Ignite your team’s creativity and productivity with some of our go-to design thinking activities.

The best and most successful products and services are designed with the end-user in mind. When you understand your customer, you can effectively create what they want and need. That’s the idea behind design thinking– a human-centric approach to ideate and solve problems creatively. The methodology is both a mindset and a process to generate bold and innovative ideas and tackle business challenges and problems. You can better understand the human behind your next product, method, service, or process idea using design thinking exercises during any phase of your project. These exercises offer an engaging, interactive, hands-on approach to problem-solving.

Design thinking exercises and design thinking workshops encompass the 5-step design thinking process:

  1. Empathize – Understand the perspective of the target audience/customer/consumer to identify and address the problem at hand.
  2. Define – Define the problem statement clearly.
  3. Ideate –  Brainstorm ways to address identified unmet needs.
  4. Prototype – Identity which of the possible solutions can best solve the identified problem(s).
  5. Test – Test the product with your target audience to get feedback.

This five-step process enables teams to come up with impactful solutions to real problems that are vetted by the people they intend to serve before they’ve even been built. There are specific design thinking exercises that can help you and your team get the most out of each step. Let’s take a look at some of our favorites.

Design Thinking Exerices

We’ve compiled some of our favorite design thinking exercises for you to use among your teams as soon as tomorrow. Plug them in where you need them in your project process and watch the magic unfold.

1. Warmups

At your next meeting, don’t dive right into logistics or action items. Open with one of these warm-ups or “icebreakers” to set the tone for the meeting. They help shake people up and establish that you will be thinking differently in this session. Use one or two of these design thinking exercises to start your meeting or workshop on the right note. They can also be used to punctuate the day and energize the group after long activities or breaks.

Yes, But vs. Yes, And

This warm-up shows the power of building others’ ideas versus shooting them down. Taken from one of the principles of improv comedy, in this activity, you pair people and have them do the following:

  • Part One: Person A suggests doing something with Person B, who has to answer with a reason not to do it, starting with “Yes, but…” Person A responds with a counter-suggestion also using “Yes, but…” (Example: Person A: “Let’s go to the grocery store.” Person B: “Yes, but our refrigerator is broken.” Person A: “Yes, but, we still need to eat.”)
  • Part Two: Person A makes a suggestion, but now Person B answers with “Yes, and…” And so on… (Example: Person A: “Let’s go to the grocery store.” Person B: “Yes, and let’s get avocados.” Person A: Yes, and let’s make guacamole.”)

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Impromptu Networking

In this exercise, take about 20 minutes for participants to meet in pairs and introduce themselves to each other and answer the question: “What big challenge do you bring to this gathering? What do you hope to get from and give this group or community?” By the end, each person will talk to about four people and learn something new about their colleagues or teammates. Impromptu Networking is excellent when your meeting attendees don’t know each other, or even when they do; either way, participants quickly gain new perspectives on the people they’ll be working with throughout the meeting or day.

Two people discussing at a table

Nine Whys

Like Impromptu Networking, the Nine Whys is a Liberating Structures activity. Here’s how they describe this warm-up:

“Ask, “What do you do when working on ______ (the subject matter or challenge at hand)? Please make a short list of activities.” Then ask, “Why is that important to you?” Keep asking, “Why? Why? Why?” up to nine times or until participants can go no deeper because they have reached the fundamental purpose for this work.”

By asking “Why?” so many times in a row, you can ultimately get to a clear understanding of why you are gathering and what the purpose of your meeting is.

Hands talking at a table

2. Empathize

Empathy is a critical starting point for any design thinking endeavor. It means making design and business decisions from the perspective of the end-user or customer and truly understanding and anticipating their needs. These design thinking exercises help you get into the minds of your users, identify patterns and challenges, and relate these to the problem your team needs to solve.


Creating personas is an effective way to focus on your user and ensure that you are designing for their top needs. Personas are a representation of your target user — their typical characteristics, challenges, and desires. On average, you create one to three personas for your project so that you can focus on different needs and inspire divergent ways of looking at a problem.

This worksheet (available for download here) shows you the different aspects you might define for your persona.

An example worksheet for creating a persona.
An example worksheet for creating a persona.

Find another good explanation for how to create a persona here.

