Design Thinking For Good 

I first engaged in a challenge on the OpenIDEO platform in March of 2015. I was hooked after an incredible and exciting first experience collaborating with this bright and passionate global community, dedicated to solving global problems through design. When I was later asked to act as a mentor on the site, I said "yes". And when I had an opportunity to take the magic off the web, combine my love of design and facilitation, and initiate the first OpenIDEO Chapter in San Diego, I said "absolutely yes".



Guide a group of San Diego community members through the Design Thinking process (many for the first time), facilitating a series of workshops, using the infrastructure of the OpenIDEO online global platform.

Broader Objective:

Launch the OpenIDEO San Diego chapter, with the mission to create a safe space for people to learn about and practice Human-Centered Design in San Diego.




I started this journey with incredible support. When I approached the OpenIDEO staff about building the San Diego Chapter only two months after my arrival to the city, they warned me that it would be challenging without a team of facilitators, something that as an SD newbie, I did not yet have. So along the way, I was on the lookout. I wasn't just looking for workshop participants, I was looking for a team to join me in a mission to educate the local community on methods and benefits of Design Thinking. Fortunately, I wasn't alone. I was welcomed into a large global network of IDEO team members and global organizers, all working toward a similar goal and all invested in the success of the chapter.

As with any new project, planning and collaboration was key. I was able to tap into the network to share stories of successes and challenges, to find resources and ideas, all which played a large role in the set-up of this first work-shop series.


While I have taught for many years, I really cut my teeth as a facilitator back in Italy where I was formally trained by Berlitz to facilitate learning courses. I clocked well over 500 hours in classroom facilitation those couple of years in Florence, working with companies such as GE, Selex ES, Enel Energy and Yves Saint Laurent. While the content of the workshops have changed, the basics of facilitation remain. I usually take some time running over my notes and stories from those courses before diving into a new series of workshops to remind myself of best practices: 

  • Maintain a relaxed style that allows for a free flow of ideas and encourages participation 
  • Observe the room carefully and be on the look out for both verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Encourage participation from all learners; Calmly address conflict constructively 
  • Keep the conversation on target, leading the group toward their objectives 
  • Always conclude on a positive note, recapping progress 




I designed the workshops to follow the path of the OpenIDEO challenge: "How Might we reimagine the cost of college in the US and how it's paid for?". While I had participated and mentored on the site in previous design challenges, this was an opportunity to bring this concept of using Design Thinking for global good to my own community, off the screen and in person. 

The group met one time per month, the second Tuesday of each month. Each workshop coincided with a new phase of the OpenIDEO process for a series of five workshops. Each session was planned around 6 participants, with one facilitator. 

  • Research
  • Ideation
  • Prototyping
  • Feedback
  • Refinement



All participants received a link to the OpenIDEO Global Platform so they could create their own accounts, get familiar with the upcoming Design Thinking process and read the Higher Ed Challenge Brief

The challenge brief and a recap of the prior months activities were sent out between meetings using the Meetup platform and a Google + page, so participants could continuously contribute research and ideas and post questions between sessions. This platform was also used to post session notes that new participants could read before and after each session.



Prior to the start of the challenge series, I developed a simple agenda template to be used as a starting point for each workshop.   As many participants were new to the Design Thinking process, it was important to establish consistency in the session format, so participants could gain familiarity and confidence. The agenda was simple and was posted on the board with general time frames so that everyone was on the same page and clearly understood the evening's objectives and timing. 

Higher Ed Workshop Agenda Format

  • 6:00-6:15 Welcome & Announcements
  • 6:15-7:00 Introductions & Ice Breaker
  • 7:00-7:15 Challenge Intro. / Progress Recap
  • 7:15-8:15 Break Out Activity
  • 8:15-8:45 Share findings
  • 8:45-9:00 Wrap Up



Inspiration for the activities was drawn from a variety of reputable sources, including other OpenIDEO groups from around the world. 



  • Projector/ Screen
  • White Board
  • Wifi
  • Laptops
  • Speakers for music


  • Post-it Notes
  • Pens + Markers
  • Scratch Paper
  • Name Tags
  • Printed Worksheets


  • Tape/ Glue
  • Pipe Cleaners
  • Clay/ Playdough
  • Cardboard
  • Colored Paper




The first workshop revolved around the design research phase. We started with a simple ice-breaker, a body language exercise where each person turned to a partner and told them a story about a time they were in school...without words. The partner then had to tell the group what they believed the story was about. As the group was totally new to one another, the laughter helped reduce tension among strangers and led into a great initial conversation around the Higher Education brief and what the challenge meant to each participant. 

There was no lack of passion in the first session. Every person had come ready to tell a story and find a way to make education better. The challenge for me as the facilitator was to keep the group focused on activities that would allow them to reach that goal. It required a delicate balance of  free-flow and structure in the agenda.

Break-out Research Activity

Free-Flow Association:

  • 10 mins Group –  Discuss with the group - What opportunities come to mind as we approach this challenge? 
  • 5 mins Individual – Write or sketch anything that has come to mind on post-its.
  • 15 mins Small Groups – Share out your thoughts with your group and elaborate.
  • 5 mins Small Groups – Write or sketch any existing campaigns, organizations or people that you could use as inspiration for deeper research.
  • 15 mins Group – Share out your thoughts with the group, placing your post-its on the board.
  • 10 mins Group – Approach the board and identify common research themes by grouping similar post-its together

Once the group identified common ideas for further research, I asked them to consolidate them into action items based on the OpenIDEO challenge missions:

 Each person took an action item to explore and individually shared out their personal research to inform their own work and inspire community members on the platform before the next session. Those contributions can be viewed, along with about 450 others in the OpenIDEO Higher Ed Research page.



