Insights from the Knight News Challenge: Applying design thinking

technology / Article

Photo credit: Flickr user Kristina Alexanderson.

The Institute of Design at Stanford — aka “the” — does not grant degrees, and demand is high. Stanford graduate students must apply to individual courses, which have few openings due to space limitations. This means there are few opportunities to immerse oneself in this place for very long. The nine-month period I’ve spent as the’s editor-in-residence has been a rare privilege and has offered me a unique window into the’s much sought-after world of design thinking, also known as human-centered design.

This opportunity has also given me a new, vibrant lens through which to view my own work and the work of others. So when Knight Foundation invited me to be a reader for its current  News Challenge, it was a fresh opportunity to bring my new perspective to bear on a wide variety of projects around a particularly important issue: How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? I came away with two important insights.

  • There’s more than one way to apply design thinking, but users always come first. I was tasked with reading nearly 90 of the roughly 700 entries Knight Foundation received. I repeatedly came across submissions in which applicants mentioned they were either using or planned to use design thinking or human-centered design to craft their projects. Some projects were further along than others, but the diversity of applications reminded me that whether you learn design thinking at the or elsewhere, one core principle holds true: A proposed solution to a challenge is nothing if it fails to maintain a laser focus on the underlying user.
  • Design thinking is more than a process. My colleague, Jeremy Utley, co-director of executive education at the, wrote a piece that has forever changed the way I think about design thinking. In it, he says that design thinking comprises a core set of principles. While it is taught as a process at the for ease of instruction, it is actually a way to approach the messy work of creating your own process -- one custom-fit to a multidisciplinary team and the challenge it faces. Beyond the sticky notes and whiteboards, it is a way of working and generally operating in the world that places users -- real people with real stories and needs -- at the center of a problem-solving effort.  

This means spending a great deal of time (and perhaps more than you think you need) getting to know the people whose lives you seek to change. In doing so, the process will become your own, built on underlying design thinking principles. For example, I have learned that, if I have not left with a quote I can recite by heart after interviewing someone for a design project, I didn’t dive deeply enough. That’s my adjustment -- an adaptation to the process as it was taught to me at the to fit my needs and professional bias. Do I get a perfect result every time? No. Sometimes I even forget to apply the principles altogether, since they are still relatively fresh for me. But, like everything, it takes practice.

It’s worth noting that it took me a relatively long time to overcome my skepticism of the process, and I am not alone. I came to Stanford from the journalism world, specifically as an editor at The Washington Post -- worlds away from the creative work undertaken at the I’ve come to learn, through my own experience and watching others, that initially working with design thinking principles can feel unnatural, especially if you come from a world of rigid hierarchies, schedules and product deliverables. But when you fully commit to engaging in this way, it can become the most natural and fruitful process in the world.

I am, even now, writing this piece as a break from designing material for a course I was invited to teach at the with two colleagues: Melissa Kline Lee, a fellow and trained social worker; and Taylor Cone, a teaching fellow and expert river guide. Melissa conceived of the course, which is called “River of Life: Designing for Flow.” It seeks to guide students through design work to increase the capacity for flow in their daily lives. I was stuck for days in developing my segment of the course. It wasn’t until I began to receive feedback from students who planned to take the class that I could fully engage, and the worksheets and presentation documents fell into place.

Given my position at the, I am often asked for advice on how to apply design thinking even as I continue to struggle applying these principles to develop my own process. If I were to offer any advice to those seeking to apply design thinking to their work, it would be this: Don’t wait for your users to come to you; go find them. Make them your addiction and the source of the energy behind your work. If you give them the time and the space they deserve in your process, you can’t go wrong.

On June 23, Knight Foundation will award $2.75 million, including $250,000 from the Ford Foundation, to support the most compelling ideas around the News Challenge question: How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? Visit to review the semifinalists.

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