Intelligent by Design: A Design Thinking Approach to Storytelling

Have you ever read an article that really stuck with you? That somehow spoke to the issues and ideas you care about most? 

That feeling you were left with after completing the article was probably not invoked accidentally. In fact, behind most powerful content, exists a well-developed content strategy. Yet all too often, people create content that is irrelevant to their audience. Why? Great content tells a story that connects with a reader on a deeper level and around shared values; it brings value to the things they care about. Every brand needs a consistent editorial voice that flows through its content; no longer is this concept applicable only to publishers. When it comes to defining this voice, many brands are tapping into the wrong insights—a sterile customer profile, basic demographics figures, and distant research. One large piece of the puzzle is missing here, and that is empathy, and in particular, when relating to the end user.

Knowing this, we can craft stronger stories by using design thinking to bring a human-centered approach to content development. The process of design thinking helps to uncover the right insights to inform the substance and tone of content so that it mirrors and speaks to the real needs and points of interest of the end user. Bring your reader on a journey they care about!  

Here is a quick sketch of the five modes of design thinking:

1. Empathize

The first mode, empathize, has three main components: observe (specifically in the users’ environment), engage (through interviews), and immerse. Try to focus on having a beginners mind by removing all assumptions about the group you are designing for. “By watching people you can capture physical manifestations of their experiences, what they do and say…the best solutions come out of the best insight into human behavior,” as explained in Stanford University’s Bootcamp guide to design thinking. 

2. Define

The goal here is to organize and focus the unique insights that you uncovered during the first mode into clusters of related insights—then start searching for key themes that immerge across and within the clusters. Once you do this, you will create a point-of-view (POV), which focuses the insights, needs and challenges you discovered into a clear statement. Note: the objective is to narrow in on the right problem to later ideate solutions for.

3. Ideate

Brainstormed ideas under "how might we" statements.

Brainstormed ideas under "how might we" statements.

The ideate phase is for “flaring”; it’s when we pull the lens back, turn down critical thinking, and turn up generative thinking to brainstorm creative solutions. This is not a time to shoot down ideas but rather to encourage them. One “bad” idea has the potential to inspire an incredible out-of-the-box idea to follow. Take the POV statement you created and turn it into a “How Might We” (HMW) question. For example, “How might we redesign our stories to spark curiosity in readers?” Your HMW statement is the question your team will brainstorm ideas for. While brainstorming it can be helpful to create constraints such as a time limit. Try giving your team 20 minutes and a goal for the number of ideas to generate in that timeframe.  

4. Prototype

Prototyping is the part of the design process when you create a physical representation of an idea to gain user insights and test the functionality. There are no strict guidelines on the form the prototype should take. Prototypes can be mock advertisements, brochures, wireframes, storyboards, user-flows, and role-playing.  


5. Test

This is a trial-and-error period to test and observe how users engage with a prototype. During this process, new problems often arise, which can be used to inform the next iteration of your prototype (or possibly force you to revisit either modes). Though it may be agonizing to repeat previous steps, it is ultimately critical in developing a final outcome that is relevant to customers.


Great additional resources on design thinking:

Bootcamp Bootleg (

An Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide (

Posted on February 11, 2015 .