Design Thinking Is Not Thinking Like A Designer, It’s Channeling Personas

Sarabeth Berk, Ph.D.
6 min readFeb 23, 2017

It’s time to question this statement: “Design thinking is literally thinking like a designer. Just go do that.”

If someone commanded you to “act” like a designer right now, what would you do? Seriously. What would your hand gestures or body language be? Would you tilt your head or scrunch your eyes? Would you reach for a pencil or sit down at a computer? How many typical office workers do you suppose would be confounded upon being asked to act like a designer? I think it would be the majority (minus the few goofballs who always do something silly because that’s what they do).

I’m asking you to take a hard look and reflect upon the persona of a designer. Persona meaning the key qualities and traits that symbolize the overarching profession of design. What does a designer do, in terms of identifiable actions? How does a designer act or speak? What are a designer’s tools of the trade?

In childhood, we played pretend and imitated careers we saw on television or in movies or any career with which we had first hand experiences. We emulated being doctors by pressing plastic stethoscopes against the chest of our teddy bears, and we pounded the keys of calculators or computers to be a businessperson. In essence, we practiced acting like different professionals by embracing the key qualities we sensed or saw in their lines of work.

As someone who calls herself a designer, even I struggle, on command, to synthesize my designer-self into stereotypical body language or phrases that would be readily identifiable in a game of charades or pictionary. If I were to stand up and “act” like a designer in front of a group of friends at this minute, I doubt the word designer would be the fifth, tenth, or twentieth guess from their mouths. Designer isn’t in the canon of standard professions that we learn at a young age or practice embodying in games. I posit that this is because designer is too abstract and obscure, and we don’t have strong or widespread mental models of what it means, unlike professions of doctor, lawyer, musician, teacher, mechanic, and so forth.


When groups are learning about how to use design thinking, I frequently hear experts say, “Design thinking is literally thinking like a designer. So start doing that.” Typically, this statement is said casually and innocuously to newbies without regard for what the heck it means. If the facilitator is good, they back the comment with a set (hopefully containing visual graphics) of mindsets and habits that are embraced by design thinkers. Still, that only sets the stage. My observation is that people try on the proposed mindsets such as “yes and” or “radical collaboration” for the time of the training, and then mostly pay lip service or completely forget to use them thereafter.

Why Teach Personas in Design Thinking

What do we, the experienced gurus of design thinking — the model design thinkers — actually expect people to start doing and continue doing, especially when they’re learning the basics of how to integrate design thinking as part of their daily practice?

Instead of merely pushing forward and teaching audiences who are outwardly displaying enthusiasm and fun while doing design thinking activities, but inwardly are scratching their heads trying to digest the gist of design thinking, I suggest adding and/or trying a different approach. Call it another tool to add to your design thinking toolkit. (We all know there are many ways to practice and teach design thinking). Whether you’re seasoned or new to this, I wholeheartedly believe the strategy I outline below is one of the most effective ways to get people to adopt and adapt to what it means to start thinking like a designer.

My persona strategy is drawn from personal experience in teaching and learning design thinking, and is validated by theater circles and acting coaches. In order to prepare for roles, actors often embody personas and practice characters to improve performance. Role playing is an incredibly powerful way to change behaviors and shift mindsets. Once you can copy the characteristics of another person or profession, then you can start to apply them in your own work and in your own way.

Side note: I am a huge fan of the article that was published on Medium this fall, Let’s stop talking about THE design process. I believe that we have overemphasized the steps and stages of design thinking, which has left the negative impression that by doing each step, a person is in fact “using” design thinking. The problem is that design thinking is more authentically a set of beliefs and habits that are activated throughout the design process, like an intricate dance. Since abilities are more difficult to develop and witness in action, the design thinking step-by-step process has become the backbone teaching philosophy and primary way that design thinking is tracked or measured with a group. I believe that by teaching people to try on personas, it aids them to start thinking like designers, sometimes without even realizing it.

The Persona Approach to Design Thinking

(Let me preface this by saying this is a design thinking “strategy-in-process”. I welcome your impressions and feedback on how each persona may or may not work in practice as well as other personas you feel should be added or substituted.)

I propose there are six significant personas that embody the key aspects of design thinking: detective, inner child, magician, alien, nerd, and crash test dummy. When these six are used, either solo or in tandem, they comprise the entire persona of designer. Each persona aligns to at least one, and usually two, steps of the design thinking process.

As a facilitator, I chose these specific personas because they: 1) are easy to associate with — people quickly know what to do, and 2) more effectively trigger the kinds of actions I desire from a group more so than the typical cues of “think outside the box” or “let go of judgment”.

The way I use personas is by saying, “Now, let’s act like detectives” (or whichever persona I want people to channel) at particular times or stages of the design process. I call out personas by name, along with a few key qualities, instead of just announcing mindsets. Instinctually, I notice groups change their behaviors and start demonstrating the mindsets and actions needed at that point. The difference is that I didn’t task them with a list of mindsets because that feels challenging and abstract.

Detective (stage: empathy, problem definition)

The detective is the gatherer of information in a very objective, detailed, and curious way. Qualities: curious, hunts for and collects clues, extreme listener, evidence driven, no judgment, no assumptions, “hmmm…”, wonders what is at the root cause, whodunnit?, human-centered.

Inner Child (stage: empathy, ideation)

The inner child is the young voice that is carefree, imaginative, and does not hold back. Qualities: naive, beginner, inquisitive, imaginative, dreamer, idealist, playful, make believer, creative, open-minded, wild, free, no wrong answers.

Alien (stage: ideation, problem definition)

The alien brings a foreign perspective, everything is new and never been seen or experienced before, and is in search of making meaning from the obvious. Qualities: outsider, opposite, challenges status quo, sees things from a different perspective, represents other cultures/industries.

Magician (stage: ideation, prototype)

The magician believes the impossible is possible and anything can happen. Qualities: Wonder, imagination, moonshots, “What if…”, no worries, takes risks, creatively uses materials, transforms things from one thing into something else, repurposes, more than meets the eye, makes dreams come true.

Nerd (stage: problem definition, test)

The nerd is highly analytical and takes things from chaos back into order with data and evidence to support rationale. Qualities: pattern finder, sense maker, theme generator, data collector, evidence driven, sharp, concrete.

Crash Test Dummy (stage: prototype, test)

The crash test dummy has fun taking risks, continually testing and breaking things so we can learn from and improve on them again and again. Qualities: build to learn, show don’t tell, iterative, experimenter, quick and low-cost, tester, loves feedback.



Sarabeth Berk, Ph.D.

Creative Disruptor I Innovation Strategist I Systems Builder #MoreThanMyTitle #HybridProfessional