Design thinking is a concept that I hear bounced around a lot at work and in a lot of the articles I read. It seems to be the buzz word du jour, to go along with a growing interest in Service Design. This interest isn’t about aesthetics or logos. It’s about embracing the principles of design as a process in the way people work.

So, what is design thinking? First off, it’s more than just buzz. Design thinking is all about taking a user-centric approach to a problem and then solving it in a hands-on iterative way. By focusing on the real user, and empathising with them, you are able to build something they actually need, rather than what you think they need. Taking this insight and working with it iteratively, prototyping and testing means you fail small and often as part of a process rather than dedicating a huge amount of time and resources to a project that might have an underlying flaw you hadn’t noticed. This process can take slightly longer at first, but it becomes more time and energy efficient overall because you work out more of the kinks at the start.

Design thinking isn’t just for designers or businesses. It can be used by everyone and anyone who’s creating something or grappling with a big question because its process is so simple and can be flexible around whatever you’re working on.

“But how?” you ask.

Well, the design process goes a roughly a little something like this:

EMPATHISE

Step one is all about understanding your audience or your user. This involves actually speaking to them, rather than just imagining what they think, or feel, or do. Where possible observe what they do in the space you’re looking to get into, so you can find the problems they face and the motivations that drive them. In order to be able to empathise with them and build for them, you need to understand them,

DEFINE

Researching and observing your target audience normally leaves you with a lot of information, so the next step is to hone that information into just a few golden nuggets of insight. You can do this by, once again, empathising with your audience to find out what they care about the most and what experiences or pain points they share.

GENERATE

Once you’ve focused your research on a couple of key points, you need to start coming up with solutions the problems you’ve identified, lots of them. At this stage, you need to generate as many ideas as you can, no matter how wild or unfeasible because you might be able to take something from them. Where possible do this in a team, so you can bounce ideas around and build on each other’s thoughts.

PROTOTYPE

Then you want to build rough models of your favourite ideas. You want these prototypes to be as tangible as you can make them. If you’re building a website, put together some wireframes. If you’re making a board game, build a mini version out of card. If you’re developing a menu, get cooking. This is where you find out which ones are most likely to work or be doable.

TEST

After building your prototypes you need to test them, on your target audience where possible. Get their feedback, you’d be surprised at how often something you think is as simple as ABC is completely indecipherable to a stranger. Take their feedback and then work it back into your prototype. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

IMPLEMENT

Putting what you’ve built into the world, and into practice, is the last step. Make sure all of your learning comes together in a form that’s accessible to your audience and does actually solve their original problem. There’s no point creating self-cleaning glasses (please someone create these) if they’re not accessible or marketed to glasses wearers.

And that’s it. Apply these principles as you will!

If you’re interested in reading more about design thinking, I’d recommend having a read of some of the articles from The Harvard Business Review’s edition all about it or checking out This is Service Design Thinking which is at once thorough and accessible.

The story of the Fjällräven Kånken, is as classic a design story as they come. Åke Nordin saw a problem and he designed a simple solution. In the late 1970s, 80% of Swedes were suffering from back pain, and those suffering were getting younger and younger. As shoulder bags were in fashion at the time they were blamed by school medical officers for causing this discomfort, because of how they distributed weight unevenly over the body. So Åke Nordin decided to design a solution.

His solution was a backpack which would distribute the weight of school books and packed lunches across both shoulders, instead of just one. With this idea in mind, Nordin began his work by taking 2 A4 ring binders, the most commonly carried item in a school child’s bag, and designing around it. Once he had the basis of the shape, Nordin created his bags out of the durable Vinylon F fabric. He chose Vinylon F not only because it is hard wearing but because the fibres swell when wet, like many natural fibres do, meaning that when it rains that the Kånken is so waterproof that you can often see a small puddle forming on the top of its flat top. Other additions to the bag included a foam insert that acted as padding for the back and could be removed to be used as a picnic seat, a newspaper pocket to organise papers, a zippable front pocket, short top handles that can be poppered together to hold a rolled jacket on top of the bag, and the now iconic round reflective patch with the company’s logo.

With the help of the Swedish Guide and Scout Association, Nordin launched the Kånken right on time for the beginning of the school year in 1978. Nordin had hoped to sell 200 bags in that first year, he quickly sold double that figure as it did exactly what it was designed to do and reduced back pain and improved posture in its wearers. As well as school children, the elderly were also big fans of the Kånken, as they soon realised that the backpack’s design allowed them to carry their shopping whilst keeping their hands free to hold a walking cane.

