DesignThinking@Williams offers techniques for solving social, cultural, and economic problems using creative thinking and human centered design. These tools can assist faculty in their teaching objectives; empower students in their social and entrepreneurial endeavors; assist the College as it continually improves the Williams experience; and prepare students to use the strength of their liberal arts education in purposeful ways in the work environment. A Design Thinker in Residence provides support in helping others learn these techniques.

Design thinking builds creative confidence; encourages the taking of risks to allow innovative solutions; offers ways to test many different ideas, and learn from failure; and helps to craft solutions focused on the human experience. This approach to problem solving is used in start-ups, consumer-facing businesses, non-profits committed to social change, and government agencies seeking ways to improve the citizen experience.

Design thinking involves a series of steps that encourage creative inquiry, such as always indulging in divergent thinking—testing the bounds of reasonable options—before converging on a possible solution; team work that respects the kind of diversity of educational experience gained in a liberal arts college; and focusing on the opportunity for solutions to benefit people, not institutions, policies, or models.

Interested in learning more or getting help in using design thinking in solving a problem? Contact our Design Thinker in Residence: Ric Grefé at Sawyer 258 or contact our team at

Intent of design thinking at Williams...a toolkit for solving complex problems

“Design thinking” is neither a discipline nor a circumscribed process. It is an opportunity to bring empathy, creativity, and thoughtful observation of the impact of solutions on real people to bear on many of the problems facing business and society. Although it has received considerable attention for its contribution to innovation in products and services, its true value is in encouraging imaginative ideation, diverging sometimes wildly in the pursuit of new ways to understand human problems and to suggest unexpected solutions.

The strength of those who practice design thinking is not in their design background or their adherence to even proven approaches toward problem framing and solutions. It is in the breadth of their interests, knowledge, and experience. To this extent, bringing the skillsets to a Williams education is an opportunity to enhance the relevance, leadership, and opportunity for students in the humanities and arts, social sciences, or physical sciences as they approach their potential contribution to the human experience—whether in the private, public, or independent sectors.

And for students, design thinking experience provides students the opportunity to build their creative confidence by taking risks in problem-solving where both risk and failure are celebrated as a means to a better answer.

Success for this pilot will occur if an increasing number of students graduate able to face the first day of their job with confidence in their ability to be involved in a collaborative experience in addressing a difficult problem with creativity, divergent thinking, and critical discourse. In explicit terms, this would mean that they could participate productively in a team exercise or even lead it on the first day. They would have experienced a workshop and other projects using these techniques; they would understand the basic principles and the variety of ways to pursue them (often with methods they feel comfortable developing themselves); and they understand that ultimately the problem and the solution must address real human needs and behavior. Having been exposed to design thinking will contribute to this; the experience and perspective of the Williams education will be the value they will add.

Explaining the concepts of design thinking

Design thinking as an approach to problem solving can be defined in many ways—some suggest it should be called "creative inquiry," or "creative collaboration," or even the academic sounding "abductive reasoning." It has been called design thinking because some of the techniques emerged from the design profession, even as they moved from making objects to thinking about creative solutions to much larger problems of human experience.

Today, these approaches are being used to develop human-centered solutions for innovative products and services, the citizen experience (such as voting or the way we serve veterans), public services (particularly health care), and larger social problems that depend upon changing the human experience (hunger, clean water, farming in the third world).

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Guides to the process of design thinking

Different organizations have different approaches toward the process of human-centered design solutions. Here we provide three examples and a review of other toolkits.

IBM Design Thinking Field Guide.pdf
Field Guide to Human-Centered Design_IDEOorg.pdf

IBM Field Guide to Design Thinking Design Thinking Field Guide

Innovators' Guidebook by gravitytank

Tools for design thinking

...and maybe a Design Thinker in Residence or any student who has experienced the process.

Keep all the dimensions of success in mind...

...and brainstorm wildly.

Interested in learning more or getting help in using design thinking in solving a problem? Contact our Design Thinker in Residence: Ric Grefé at Sawyer 258 or contact our team at

The material on this website and in the practice of design thinking owes a debt to the pioneering work and the commitment to sharing tools and practices by Ideo,, Acumen Foundation, IBM, frog design, and gravitytank.