Our how-to guide for aspiring design thinking facilitators


Are you interested in facilitating a design thinking session at your workplace or for another organization? Have you learned about design thinking and want to get started or deepen your skills? If you are a newbie to design thinking facilitation, this is the guide for you. We’ve pulled together the basics you need to know to lead a design thinking or innovation workshop.

Read this design thinking facilitator guide and you’ll have solid tools to be successful from start to finish.


What is Design Thinking?

Before we dive in, let’s define some key terms. First, design thinking. Design thinking is a methodology that puts the end-user or customer at the center of decision making. Design thinking work is also characterized by an emphasis on prototyping and testing ideas, as well as working in a highly collaborative manner with a cross-disciplinary team.

Design thinking isn’t a fad or a passing business trend. It’s a powerful way of working that has been adopted by both startups and major corporations and can be applied successfully to any business challenge.

Want to be a design thinking facilitator? Explore this Design Thinking Facilitator Guide.
Want to be a design thinking facilitator? Explore this Design Thinking Facilitator Guide.

What is a Design Thinking Facilitator?

A design thinking facilitator is a person who leads groups in working sessions that utilize design thinking methods. These gatherings may take many forms: brainstorms, innovation workshops, executive summits, design sprints, multi-day workshops, and long-term projects.

A design thinking facilitator is a sherpa or guide to thinking and working in an innovative, forward-thinking way.

Design thinking facilitators help teams keep a customer-centric mindset and work to uncover new insights and ideas that might not be revealed through typical working methods (i.e. the boss cooks up an idea in the shower and tells the team to go execute). In a nutshell, a design thinking facilitator is a sherpa or guide to thinking and working in an innovative, forward-thinking way.

Want to learn the basics of how to be a design thinking facilitator? Read on for our design thinking facilitator guide.

Step 1: Get Focused

Your first order of business as a design thinking facilitator is to clarify and define what you need to accomplish through your meeting or engagement. You want to know the specific challenge and desired outcomes. Write down the ultimate goal and big questions you want to answer and make sure your fellow participants agree with the objectives you define.

Pro tip: Consider scheduling 30–60 minute conversations with each stakeholder before your design thinking session to make sure you are on the same page about what you want to accomplish.

Your job as a design thinking facilitator begins long before the session itself.
Your job as a design thinking facilitator begins long before the session itself.
Your job as a design thinking facilitator begins long before the session itself.

Step 2: Make the Guest List

Another task for a design thinking facilitator is to line up the participants. Who is taking part in this session? Your main stakeholder or client will likely have a strong hand in building the guest list. However, as the design thinking facilitator, it’s important to help shape the participant list.

Too few people and there are not enough ideas. Too many people and it’s impossible to wrangle and coordinate everyone.

Make sure that you have diversity in skill set, expertise, attitude, tenure, etc. The more points-of-view that are represented, the better your solutions will be. Another consideration is the number of participants. Typically, somewhere between 7–15 is perfect. Too few people and there are not enough ideas. Too many people and it’s impossible to wrangle and coordinate everyone.

Step 3: Make Your Agenda

Once you have defined the focus and identified participants, it is time to plan your gathering. A good way to think about your agenda is to start at the end: What do you need to come out of your design thinking session with? Do you need alignment or tons of novel ideas? Are you looking for a prioritized roadmap or a paper prototype of a new experience? When you know what you need by the end, you can plan your design thinking activities to build toward that conclusion.

The individual activities you will do varies greatly by your particular challenge. (For a great list of design thinking activities, check out this resource.) But, no matter how much time you have, be sure to build in time for introductions, icebreakers, and short breaks to check email.

Pro tip: Be generous when time-boxing your activities. Everything will take longer than you think. A good rule of thumb is to double the time you imagine an individual activity will take.

Where you host your design thinking session is critical.
Where you host your design thinking session is critical.

Step 4: Get Your Space

Now it’s time to think about where you are going to host your design thinking session. It might sound silly, but the space where you host your session contributes to the day’s success.

Often, it’s a good idea to get participants out of their office to inspire fresh thinking and distance from day-to-day work. Whether you have the budget to rent a space or you have to stay at work, consider the following when identifying your workshop space:

  • Look for places with good natural light and hopefully, some character. (In other words, a windowless hotel conference room isn’t ideal.)
  • Make sure you have enough seats for everyone. (Simple, but we’ve seen it happen.)
  • You’ll need wall space or whiteboards for pinning materials and capturing ideas.
  • Don’t forget AV needs—you’ll probably need a projector for your Powerpoint or Keynote presentation.

Want more information on choosing a space? Check out 7 Things to Consider When Choosing a Workshop Venue here.

Step 5: Gather Supplies

Ok, you have space, participants, and a solid agenda. Now, you need the supplies for a successful workshop. Your exact supplies will be driven by your activities and agenda, but these are the basics you’ll probably need:

If you want to dive deeper into the specific supplies that are recommended for a design sprint (which are helpful for any workshop), read here.

Pro-Tip: If you can, bring in a tasty breakfast and lunch so you don’t have to go out to eat. Also, have healthy snacks and water on hand to keep people going when their brains start slowing down.

Meeting in progress

Step 6: Be the Leader

It’s the big day! It’s time for you to do your thing and lead the group through the agenda and activities you worked so hard on. Facilitation is a skill that improves the more you do it.

Everyone has their own unique style, but here are some things to consider and remember as you lead your team through the day:

  • You’re the boss: People are looking for you to guide them. You are the expert. Establish your authority early and feel confident making decisions and telling the group when it’s time to move onto the next activity.
  • Establish rules: Let the group know the rules of the day. For example, encourage people to stay off their phones and to fully participate in the session.
  • Give everyone a voice: As the facilitator, you are responsible for letting everyone have their voice heard. If you notice someone being quiet, pull them into the conversation.

Step 7: Wrap It Up & Play It Back

The session might be done, but your work as a design thinking facilitator is not done. Here are some things to consider in the days after your design thinking meeting:

  • Photograph and document: Make sure you photograph important output from the meeting: i.e. Post-its, diagrams, and worksheets that may have been created.
  • Synthesize the learnings: Take time to reflect on what happened in the session and the big ideas that came out of it. Synthesize these findings in a digestible fashion like a short presentation or a Mural board.
  • Get the group back together: Schedule time to share back your learnings with the participants and make plans together for how to move forward.

Looking for Design Thinking Facilitators?

Voltage Control has expert design thinking facilitators who can run innovation workshops or design sprints. Or, if you are looking for innovation training for your team, we have services for that as well.