Today, over 200,000 Kånkens are made a year, following that original design almost identically. After a lull in sales in the 90s, their rectangular shape and bright colours came back into fashion a few years ago. Their fans cite their Mary Poppins-like ability to hold everything they need without ever being heavy as the main reason for their enduring popularity. The backpacks are also popular with travellers who appreciate the bags waterproofness, added features, and the fact that, even when full, it can be slide underneath an aeroplane seat meaning it’s ideal for travelling light. Nordin’s initial decision to base the size of his bag around his customers’ actual needs, to carry an A4 file, has stood his design in good stead and means it has remained just right almost 40 years on.

Today I’m going to create my very first font, and I thought it would be interesting to document the process and share anything I learn along the way and from all the bits and pieces I’ve read.

I’m making a hand-written typeface based on my own handwriting, because it seems to be the recommended starter and it’s something that will be immediately useful to me, as I currently hand write a lot. I think it’s probably a great start for a beginner because you’re working with a style that you know really well and can draw naturally without having to think about it.

STEP 1

The first step I took was to pick a programme to use to create my font. I went with Paint Font, which is free and online, both of which are always good things. I decided to go with Paint Font rather than My Script Font which is very similar because it allowed me more options when it came to the characters I could design. Both of these programmes allow you to hand draw your font and then scan it which makes them very accessible. If you’re looking for a more digital option, FontStruct seems to be completely computer based, which would perhaps be better if you’re looking to build more standardised fonts.

STEP 2

This was the fun bit: drawing out my letters. I decided to start out by hand drawing my letters because it felt the most natural and the easiest for quick drafting. I kept playing around until I was happy with the set of characters I had. In the end, I settled on an all caps font, with slightly smaller caps as lowercase letters, as this is the way I normally write in my design work and in my planner which is where I like my handwriting the best.

STEP 3

You could just draw your letters onto the template by hand, scan it and upload it. But I wanted to put my letters on digitally as it allowed me more control and the ability to refine my letters more in regards to weight and also mitigated the inevitable “oh no my hand slipped!” moment. I scanned all of my letter forms, and then made them vectors by tracing over them in Affinity Designer. I refined the points, curves, and line quality, then added them into the template. If you’re just going in by hand, make sure you use a relatively thick (a fine felt perhaps) very black pen, so that your letters show up clearly when you scan them.

STEP 4

Then it was time to upload my doc to Paint Font and wait for the magic to happen. This process was pretty simple and painless, and in no time I had a .TTF file of my very first font. The finished product was a relatively good quality font, that I think I’m going to get a lot of use out of.

STEP 5

Then I tried out my font, typing out the customary “quick brown fox…” and just having a bit of a play really, and then printed it out for assessment. There were a couple of letters I wasn’t completely happy with so I changed them and repeated step 4. Once I was happy with that base font I also made a light version, a bold version, and an italic version. Those alternative styles were made infinitely easier by the fact I’d vectorised my font before uploading it, because I could easily edit the letters without having to redraw them all.

TOP TIPS

  • If you want to make a font, do it! It is SO easy.
  • If you can vectorise your font, I would highly recommend it. It makes editing and creating alternative versions so much easier.
  • Sketch out your ideas, and try out a few variations of everything. It’s just good practice.
  • Start with a font you know to get used to the process, plus it’s just fun to make your computer write like you do.
  • On that note, do your own thing, don’t just add serifs to Helvetica it’s a rip off and it’s just boring. The reason I really liked my font was because it was new and something I would use.
  • Go beyond just A-Z. If you’re working in English, and your font is for personal use, you probably don’t need the entire Russian alphabet but you will need numbers and punctuation for your font to be truly useful.
  • Print your test type. It makes it easier to see how your font will look in situ and sometimes it’s easier to work using pen and paper.
  • Have fun!

All that’s left to say is I’ve officially caught the homemade font bug, and will be making some more of my own typefaces in the very near future!

Recently I’ve been trying to evaluate where I’m at with my design work and where I want to go. As a part of that, I’ve been working on pinpointing some of the things I could have done better so I don’t make the same mistakes again. Being honest and open about where you’ve gone wrong is key, I think, to getting better and growing as a person and as an artist*. I thought I’d share 5 of those mistakes with you now so that you can avoid them and to hold myself accountable to not making them again.

NOT STARTING SOONER/BEING SCARED

This is the mistake I wanted to share the most because I think it’s the one that other people will benefit from the most. I should have started sooner. I knew I loved design, and I didn’t just jump in. I hesitated and worried and then hesitated some more. Trying to freelance hasn’t been easy, and neither has starting up this blog. But now that I’ve started I wish I’d had the guts to do so earlier. If there’s something you want to do just have a go at it. The worst thing that can happen is that you’re not very good at it – I know that sometimes that is the WORST thing if you’re not very good at failing or if you’ve pinned your dream on something, but if you’re not very good work at it, get better, or combine it with something you are good at.

