Building a Design Thinking Community…For Your Life

What our good friend Gabrielle Santa-Donato learned from scaling Life Design to Universities across the world.

By: Gabrielle Santa-Donato

My life, like yours, is a wicked problem. Just when I thought I was about to turn left, the sky fell, and I had to turn right—and, probably to no surprise, this happened more than once. Sometimes those course corrections were surprising, sometimes downright painful. It wasn’t an easy or obvious journey—but, that’s what helps me to show up authentically in what I do.

I’ve been working at Stanford for the last four academic years, teaching life design to students of all ages and founding and running my lab’s most recent initiative, The Life Design Studio for University Educators. Before we get started on some hopefully valuable takeaways from the experience of scaling Life Design, let’s take a step back. What is The Life Design Studio?!

8 years ago, the first taste of Life Design at Stanford started with Bill Burnett, Dave Evans and some design students hanging out over pizza to have “that” conversation about their future. The students wouldn’t leave the room. Since that seminal meeting, three courses were born, “Designing Your Life,” “Designing Your Stanford,” “Designing the Professional” and a Life Design Lab team created in service of applying design thinking to the wicked problem of figuring out what you want to grow into in the future. As our team has grown in expertise with our content—and with the help of the “Designing Your Life” book—we’ve been able to launch other Life Design initiatives and prototypes to learn from new audiences, one of which was other universities.

With the support of the Life Design Lab team, I launched the first 4-day Life Design Studio in June of 2017 to train other educators to bring Life Design back to their campuses. In the last year, under my leadership, my team has grown and trained a new community of 70 universities who are launching Life Design prototypes to reach a potential of 1 million students worldwide.

Now nearly 200 educators deep, here are a few of my top learnings that can apply to building an authentic design community in any shape or form:

1. The Need is Real: Everyone Struggles with Figuring out their Life

Me: I failed my first math class at Dartmouth; changed my major 5 times; got turned away by the Psych department when I wanted to do research on the developing child imagination because I wasn’t a major; and found out I had learning disabilities by sitting silently anxious in Spanish class as foreign words were thrown my way. I searched desperately for a mentor, a tutor, some guidance—and when the time came to figure out what was next after college, I timidly explored a job in education because that was a catch-all, even though, at the time, I knew I didn’t want to teach. The kicker was, I also knew I was fascinated by different learning styles, methods and designs; I was a problem solver and could shatter a room with a story, but no one could support me with that articulation and that quest. In college, I flailed.

University Educators: My dear friend and design thinking collaborator, Tracy Brandenburg, called me up from Cornell last year, burnt out from spending all her free time coaching students 1:1 who came to her paralyzed by thinking about their future. Tracy, like many other professors and university staff, don’t get paid for this extra time, they do it because they sense and feel the student panic. The Life Design Lab receives hundreds of requests from other university professors, provosts, counselors who spend their personal time guiding students through the shaky process of figuring out their next steps. Educators need tools to leverage in these conversations, the permission to do this work, and a team to support them. I wanted to give them that.

My students, friends and family: I believe in Life Design because it fulfills a very common need. Beyond my students, I’ve Life-Designed with my 65-year-old dad, not quite able to retire yet, several friends and colleagues, and (decreasingly) unexpectedly on many first dates for strangers.

2. Find Your Allies: Working with Community Champions

I knew we needed to launch Year 1 of the Life Design Studio with a small group who we could really invest in; we needed to find our Life Design community catalysts. We accepted individuals with a track record of starting things up at their universities and with connections to the resources to sustain programming.

It paid off—every single university prototyped and learned: Michigan has a 6-week class open to all graduate students; Yale has a workshop for every undergrad student, which started with small student-athlete meetings; and the Cal State schools have trained hundreds of psychology professors to be Life Design educators. Oh, and Dartmouth is also involved, so their students can now flail with purpose.

To continue investing in our community champions, we invited participants of the 2017 Studio to be facilitators of the 2018 Studio. This not only gives them agency and helps them practice what they learned a year ago, but it makes our Life Design Lab team gain dimension and perspective.

