having time each month to share our thoughts and feelings adds unnecessary strain to the team. We’re a team that embraces getting a little existential every once in awhile, so our reflection time is a shared value. Retros have saved us from burnout, reduced anxiety, and helped us build empathy and create shared enthusiasm for all of our projects and programs.


If you try out this framework with your team or you use a different format let us know! We’d love to hear your stories and tips for facilitating these types of conversations.