NOT NETWORKING

I’m an anxious introvert so networking isn’t something I naturally want to do, but it’s definitely something I should have tried harder at. A lot of my work has come from referrals and I could have worked harder to keep those connections branching out by meeting people in person and asking for introductions. I also should have been more proactive in reaching out to people I want to collaborate with. I was really good at reaching out to people for interviews when I was writing on behalf of The Oxford Student, but less so when I wanted to reach out to someone just as myself. I’m starting to do that more now, and honestly, everyone has been so lovely and I don’t know what I was so scared about.

NOT SPEAKING UP

There are some projects I worked on which I know could have been done better if I’d spoken up a bit more about their direction and their execution. While my job was just to design, I should have been better at the start about making everything I worked on the best it could be as a consultant as well as just as a maker.

NOT DEFINING MY “BRAND”

I realise now I should have put even more thought into what I wanted this blog to be, what I wanted it to say and how I wanted it to benefit other people. I’m still in the process of working that out, and I definitely think some of this comes from doing. But I could and should have defined my direction more before I started because it would have helped this site feel more cohesive and helped my channel my ideas more.

NOT TAKING MORE CLASSES

Everything that I can do digitally I taught myself, and I’m quite proud of that fact. But I think I would have benefited from taking more classes and really pushing myself rather than just getting by on what I could work out myself with a minimal amount of googling. I’m not saying I should have gone to design school (although I do sometimes think about it) I think I should have taken better advantage of resources like Skillshare. But it’s never too late, right?

What mistakes are you learning from? What do you wish you could tell your younger self about now that you’re a bit older, a bit wiser, and a bit further ahead?

*super uncomfortable with even kind of referring to myself as an artist

Everyone wants to think more creatively, but it’s not something you can do overnight. However, there are a number of exercises you can do to try and stimulate your lateral thinking and your creative instincts when you’re trying to generate ideas. These are just a few of the things that I do when I’m struggling to come up with an idea for design projects and in my day job.

DESCRIBE WHATEVER YOU’RE WORKING ON ALOUD, WITHOUT USING THE LETTER E.

Either explain the problem you’re working on or describe the product you’re designing without using the letter e to yourself, or to someone else who’s around you. In doing this you not only have to be able to summarise and clarify your thoughts to be able to put together an explanation, you also have to do it using different words, which can help you reframe your thinking and lead to some new ideas. It’s also just a silly challenge.

PUT YOUR WORK IN A BOX.

This might sound counter to the idea of thinking outside of the box, but sometimes a blank page can just be too intimidating, and by putting some constraints on your project you can come up with ideas more easily. Create some arbitrary constraints of size, or shape, or use, or audience, or really anything, on whatever you’re working on and then try and work to those standards. Even if what you come up with isn’t the final idea, having a starting idea to work from should help get the ball rolling.

TRY SOME OF THESE QUESTIONS, TO GET YOUR LATERAL THINKING GOING.

Lateral thinking problems have been proven to help you think creatively. There are loads out there on the web that you can try for free to strengthen your creative thinking muscles.

TEST SOME RANDOM COMBINATIONS.

There are no truly new ideas. Creativity is all about creating connections between things that other people might not have seen or thought of before. To get your connection juices flowing try and create connections between whatever you’re working on and something completely unrelated. What is similar about the two things? What could they do together? How can you link them?

DO SOMETHING ELSE.

Taking a step away from a problem can help you get a fresh perspective and sort out any existing thoughts. Personally, I like to do something physical like baking, because it engages completely different bits of my brain and allows me to subconsciously ruminate as I make something really delicious.

IMAGINE THE THING YOU’RE WORKING ON DOESN’T EXIST, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

One of my favourite quotes is Henry Ford on his invention of the car: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse”. The solution to just making faster horses is to think about the problem rather than the product, what are you trying to do? If nothing already existed how would you fill the gap?

PRETEND TO BE SOMEONE ELSE.

Imagine you’re your grandma or your nephew or Beyoncé what would they think of what you’re working on? How would they use it? How would they solve the problem? Getting out of your own head not only helps you try and think about a problem differently it can also be a great tool for seeing whether or not your product will cater to its audience. If you’re not very good at pretending, and even if you are, actually call or speak to someone else about the problem too for exactly the same reasons.

WRITE DOWN, OR MIND MAP, ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU KNOW OR THINK ABOUT THE SUBJECT.

When you’re generating ideas, sometimes it’s about quantity over quality. You’ve got to go through a few, or five-hundred, bad ideas before you can get to a good one sometimes so why not get started by just writing down everything you can think of. If you’re lucky something will jump out at you or start forming as you go. If you’re not, you can refine down everything you’ve written to pull out the key elements of the work that you want to focus on.