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How to think like a human-centered designer

Embrace these 7 fundamental mindsets to design better solutions for your customers
July 06, 2018


Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving

It’s a process that can be used across industries and sectors to tackle challenges of all sizes in new ways, even when the way forward is unclear.

As problem-solvers, the path we see to overcome an obstacle can often be narrowed by layers of past experience, habits, and so-called truths. Design thinking offers a way to remove these blinders by putting the person who will gain most from the solution at the heart of the innovation process. By starting with the user, design thinking allows for more effective, and sometimes surprising, paths forward in the face of challenges.
Beneath the framework that guides the design thinking process inspiration, ideation and implementation there is a set of mindsets that are fundamental for human-centered designers to bring new ideas to life.

Before looking at these seven mindsets, it’s useful to note that anyone with the desire can choose to tackle problem-solving like a human-centered designer. From high school students practicing empathy with fellow students as they investigate how to boost classroom engagement, to volunteers testing different ways to welcome refugees into their community, these foundational mindsets can be practiced by anyone.

There's no prerequisite of a certain degree or job title needed - all you need is a willingness to learn and the confidence to act.

Much in the same way Acumen recognizes our core values are held in careful tension with each other, design thinking requires an appreciation of the unknown and the curiosity to uncover it, while maintaining the audacity to move forward in action anyways.
Human-centered designers believe in the power of making ideas real. And in order to make useful things, human-centered designers realize it’s as much about your head as your hands.

These seven foundational mindsets underly the philosophy behind and Acumen Academy’s approach to creative problem solving, and show that how you think about design directly influences how innovative and impactful solutions will be.


Photo: Intro to HCD course taker, Yao Xiao

Learn from failure

Failure is an incredibly powerful tool for learning. But the learning is only unlocked when you get past the pain of experiencing an unfavourable outcome and come to see the positive. The mindset of learning from failure can take a lot of practice before it becomes second nature.

In some ways, the learning that comes from the unexpected failure is maybe more valuable than the success might have been.

Tim Brown, Chair of IDEO
Designing and testing prototypes is at the heart of human-centered design, and so is the understanding that not all of them are going to work.
For those seeking to solve big problems, like social entrepreneurs, there is bound to be failure along the way. If you adopt a ‘fail forward’ mindset, and look for the opportunities in failure, the learning from those failures is invaluable.
Willingness to test iterations of the idea before it feels ‘done’ forces many small ‘learning failures.' Compounding small failures throughout the process means you are less likely to hit an unexpected, large, and expensive failure at the end.

Challenge yourself: 

Tim Brown’s advice to people who feel uncomfortable with failure is, “don’t think of it as failure, think about designing experiments through which you are going to learn.”
To practice this mindset, get more comfortable with being uncomfortable by putting yourself up for rejection. Rejection is a gentle way to ease into getting comfortable with failure because the power usually lies in the hands of someone else. It’s not usually a failing of your skills or leadership that contribute to rejection, whereas outright failing tends to sting closer to home because your actions or contribution.
Jia Jang designed an experiment for himself, which he called 100 Days of Rejection Therapy, where he attempted to get rejected each day. In his TED Talk he shares how he came to realize rejection is a gift and that this experiment taught him how embracing rejection creates opportunity. His advice: “When you get rejected in life, when you are facing the next obstacle or next failure, consider the possibilities. Don't run. If you just embrace them, they might become your gifts as well.”

There’s no risk involved. In fact, you’re taking risk out of the process by making something simple first. And you always learn lessons from it.

Krista Donaldson, CEO of Equalize Health

Make it

Human-centered designers make because they they know that the act of building out an idea into a concrete form is the best way to ‘think out loud.' Designing without making or building is missing the point. The process of diving in and ‘making it’ creates the nuances and structure of the design itself.
Too often, people get distracted by the details before the essence of an idea is even crafted. Adopting the ‘make it mindset’ reminds us to get out of the weeds and into action so that the idea can take a real form and be put to the test.
Krista Donaldson’s advice for jumping out of the theoretical into the realm of tangibility is, “Do not spend a lot of time refining something… Each prototype should have a main idea. And you’re just trying to get something made that conveys that idea. It doesn't have to be perfect.”

Challenge yourself:

You probably have a project or deliverable that is sitting at your desk or on your computer half-completed. Perfectionism is the enemy of prototyping and quick iterative design! Pick one partially-finished deliverable and just make it.
Decide what the main idea of it is and build a simple version to portray that. Don’t worry about perfecting the details, or presenting a polished look - just make the thing and get it out into the world for feedback! You will most likely need to come back to refine and improve upon this first version, but when you do, the second version you create will be that much stronger due to your quick first build.

Creative confidence

Creative confidence is the belief that everyone is creative, and that creativity isn’t the capacity to draw or compose or sculpt, but is a way of approaching the world with imagination.

Creative confidence is the notion that you have big ideas, and that you have the ability to act on them.

David Kelley,
Founder of IDEO and D School at Stanford
Creative confidence comes from realizing that creativity can show up in many shapes and sizes. It is the very diversity people from all disciplines and backgrounds bring to the table that allows for inventive approaches to old problems. With this, every individual inherently has their own flavor of creativity to inject into the challenges they are solving as a human-centered designer. The more you see truth in this idea, the more your confidence as a dynamic problem solver will grow.
David Kelley points out another benefit to giving yourself permission to be confident in your creativity: “If you have creative confidence then you have more stick-to-itiveness. You try more things. You go down different paths and you’re kind of fearless in the face of failure. And this leads to routine innovation.”