3. Harvard meet Dayton: Designing for Radical Collaboration

In the name of radical collaboration, we formed sections (the table groups we have educators sit at for the duration of the Studio training) with very different universities. Much like in our careers and work, universities and university employees (I’m one) fall into their own worlds and silos. The career center does not have the opportunity to talk to the innovation center or the psychology department in their own school, let alone another school entirely.

And as countless studies show, and from my own experience, our most innovative ideas and designs come from working with people who are different than us—from different backgrounds, holding different ideologies, and with different skill sets. The same goes for different universities.

For example, one section from our 2017 studio included Harvard University and Dayton University in Ohio. Harvard was more forward thinking with Dayton at their table to offer their perspective and student stories, and together they could generate more ideas than they could have alone.

Working with people with different perspectives is as close to having a beginner’s mindset as one can. Dayton doesn’t see what Harvard sees everyday, and vice versa. Thus, they won’t design with the same assumptions in mind; they will design more freely.

A few months after the Studio, Harvard took a trip to Dayton, Ohio, on their own accord to experience the Dayton team’s prototypes. YES.

4. Doing the Work is a lot Different from Teaching (or Learning) it

I first immersed in design thinking by emailing the info account at The Design Gym seven years ago asking if I could facilitate with them. And, lucky for me, they said yes. I learned the design process by teaching it and by being inherently curious.

Teaching in many ways is an iterative performance—it’s working with past knowledge to delve into the present learning environment. Doing, on the other hand, is a forward moving dance. It’s way riskier and, thus, much scarier.

Doing is the work. Building the Life Design Studio movement has been the doing of design thinking.

I’ve learned a lot in the process—from getting your hands dirty and making others get their hands dirty (even if everyone isn’t happy about it), to managing people and gathering multiple stakeholders into a unified team. And, I have a lot more to learn.

This August, I made myself sit in the posture of a learner. I enrolled in a five-day leadership training program and sat quietly while I was taught things I often teach. It was uncomfortable. I remembered that being a learner does not mean judging the teacher for the lack of clarity they give in the directions, it means being open to the opportunity of discovering something new. And if I can quiet my judging brain for just a second (which is what good warm ups do!), I can learn a lot. In order to manage and facilitate a robust training program like the Life Design Studio, I needed to sit in a training program and see how I felt.


I know my reflections and takeaways will evolve as we continue to grow the Life Design Studio program and learn from a now international set of universities, from Curtin, Australia to Cape Town, South Africa. What began as a side project—collecting the business cards of universities our team had set aside for years—became a mission to seed Life Design experiments across the world. I would have given a limb for this work when I was younger, but luckily my many failed (and some successful) prototypes in life led me to Life Design anyway.



Gabrielle teaches many applications of design thinking in Stanford’s Life Design Lab and with IDEO University. As the Life Design Studio Lead, she catalyzed and leads the movement to bring life design to universities across the world. Her workview is to help people discover their unique learning potential. In service of this, she has created innovative learning communities for the past 10 years at the intersection of design thinking and education, training professionals to use the design process in K12, higher ed, and corporations locally and internationally, including building a design thinking organization in Chile from the ground up.

The Design Gym
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  • Silke Klees
    Posted at 07:41h, 25 September Reply

    Thank you Gabrielle, a very inspiring story. Thank you for sharing. What is your experience when facilitating the workshops inside a company? Are participants willing to open up being amongst their co-workers?


    • Gabrielle Santa-Donato
      Posted at 15:08h, 26 September Reply

      Silke, what a great question. One that the answer to varies depending on the company. If the company has already done work to create a psychologically safe environment and a culture of learning and people development, folks are more likely to open up and share. I personally believe life design work is great at a place or institution of learning because people have already come to that place, well, to learn, and, thus, are hopefully open to new ways of thinking and interacting with each other. That kind of learning works best in a company when you are both physically removed from your day to day job (so in more of a “third space” and mentally removed, so with time and permission to do this kind of life development work with your coworkers. I think it also works best when you’re working in teams with people from all departments, verticals, titles, and levels — better for radical collaboration ;). Hope this helps!

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