The Gift of Design Thinking

Photo by giftpundits at

Sometimes the best way to learn something new is to just jump in head-first. The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford—also known as the—offers those interested in learning design thinking an opportunity to do just that with their aptly named Crash Course.  

Through a video, you and a partner join instructors from the and a room of students for a wild, hands-on ride through the steps of the design thinking process in just under 90 minutes. Your assignment? To redesign the gift-giving process for your partner. 

I took the crash course challenge and it was one of the most unique, memorable learning experiences of my life—and I have a degree in theatre. 

Ready, set, get uncomfortable

For the course, I partnered over Facetime with Angel, a designer from Atlanta. As I assume was true for many of the students in the course video, Angel and I didn’t know each other before we partnered up. At first, the prospect of working with a stranger on this project was intimidating.  

My partner Angel (left) and me (right) took the crash course together via Facetime.

I realized, though, when using this process for a professional project I may not always have the luxury of knowing who I’m interviewing either. I figured it’s best to learn to get comfortable with asking strangers what may seem like prying questions or showing them experimental ideas right from the beginning of my design thinking experience. Plus, not knowing Angel made it easier for me to refrain from assumptions during the process, an important part of being a design thinker. 

tick, tick, tick

Pushing past my initial social anxiety, the next hurdle quickly became clear: the time. I found my brain going blank trying to come up with the next question as I furiously took notes and reminded myself to carefully choose my words as to not lead the witness and bias my insights.  

Whenever I stumbled during the interview phases, panic set in as I heard the silence and watched the timer on the screen count down. It was almost like having stage fright knowing I could not progress forward without collecting enough good insights. The whole outcome of the project depended on me finding my way out of my brain fog in this first step. 

In a real-life situation, I would hope I would have more than 10 minutes to interview someone crucial to a project, but the panic I felt was useful because it showed me just how important this discovery work is for the design thinking process. It’s the bedrock upon which everything else is built, so it must be done well. Of course, the process allows you to return to any step if you need to, but if a professional project did have time constraints, doing this work right the first time would be vital in order to minimize delays. 

let the fun begin

Once I moved past the interviews and became accustomed to the pace of the exercise, I started to feel the excitement I normally get at creativity. I became a detective examining my interview notes to find direction and write a problem statement.  

You can learn a surprising amount about a total stranger in less than 10 minutes. I learned Angel doesn’t struggle with remembering to buy gifts or finding time to do so. He likes to give gifts that people need and will use, but his only way of finding out what those might be is to ask directly, which takes some of the surprise out of the process for the recipient. This information helped me to form the following problem statement.

Angel needs a way to eliminate the guesswork of gift-giving because he enjoys giving helpful gifts that people need.
My problem statement generated from insights gained in interviews.

Picasso, I am not

With my problem statement written, I moved on to ideating. The exercise instructs you to think up at least 5 of the most radical ideas to solve your partner’s problem and draw them. Piece of cake, I thought. My imagination loves to run wild. My skill set, though, does not include rapid-fire drawing. 

I kept coming up with ideas that I had no idea how to illustrate well in the time given. I had to push past my perfectionism and remember the instructors in the video said messiness is alright and that there can be great value in it for the design thinking process.

It ended up being freeing to let worries and constraints go and just draw. It was almost like being a kid again. I’m proud to say I came up with 6 inventive ideas that elicited laughs and positive response from Angel, however shaky my stick figure masterpieces turned out to be. 

My ideas included (from top left): 1. A brain implant attached to an app on the gift recipient’s phone into which the person can enter needs and want. Angel can then just pick something from the list. 2. The ability to see into the future and predict a recipient’s needs, ensuring gifts are always something needed and useful. 3. Angel asks the recipient for a gift list and buys and gives everything at once with each gift marked by year and event. With pre-gifting, he never has to worry about impractical gift-giving again. 4. Angel can read minds and always knows what someone needs and will use. 5. Take notes whenever he is with a gift recipient and immediately buys and gives anything that person says or looks like they need. No risk of needs changing before gift-giving event and no need to ask. The timing of gifts is a surprise. 6. A drone that follows around a gift recipient recording everything for Angel to review in order to figure out what the person needs.

one final challenge

Angel threw me a curveball when it came time for me to decide on one direction to go for a second drawing and a prototype. In his feedback to my drawings, he was most excited about the ideas that featured an automatic, effortless process for him and the receiver. His self-declared favorite was mind reading. “MIND READING?!” I thought. “How in the world am I supposed to prototype mind reading?!” I cursed myself for even including that as an option. 

Nevertheless, I pushed on. I thought maybe I could design a way that the technology I’d used in my other ideas could be used to mimic the process of mind reading. The technology could be used to discover someone’s needs and transmit them automatically into Angel’s head. 

My idea ended up being outlandish and futuristic: an invisible, silent drone that follows a gift receiver around collecting data on their needs which is then sent directly to an implant in Angel’s brain that collates a list of gift options from which he can choose. I call it The Fly on the Wall or The Truman Show Solution to Gift-giving.

My new solution after feedback of first sketches.

Building the prototype felt like being on a weird game show. As pipe cleaners and clay flew through my hands, I yelled out to my boyfriend to bring me plastic wrap from the kitchen while laughing at how ridiculous I must look fully committed to this odd arts and craft project. I kept finding myself exclaiming “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done!” It felt like play—the fully committed, completely open kind you often forget after childhood. It was highly satisfying. 

Invisible drone observing gift-recipient on left and sending data to gift-giver’s brain on right (blue antennas are representative of invisible signal).

Feedback on the prototype from Angel was positive and circled mainly around how any privacy concerns could be allayed, how the implant would be updated, or whether it could interface with an e-commerce site like Amazon to make automatic purchases. We laughed at the obvious concern that my idea was probably not possible, at least right now. 


I finished this exercise exhausted but fulfilled. It was exactly the opposite of the apprehension and end-of-day exhaustion I’d felt at the start. One of the biggest benefits of the design thinking process is that it can unlock the energizing nature of creativity.  Taking this course showed me that design thinking is a superpower that helps you brave your fears, work past impossible problems and come up with unpredictable ideas

For anyone wanting to be a design thinker, grab a partner and do this exercise. It’s a great gift to give yourself. 

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