Challenge yourself: 

Notice all of the small tasks you complete throughout your day today. Pick one and use it is an opportunity to flex your creativity. How can you can you inject more fun or innovative into this simple activity or put a creative twist on your approach?
Another idea: keep a notebook with you for a week and jot down a note each time you notice creativity around you. Think beyond the typical channels of creativity (like art and visual design) but also look out for creativity shared in conversation, in the messages you see online or in print, or in the everyday objects you use. Much in the way reading does for writers, appreciating creativity around you will spark new awareness and ideas for expressing your own creativity.


Empathy is the capacity to step into another person’s shoes, to understand their lives, and to start to solve problems from their perspectives. Empathy is at the absolute heart of any great business, because what is the point of putting offers into the world if not to truly benefit our customers? And how can we know what will truly benefit them if we do not understand the world from their perspective?

Empathy is a chance to fall in love, it’s a chance to hate, it’s a chance to be completely other than that which you usually are and in so doing to discover so many things about life and about living.

Emi Kolawole,
Project Lead at The Moonshot Factory
Empathy is a powerful tool in human-centered design because it flips the focus from you as a designer, to the people you are designing for. It also reduces the pressure of knowing what to do next, because the answers to this is held by the people you are designing for. Stepping into their shoes and bringing them along with you in the process is your roadmap for designing innovative and impactful solutions.

Challenge yourself: 

This week, challenge yourself to engage in a conversation with someone whose views or beliefs you don’t necessarily agree with. While leaving any judgement you might be holding, practice empathy by having an open, curious conversation. Through this, see if you can learn through curiosity and questions to better understand their perspective and point-of-view.

Embrace ambiguity

A critical piece of embracing ambiguity is letting multiple ideas coexist simultaneously. That means we’re exploring lots of possible solutions... and we don’t know what’s going to work out.

Patrice Martin, Co-Founder and Co-Lead at
Human-centered designers always start from the place of not knowing the answer to the problem they are looking to solve. How could they, when the answers only emerge through exploration with the user?
The process of moving forward with an open mind despite having no clear endpoint is not particularly comfortable for most people. Embracing ambiguity is a mindset that you might need to practice and foster within the team you work with.
The benefit of embracing ambiguity is that it allows you to open up creatively, to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions. Embracing ambiguity means giving yourself permission to still be creative even in the unknown.

Challenge yourself: 

Next time you encounter a challenge that doesn’t have an immediately obvious next step, practice putting this mindset into action with this exercise. Write the challenge down in front of you, grab a pad of sticky notes and set a timer for 15 minutes. Hit start on your timer and write down one idea per sticky note that could be a possibility for solving the challenge. Don’t edit yourself with questions of how easy or practical it would be to implement each idea; just let your imagination run wild. Get as many ideas as possible written down in the 15 minutes.
Afterwards you can go through your pile of ideas and narrow them down based on fit and feasibility. You might be surprised what strange and wonderful options you come up with when you remain open to embracing ambiguity.

Be optimistic

We believe that design is inherently optimistic. To take on a big challenge, especially one as large and intractable as poverty, we have to believe that progress is even an option. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t even try. Optimism is the embrace of possibility, the idea that even if we don’t know the answer, that it’s out there and that we can find it.

With the big challenges, you need to believe that it's even possible. The bigger the challenge the more essential optimism is.

John Bienlenberg,
Co-Founder, Future Partners, Founder of Project M

Challenge yourself: 

Think of a particularly nagging issue or obstacle you are currently facing that has been weighing on you. Take 20 minutes to practice optimism by answering these prompts as it relates the challenge at hand:
  • What are the positive lessons I’m learning as a result of this experience?
  • In an ideal scenario, what would success look like after resolving this challenge?
  • What are all the potential ways this could work out positively in the end?

Iterate, iterate, iterate

We arrive at better solutions more quickly. It really allows us early on to test hypotheses, and concepts and ideas, so that we’re not investing in a single idea that in the end may not be right one.

Gaby Brink, Founder of Tomorrow Partners
Iteration is the process of incremental improvement. It’s the perfect pairing with the foundational mindset of ‘making it’ because a dedication to iteration is what allows ugly first versions to evolve and eventually blossom into fully-formed, beautifully-designed solutions.

Central to the iteration process is feedback, and this is why it fits so perfectly into foundations of human-centered design. When you practice human-centered design, the loop of continuous iteration looks like this:

  • Make a rough prototype
  • Share with the people who will be using it
  • Gather their feedback
  • Use the feedback to inform and refine the next version.
Then the loop continues cycling through better and better iterations. By adopting a practice of iterating, refining, and improving your work over multiple versions, you can test wide range of ideas and approaches. This variety allows you to avoid the pain of investing excessive time and money into entirely ineffective and unsuccessful solutions.

Challenge yourself: 

Think of a deliverable you are working on right now and consider the last time that you presented a version of it to someone outside of your immediate team for feedback. If it’s been a while, it is probably due for another round of input.
When you reach out to gather outside perspective, ideally from an individual who could be an end user, pay attention to both what they say and observe how they interact with the material you gave them. If you don’t have a physical item to present, you can use a simple method of checking in like a survey or interview. Ask questions to help you understand their perspective and also ask for their input on what elements can be improved.
Danielle Sutton Headshot

Danielle Sutton

Danielle Sutton is the Content Animator at Acumen where she surfaces stories to inspire and activate social entrepreneurs. In an age of information overload, she believes in learning 'the right thing at the right time' to intentionally design impactful social enterprises. You can usually find Danielle digging into the Acumen course library, playing in the mountains, or exploring marketing on The Sedge blog.