Design Toolkits for Creative Problem Solving

In this blog post, I share some of the design toolkits that I've discovered and applied in my work with Lifehack. With many social challenges calling out for creative problem solving, design methods can provide a framework for unlocking new insights and new solutions.

This year I've had the strange privilege of working to close down an organisation.

Usually I would much rather be building up an organisation rather than planning its demise. But when I officially joined Lifehack, my first meeting included an announcement that our funding had reached its course and we would be wrapping up within a year.

As part of our efforts to end well, we've been open sourcing a lot of what has been learned in the organisation's four year history.

In four years Lifehack has tested a lot of different approaches to our mission - improving youth wellbeing. From technology interventions, to community-led development. From short online interventions, to month long professional development programmes.

Often, we've been taking methods from one world, mixing them up, and applying them to a different context.

User interviewing from the lean-start-up world? We've combined that with youth ethics. 

Hackathons from the technology world? They've become community-wellbeing weekends. 

The evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing? That's become The Wellbeing Plan - a worksheet for building empathy and awareness in teams.

Often when I was running workshops or helping people to progress ideas, my role was that of a translator. "Here's this tool. Here's how it works in its original context. Now let's consider how it might apply to the challenge you're working on."

So, as I look to wrap up my time with Lifehack, I'd like to share some of those resource kits with you! Just as they've helped me in my work, so may they help you in yours.

Design Toolkits for Social Innovation

You're Designing for Wellbeing

Obviously I have to start with our Lifehack resources. They're aimed at community-minded folks whose work involves young people, but they'll be handy for anybody who's looking to help people to flourish.

There's a Weekend Event Manual, a Wellbeing Design Challenge and many other resources on co-design, social entrepreneurship and wellbeing. Check them out here!

You're New to Design Thinking

I don't buy the idea that design thinking should be left to designers. In an ideal world, maybe. In the real world of the community and social enterprise sectors, where money is tight, no.

If you're new to design thinking, a good place to start is the Stanford or IDEO's Human-Centred Design Kit. They're both great taster kits for design thinking for social purposes.

Beware though, after too long looking at their material, you might start to view design thinking with sparkly rose-tinted glasses. It's not nearly as easy, as quick or as linear as they make out. And please don't forget to build relationships with people first. Because when you're designing for social good, every interaction or workshop or phone-call is an intervention in itself.

You're looking for a one-stop printout on design for social good

Lucy Kimbell and Joe Julier have created a wonderful resource called The Social Design Methods Menu. If you just want one document to print out as a one-stop menu, this is it. You could also check out Lucy Kimbell's book on the same topic at 

You Need Inspiration for a Workshop

Effective co-design isn't just about workshops. They're only one way to help you understand the perspectives and needs of the people and places you're trying to serve. Still, if you've got a workshop scheduled, and you're out of inspiration, I would recommend the Mozilla Open Innovation Toolkit and the Hyper Island Toolbox.

Between them, you've got over 100 method recipes and counting. Both toolkits are well organised, and searchable, so hopefully you won't get too lost or spend hours searching for the perfect method. (Hint: there's no such thing as the perfect method.)

You Want to Engage Large Groups of People

The Participatory Toolkit is touted as a 'hands-on toolkit for starting up and managing participatory projects'. It's aimed at policy makers who want to engage or discover the views of many people.

If you've been part of a World Cafe before, and you'd like to learn about similar tools - this might be the resource you're after. Just beware, it's wordy.

You Need to Unboringify Your Strategy Sessions

Sometimes we can forget that strategy is actually quite simple. It's just about figuring out how to best achieve a goal with the resources you have at hand.

One of the most helpful ways to get past the mental block that many people have about strategy is to make it playful and quick and active. That's where gamestorming can come in.

It's all about applying creativity and simplicity to business problems that can otherwise be boring and predictable and result in a long document that goes mouldy in a filing cabinet. Most of the methods on the Gamestorming site are from Silicon Valley, and while lots of people eye-roll at the culture of the Valley, you can't deny its concentration of innovation.

If you've ever heard somebody blather on about lean start-ups or agile methodology, but you don't believe the hype, then just try a few tools from the Gamestorming site. If you've ever been amazed at a consultant who's pulled out a whiteboard and starting drawing insightful diagrams in front of everybody - again, gamestorming is for you.

"The future of work is not about dull routine... it's about being more human. Gamestorming is a set of best practices compiled from the world's most innovative people and companies, condensed into a lightweight, low-tech toolkit that applies tools and rules to the problems of collaboration and teamwork." -

You Feel Lost in the Innovation Lifecycle

What I like about the DIY Toolkit is how it's organised around particular 'wants' or 'needs' that you might have. To put it another way, it's broken down by the different stages of social innovation.

Does your boss want you to clarify the priorities for your project? Then they've set out four tools to help you. Perhaps you're wanting to collect input from others? Again, you've got another four tools to choose from. And so on.

Check out the DIY Toolkit here.

Some Honourable Mentions

I haven't really explored these toolkits, but I thought I would include them here anyway. One is the Collective Action Toolkit from the team over at Frog Design. Another is Mindlab's collection of Mindsets and Methods. And finally there's the Community Tool Box from Kansas University, which is both an online book and collection of resources aimed at community developers.

What Are Your Go-to Toolkits?

I always love discovering new design toolkits, as they all have different styles and approaches, different strengths and weaknesses. If you know of any that I've missed I would love to know in the comments!