The Challenge Detroit “Impact Project” is an opportunity for fellows to scope and execute a project for a community partner in Detroit. This project is an individual version of the team challenge projects that happen throughout the year. Fellows approach each of the challenge projects through the design thinking process as defined by Stanford’s Design School. The steps of the design thinking process are used as a tool to help facilitate human-centered design to improve processes or solve problems. The process addresses the clients’ need to create new design solutions, prototypes and appropriate tests.

For the past two months, I have been working with The Alley Project in Southwest Detroit. The Alley Project, an initiative of Inside Southwest, is a place to facilitate and support creative expression, positive youth-adult partnerships, structure, and community responsibility. The Alley Project works in response to two important community needs: local youth need a place to safely practice graffiti art and neighbors need a solution for properties that were continuously vandalized by gang graffiti. Along the Alley Project route, neighbors’ garages and fences are canvases for the creative expression and designs of young artists. Thus, I could not imagine a better place to explore, learn and help provide solutions than from the creative design thinking process.

In architecture school, success doesn’t correlate directly with mastering a craft. Success is more related to learning your own internal design process; one that can be replicated in future projects. This requires years of testing and it continues to develop over a career. In traditional architecture practices, there is little interaction with the final user. The owner or developer of a building is the main client and often they are not representative of the humans that will be occupying the space. I am still discovering how the design thinking process and human-center design can inform and improve the architectural process.

Following is an outline of key take-way steps in design thinking:

Empathy requires trust.

The first step in the design thinking process, empathy, is about understanding your user and their needs. One strategy for empathy is interviewing stakeholders and users to develop key insights. Interviews are most effective when there is a meaningful personal connection.

Define and redefine

The define step is like your project thesis. Except in design thinking, the thesis is posed as a question. The design question is the jumping off point for the entire project; however, much like a thesis, it is ok to reframe the question later in the process.

Ideate continuously.

After clearly defining the question, powerful bursts of ideation help accelerate a project forward.  In this step, any and all ideas are recorded and organized. During my impact project, the most relevant and applicable ideas came after the initial brainstorming session. It is useful to test out multiple ideas in order to get closer to “the one”.

Prototype it. Don’t perfect it.

During this step, selected ideas are prototyped to gain a better understanding of how they are addressing user needs. At times, it is tempting to think that the prototype needs to be a perfect final product for your user. However, this perspective is not reflective of the design thinking process. The prototypes are merely a tool to test an idea that will continue to be developed.

Test and repeat.

In design thinking, the final step is the jumping off point to begin the process again. User feedback can send a project back to the prototype phase and beyond (and that is ok!).