Ideation always seems to be a crowd favorite. The second workshop kicked off with some new as well as returning faces. We kicked it off with my favorite icebreaker "Two Truths and Lie", then turned our focus to the challenge. We spent about 15 minutes recapping the previous events and reviewing the main points of the challenge brief. I then asked the group if they had posted any research they would like to share or if they had read any on the platform that they found inspirational. The Share Your Story category of the research really seemed to resonate with the group, many of the participants related to the personal experiences and found an empathetic perspective. We used this as a sounding board for our brainstorming. 

Ideation Activity

Idea Capture:

  • 5 mins Individual – Write or sketch ideas that come to mind on post-its. 
  • 30 mins Small Groups – Share out your ideas with your group and elaborate. Don't be afraid to get visual!
  • 15 mins Group – Share out your thoughts with the whole group, placing your post-its on the board in the OpenIDEO Idea Categories.
  • 10 mins Group – Approach the board and mark the ideas with your votes for ideas with the most potential. You may choose 3.

Once the vote had taken place, I led a second vote that identified one concept that the group could all get behind. We spent the remaining time sketching out visuals to support the idea. A project lead was nominated to be the point person to manage the post on the platform. The idea was posted to the global community and away we went! 

This meeting also marked the launch of the chapter's Google+ page. In addition to the OpenIDEO platform the group used this page to share new thoughts and share meeting notes. At this point my role as a facilitator extended to the comments section of "MOOCs to Mentorship" project page encouraging the group to engage with the global community as feedback was presented. 


The idea sparked interest from the global community almost right away. By the time the group reconvened for the third workshop a month later, collaborators from the global community had started to offer feedback, suggestions and provocations. Energy was high as we entered into the third session. The group was excited to take the concept to the next level. We began with workshop with a "Draw You Neighbor" icebreaker, then moved swiftly into a review of the project brief and the project progress. The first half of the session was spent reviewing feedback in small break-out groups, pulling feedback that could help further develop the idea. In the second half of the evening, that feedback was applied to a journey mapping exercise deigned to guide participants to think of their concept from start to finish from the point of view of their user. 


Mapping Break-out  Activity:

  • 30 mins Small Groups – Develop a persona.
  • 20 mins Small Group – Apply persona to a user journey map using Post-it notes to visualize the user's experience from end to end.
  • 10 mins Small Group – Examine the Post-its to re-order or fill in any gaps.

After the break-out the groups came back together to share out their personas and maps. One group focused on polishing the persona and the other polished the map to be uploaded to group's Idea page on the global platform.


The following session was particularly exciting due to the fact that the group's idea had been selected as a Top 25 Idea! That recognition of success inspired the participants to dig deeper into the HCD process. In the next workshop, we started with announcements, an icebreaker, a review of the brief and project progress. As the idea had drawn even more attention from other platform collaborators, there were lots of ideas and provocations to address. It was time to find a piece of the concept to prototype. As the idea was an abstract service, I encouraged the group to select a piece of the idea that would further visualize the idea and make the concept more accessible to those outside the room. They started to think about how they could quickly and simply communicate the idea to their users. 

Prototyping Break-out Activity

  • 20 mins Small Groups – Decide what to prototype, asking "What's the most important question to answer?"
  • 20 mins Small Group – Using simple materials, build or sketch a low-fidelity prototype.
  • 20 mins Small Group – Examine the prototype. "How will you use it to get real feedback from the community?"

One group decided to prototype a website and the other sketched awareness posters. The groups swapped their sketches to get feedback from the other before making a some adjustments and posting the prototypes to the platform for community feedback.

The rest of the workshop was spent assigning action items for community testing. The group made a list of who they knew that they could approach in the San Diego community for feedback.


The final workshop was designed to get the group together one last time to refine the idea based on the feedback from both the global and local communities. Some team members had focused on OpenIDEO platform comments, collecting feedback to inform the idea. Others went out into the San Diego community to speak with educators and entrepreneur in the education space and found collaborators that shared equal passion for the challenge at hand.

In that final session, the teams presented their collected feedback to the group, broke it down into categories, and established priorities. One of the most pressing questions that had come up was 

  • "Who are the key players?"
  • "What is the value to them?"

The team spent the evening answering those questions, among others to refine the idea and build out a cohesive presentation to share on the platform.


Follow Up

While the group's idea was not selected as a Top 5 Idea, the success of having been selected in the Top 25, using the Design Thinking process for the first time inspired the participants to keep the magic going. The OpenIDEO San Diego Chapter was officially formed and many participants stepped forward to form a Chapter Leadership team. The chapter is now over a year old and very recently celebrated with a Year In Review.

As for the group's idea it still lives on the OpenIDEO platform, the group has kept in touch with interested local community members and while the idea has moved to the back burner it still remains the cornerstone of the chapter. The success of that series of workshops inspired participants to become members, members to become facilitators, many whom have become active promoters of Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design in the San Diego Community.  To learn more about how the SD Chapter has activated the community, see the Activation page.