Design Thinking for Your Life

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us will reflect on the year that was and the year ahead. For some, this will involve New Year’s resolutions. This was often the case for my family growing up. However, as one considers bigger life changes, a simple new year’s goal may not be the best approach.

Impact and Opportunities Provided by Increasing Longevity

As we benefit from unprecedented increases in longevity – experts believe the first person to live to 150 is alive today – life’s chapters can be written very differently than in past generations. It’s not as simple as grow up, go to college, work and retire.  In fact, an increasing number of people are not looking to retire at any age. Others simply can’t afford to retire at sixty-five. And, for those who are younger, there is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink about how to allocate time by life stage. (Here’s a four minute video that looks into the implications and opportunities.)

Making the most of our lives in an era of increasing longevity is a complex problem. Fortunately, there are innovative people helping out. These people are taking tools that have worked for other complex problems and applying them to our lives. One of these tools is Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking has brought us the computer mouse, among other famous breakthrough innovations. Design Thinking, according to Wikipedia, is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result. It is centered on a users’ needs and preferences and is anchored in learning from real users’ feedback often through quickly and inexpensively assembled prototypes. Design Thinking started in the engineering field but has now influenced business more generally.

Design Thinking for Your Life

Now Design Thinking is being applied to one’s life. In the recently released Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Stanford professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, outline a process for using Design Thinking principles to build—design—a life one can thrive in, at any age or stage. Mr. Burnett, a professor at Stanford’s d.School, and Mr. Evans, a seasoned hi-tech entrepreneur and executive, teach “Designing Your Life”, one of the most popular elective classes at Stanford. Their book brings these ideas to a much larger audience, including those from a wide variety of life stages.

The initial step is to identify the problem with a Life Design Assessment which involves creating a Health/Work/Play/Love dashboard. After this assessment, the next step is to create a Lifeview (simply one’s ideas about the world and how it works) and then to observe one’s life through journal exercises to see what areas of life provide greatest engagement and energy. Next, there is ideation (i.e., efforts to brainstorm in a semi-structured way around possible directions) and then to begin prototyping specific actions because the best learning is by doing. Lessons from these prototypes provide feedback for future directions.

Design Thinking at Work at Smart Living 360

We used Design Thinking methods in creating the first Smart Living 360 community, The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, Maryland. We partnered with graduate students studying Design Thinking at the The University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to create, test and iterate on some of our physical design, marketing & leasing approaches and delivery of services. Critical to this was for the students to spend time in people’s homes to better understand what they may be looking for when ‘rightsizing’ to an apartment community in a walkable mixed-use setting.

Ironically, a number of our residents employed Design Thinking principles in deciding to move to The Stories. One recent resident, a recruiting executive, felt that she was isolated and had too much space to maintain in a three story townhome. Curious to see what else was available in the market, she discovered The Stories and was drawn to its design and efficient use of space, community-orientation and affordable and predictable cost. She signed a short term lease to try it out but expects to sign a longer term lease in the future. She is “prototyping” this new lifestyle and is very pleased with the results.

As people engage in life planning exercises, it’s entirely possible, even likely in certain cases, that changes in living environments will be a natural outcome.

Practice What You Preach

A recent new year goal for my Dad was to create a life plan. He’s made progress but he’s not there yet. My Christmas gift is to help him finish out a plan, using Designing Your Life as our guide. Who knows; maybe it will help my parents think through the best living environment for them in the years ahead.