How to design your way out of that career rut

For many people, trying to figure out what they want to do for a career can be one hell of a wicked problem: hard to define and stubbornly resistant to a definite answer.

But a more creative kind of problem solving could be a solution for those stuck agonising over their futures.

Design thinking is applying strategies used by designers such as prototyping and ideation to solve problems. While it comes from the design process, the methodology has been applied in areas outside of design. In business, for example, design thinking is used to focus on customers and their needs in order to continue to innovate. Companies like PepsiCo, Toyota and AirBnb have all employed design thinking techniques to improve their products and services for customers.

So, how exactly does this apply to your career? It’s important to understand the process of design thinking in order to understand how to apply it.

According to Stanford University’s design thinking process guide, the first step in the process is empathy and understanding other people by observing, engaging, watching and listening.

When it comes to your career, the first step is to understand yourself – not in the sense of knowing exactly what it is you want to do, but taking some time to figure out the sorts of things you enjoy and care about doing in terms of work. This is also where you recognise any constraints you have in your life that might influence your career choice.

The next stage is to define. That means defining the problem based on information from the first step. The goal is to come up with a problem statement, or a “point-of-view”. A good problem statement provides a focused problem, is inspiring, gives you criteria to evaluate competing ideas and stops you from trying to come up with a catch-all answer.

For your career, this means narrowing down your interests, seeing if there are any patterns, grouping together similar themes and looking in more detail at the things that pop out and really excite you. What is the real problem you’re trying to solve here?

The third stage is to create solutions to the problem, or to ideate. Rather than trying to find the one single perfect answer at this stage, designers are aiming for the widest range of ideas to choose from.

If you ever made a list of all the things you wanted to be when you grew up, that’s pretty much ideation in a career sense. Make a list of career options, courses and organisations that you want to work with based on what you’ve come up with in the previous steps. You can categorise them to make it easier to process, for example: “most preferred”, “most inspiring”, “most financially secure” and “easiest to find work”, etc.

Prototyping comes next, which in design terms is basically testing an idea through an early release of a model, product or service. It’s important not to spend too long on or get too attached to one prototype and to identify what you are testing with each one.

Career-wise, this means researching all your ideas. Talk to people who have done it before, or who are doing it now. Read the copious amounts of information available online.

The final step goes hand-in-hand with prototyping. Testing is when designers get feedback from users about the prototypes they have made. This refines the solution, provides more understanding about users and sometimes can prove the initial problem statement was wrong.

Here, you get the chance to really evaluate whether your ideas are things you want to do by trying them out for yourself. It’s a chance for you to surface and challenge any biases you might have towards certain careers or your own abilities.

Take part in a workshop or class, maybe even try and shadow someone who does what you want to do. If you find that it isn’t what you really want to do, then go back a few steps to ideate, prototype and test some more. Rome wasn’t built in a day and sometimes it takes a few tries to get to where you truly want to go.

All of this might sound like a lot of work and mental stamina, but then again, it could be the key to taking your career and life in a direction you never thought possible.

It’s Your Life.  It’s Your Career. You Own It.

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