What I learned from the IBM Design Facilitation Activation summit

Posted by Bri & Joshua

Earlier this summer, in partnership with AIGA, the professional association for design, IBM held design thinking facilitation summits to train AIGA chapter leaders in the mindset and methodology. Two of my fellow AIGA board members and I joined chapters from across the region in New York City at IBM’s Astor Place office to learn how to activate design thinking locally, and gain a better understand of how the practice fuels teams across multiple disciplines within IBM, and for their clients. Teams from IBM shared case-studies and led hands on activities to demonstrate design facilitation through role playing and practice problems.

Today, @brisayswhaat is at @ibmdesign for the AIGA Design Facilitation Summit with @aigacentralpa #designthinking

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What is Design Thinking?

At its simplest, design thinking is a human-centered process for solving problems.

Design thinking can also be applied to:

  • Solving complex problems addressing external or internal organizational issues
  • Prioritizing product features while considering feasibility and importance
  • Creating empathy for a user and user base within a team

Although the training I attended was sponsored and created by IBM’s Design team, they’re not the first company to employ the methodology in their work and approach. Design thinking first became popular in association with Stanford and IDEO back in the 90s.

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(Photo Credit: Ryaan Beck)

As partially demonstrated in the workshop, IBM focuses on using design thinking as a “framework to solve our users’ problems at the speed and scale of the modern digital enterprise”. Because design thinking is a human-centered framework it can even be applied to reimagining everything from how we pick up our morning coffee to how we grocery shop and more. By focusing on the user, and fostering empathy for that user, we gain a more human-centered mindset as we approach business, design and technology.

Effectively brainstorming

The activities that were demonstrated put us in a mindset of radical collaboration, where ideas are generated and iterated on quickly, and efficiently. Participants are writing, recycling, reiterating and moving in a constant cycle to avoid over thinking and analyzing details that put a pause to the brainstorming process. This is great because it helps you avoid those endless brainstorming sessions where everyone talks in circles.


The exercises that occur during a design thinking workshop help level the playing field and bring in the opinions, thoughts, concerns and expertise of everyone who’s knowledge and experience is vital to the process. However, these exercises only work as long as everyone is an active participant.

IBM provided fascinating examples of how design thinking can be facilitated for teams in any organization. The key benefit of facilitation being this: Reimagining how people approach tasks, regardless of the level of complexity, requires deep empathy and understanding. Design thinking helps us reconsider a challenge, put ourselves in the shoes of the people who are impacted by our solutions and then explore a diverse range of solutions.

We’ve been practicing design thinking for years. Check out this post about how we’ve applied these techniques to our work with AIGA.