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Design Thinking: Building solutions

Around the world, design thinking and human- or user-centred design has changed the way companies and organizations design and market their work. Whether designing smartphones or educational experiences, design thinkers are no longer simply looking to their own hypotheses for solutions. Instead, they are taking the time to observe and understand the values, lifestyles, and habits of users to develop truly responsive designs.

In Toronto, a volunteer community of design enthusiasts passionate about design thinking and creating positive social impact is doing just that. The Toronto Chapter of OpenIDEO is a multidisciplinary team that engages in local design projects through which it prototypes and tests ideas to help address global challenges issued on OpenIDEO’s worldwide, open innovation platform. Challenges are addressed using IDEO’s unique “design thinking” methodology, and winning solutions are selected and shared under a Creative Commons License.

OpenIDEO was launched in 2010 as an open-platform offshoot of IDEO, an international design and consulting firm founded in Palo Alto, California, in 1991, that was among the first to adopt a “human-centred” approach to design. IDEO outlines its creative approach in its Field Guide to Human-Centered Design: “When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.” Whatever designers are called upon to design, IDEO’s six-step methodology begins with understanding user needs and ends with innovative solutions tailored to these needs. By offering its methodology freely to anyone, OpenIDEO aims to place “the power of human-centred design in the hands of many.”

Step 1 of IDEO’s methodology is Observation, which consists of observing end users and gaining a true understanding of their needs. Step 2 is Ideation, wherein ideas are brainstormed based on the observations and insights gleaned in Step 1, staying focused on the needs and desires of end users and generating as many ideas as possible. Step 3, Rapid Prototyping, involves building a quick and simple prototype of an idea to test with users. Once the prototype is in the hands of users, Step 4 is to Collect Feedback. This step is crucial to the human-centred design process, as it allows designers to determine whether or not the proposed solution is on target. Step 5, Iteration, involves using the received feedback from users to further develop the design. Once designers have iterated, tested, and integrated user feedback enough times to fine-tune the design, they can move on to the sixth and final step, Implementation, in which the design solution is just right and end users have validated its usefulness, and the design is released into the world.

Denise Pinto, a designer and “placemaker” whose Master of Landscape Architecture thesis at the University of Toronto explored the application of a human-centred approach to park design, is a member of the OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter. The former director of Jane’s Walk and former Chair of the Ground Editorial Board who now runs her own engagement and facilitation company, believes that “all OpenIDEO challenges have a connection to place.” As a chapter organizer, Pinto has helped design and plan engagement sessions for the chapter’s recent initiatives.

Since recruiting Pinto to join its ranks in January 2017, the OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter has organized responses to two challenges, including OpenIDEO’s Early Childhood Innovation Prize challenge, which sought to maximize the potential of children during their first three years of life. In partnership with local non-profit Polly Hill Intergenerational Daycare, the OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter assembled a group of parents, toddlers, teachers, and designers who converged at Artscape Youngspace, a community cultural hub dedicated to creativity and children in Toronto, to re-imagine how children interact, develop relationships with others, and experience their community. Using rapid ideation and prototyping, the design series generated several innovative ideas, including partnered outings for seniors and kids to farmers’ markets, museums, and local trails; a communication tool to support Polly Hill’s efforts to develop partnerships; and a community-living pilot project to expand beyond the traditional model of daycare to foster an intergenerational community.

For its most recent challenge, the OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter partnered with Evergreen Brick Works, leveraging Evergreen’s free Summer Wednesdays program to better connect with and serve local communities. Among the eight neighbourhoods that back onto the ravine where the Brick Works is located, three are made up of underserved, predominantly immigrant communities very much in need of outdoor space where residents can play and enjoy nature. The collaboration brought together OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter members, designers, Evergreen staff, community residents, and other stakeholders to co-design and pilot interventions aimed at addressing access to the Brick Works site, providing a wider range of activities that serve the needs of diverse cultural groups, and empowering neighbourhood residents to increase their participation in the community and grow their sense of belonging.

Design session at Evergreen Brick Works. IMAGE/ OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter
Design session with Polly Hill Intergenerational Daycare. IMAGE/ OpenIDEO Toronto Chapter

While design thinking is now being applied in a variety of contexts, it is still not widely used in the fields of landscape architecture and urban design, despite the contributions of research pioneers such as Jan Gehl, William Whyte, and Clare Cooper-Marcus. As we in the design and planning professions look for ways to create inclusive places that are environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and resilient, we don’t always need to look to complex new technologies, we simply need to look to a resource that’s been there all along—the communities for whom we are designing.