User Journey Mapping

User or customer journey mapping is another critical exercise when you are trying to build empathy for the user and uncover new ways to answer their top needs. Start by identifying all of the moments that a user goes through from start to finish when interacting with your particular product, service, or experience. These are your moments or milestones along the top of your journey map.

Journey mapping in progress.
Journey mapping in progress.

For example, imagine that you are designing a new experience of going through the TSA checkpoint at the airport. Your moments along the top of this user journey map might be: Pack for Trip — Travel to Airport — Arrive at Airport — Find Security Line — Show ID to TSA — Go through Security — Find Gate — Arrive at Destination.

Once you have your top-level journey moments or touchpoints, use your personas (see above) to go step-by-step and capture what your user is feeling, thinking, and doing at every phase. Through this process, you can begin to map the breadth of problems your user faces to identify the most prominent issues to tackle through design or innovation.

Read more about journey mapping here.

Design Sprint supplies

3. Ideation

Ideation is the phase of your project when you need to generate many different possible solutions or answers to your user’s problems or challenges. You don’t want to come up with one idea and put all your energy and focus into that. The goal of ideation is to go wide, come up with tons of ideas (even crazy ones) so that you have a lot to work with when it is time to focus on some ideas to prototype and test. When you need to get the creativity flowing, these design thinking exercises will unleash your thought process.


SCAMPER is a method of focused brainstorming. But, rather than just saying “Come up with ideas!”, the SCAMPER acronym runs you through seven techniques for idea generation: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate and Reverse.

You use SCAMPER like this: first, identify the product or service you’re working with or the business question at hand. Run through the SCAMPER list and ask yourself questions based on the letters. (You can feel free to jump around and focus on the ones that are inspiring you the most.)

For example, let’s say you work at Uber. You need to think of ways to innovate. You take Combine and think: How could I combine Uber with another experience that riders need? You say to yourself: Riders need food when they are coming home in an Uber late at night. This might lead you to think of an experience where Uber riders can order pizza and a car at the same time. Their driver arrives with a hot pizza in the car and the rider can eat it on the way home. (Ok, this example might just describe UberEats, but you get the idea.)

Read more about SCAMPER and find prompting questions for each letter here.

Crazy 8s

Crazy 8s is an activity that we run as part of every Design Sprint, but it can be used anytime you want to come up with a bunch of ideas quickly. The simplicity of this one is wonderful:

  1. Grab a piece of paper and fold it into eight sections
  2. Set a timer for 8 minutes
  3. Have participants sketch a distinct idea in each section. (Remind them that the ideas don’t have to be amazing, or even viable. The point is getting ideas down on paper and not censoring themselves.)

Find out more about Crazy 8s here.

Douglas Ferguson

4. Decisions

It can be easy and fun to come up with new ideas and solutions. But, making decisions? Not always as fun or straightforward. Thankfully, design thinking provides us with some great methods to help filter information. Try these design thinking exercises to help you make creative and impactful decisions.

Affinity Grouping

Affinity grouping is a way to bubble up big themes in a large group of ideas. Assess all of the ideas you’ve generated as a group. Hopefully, you’re working with Post-its, and you can start to move or cluster like ideas together. Create a name or theme for each group of ideas. Once you have a set of big ideas, you can vote as a group about what is most important to focus on.

Dot Voting

Dot voting is another way you can get a sense of what ideas are resonating as most important with the group. Give everyone in the group 3–5 (or more!) sticky dots. At the same time, have everyone put their dots on the idea or concept that they like the most. In the end, you have a heat map of the ideas that the group gravitates toward.

Note and Vote

Note and Vote is another method that comes out of the Design Sprint. The benefit of this exercise is that it gives everyone an equal vote or voice in decision-making. It’s super simple but effective.

Let’s say you have a series of ideas that you are reviewing as a group. Have everyone silently write down which idea is their favorite on a Post-it note. Once they’re done, have everyone put their vote up on the wall or whiteboard at the same time. Review the votes, see what idea has the most votes, and have a conversation around the pros and cons of the 1–3 “winners.”

Design thinking exercises are a highly effective way to ensure your next project is a success. Incorporate them with your team today and create meaningful work together. Pro-tip: use our Liberating Structures templates to get the most out of the design-thinking process with your team.

Learn more about design thinking and facilitation at one of our workshops or events!

We host regular Facilitation Lab meetups, boot camps, summits, and virtual workshops. See a full list of upcoming events here.

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