So You Want to Become a Design Thinker: 5 Strategies for Changing Lanes in Your Career

By: Reilly Carpenter

I’ve been teaching design thinking workshops for a few years, and one of the most common questions I receive from impassioned participants is what’s the best way to forge a career in design thinking. I love this question—not only because it stems from people’s excitement about the possibilities design thinking holds for them to create impact, but also because I myself pondered the same question a few years back.

But asking that question is a bit like saying, “Excel is so powerful, how can I transition my career to Excel?” Having a career in Excel isn’t as likely as having a career where Excel is the primary tool you use. Similarly, design thinking is a set of methods and mindsets that can be used in any number of roles at work or even at home.

Because of my passion and deepening interest in design thinking, I wound up making my own career change—leaving the world of brand marketing to focus on product and service design. Was it easy? Not really. But, it can be done. And the good news, it doesn’t have to mean quitting your job or going back to school.

If you feel the urge to hit the reset button on your career, here are five strategies that helped me change my trajectory and land a fulfilling and inspiring role where I use design thinking every day (and Excel, too).

1. Understand Why You Want to Make a Change.

Before you do anything else, ask yourself why it is you’re looking to make a career change—and make sure the answer isn’t “to use design thinking more.”

Think about what’s missing from your work now and what you envision having in an ideal role. Are you looking for the opportunity to work with a more collaborative team or in a more creative environment? Do you want a role where your work has a greater impact or where you’re able to explore human-centered solutions? Or is it that you’re looking to have more fun at work? Really dig into what it is that you want.

For instance, you may feel creatively stifled and crave greater collaboration with colleagues. In that case, you’d approach change quite differently than if you currently work in strategy but feel inspired and driven to make things with your hands. Once you’ve identified the root cause, your next step forward will become much clearer.

2. Become a Curious Sponge.

Once you’ve pinpointed what you’re hoping to achieve, start by learning everything you can about human-centered design. The goal is to begin building expertise—which, at first, can (and probably will) feel daunting. But, some more good news: in my experience, being an “expert” really only means knowing slightly more than the others around you.

If you’re committed to learning, it won’t take long to build a large enough knowledge base for people to start seeing you as an authority on a particular subject. And once you’ve done so, sharing that new knowledge with others is both a great way to position yourself as an expert and deepen your familiarity with the concepts you’re learning. It’s one thing to read about design thinking, it’s another to explain it to someone else in a way that they can understand and apply it. Do both and people will be calling you an expert in no time.

Looking for a place to start? Check out The Design Gym’s Never-ending Design Thinking Reading List.

3. Look for Opportunities to Practice.

Like teaching others, learning by doing is one of the best ways to build expertise—and that means finding opportunities to practice.

This can seem tough at first—especially if you have existing work and responsibilities that don’t allow you to fully apply design thinking. However, look for ways to begin practicing wherever you can. Perhaps it’s just exercising one method or mindset in a team meeting. Or maybe it’s using it outside of work, in your personal life or on a side project. I did pro-bono consulting for a nonprofit to get some experience under my belt before I ever used the methods in my day job. Big or small, practice will make it feel more natural and give you confidence that can snowball into the change you’re looking for.

4. Make Connections and Build Your Brand.

Practice will build your expertise and confidence, but you’ll also need others to take notice. And that requires building your brand. Start by connecting with individuals (inside and outside of your organization) who can influence your transition and inform the point of view you’re developing. It’s important to both build awareness about your passion and identify people you can learn from. Every interaction is a chance to learn something new and leave an impression that reinforces your skills in design thinking.

Start with simple, casual conversations. Then look to make a bigger statement by volunteering to help with a project to demonstrate your capabilities. Either way, building your brand is all about showing up and making consistent impressions over time. Put in the effort and before you know it, you’ll be in control of your narrative and people will be looking and talking about you differently.

5. Boldly Declare What You Want.

The last strategy for transitioning your career is to communicate what you’re looking for. Putting yourself out there and declaring what you want is scary. But if you don’t do it, how can anyone help you get there? The more you can share your goals with others, the more they can support you in achieving them. Asking for things is uncomfortable, but what have you got to lose? Be clear about what you want and go after it!

Change can be daunting, and it also takes time. You can’t expect to make a massive transition overnight. However, we all know, pursuing our passion and interests is both exciting and inspiring. With a little patience and consistent effort applying these five strategies over time, you can design whatever role or career you want. So if you’re inspired and motivated by design thinking, why wait? Figure out what you want to do and make it happen.


About Reilly Carpenter:

We’re super excited to share with you this week’s blog post 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.


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