The source/History of the Approach

Design Thinking evolved from different approaches throughout time. We can trace its initial birth to 1956,
with Buckminster Fuller implementing classes of Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (CADS) at MIT. This approach built on the experience and knowledge of different professions such as engineers, industrial designers, materials scientists and chemists. From there it expanded, with different approaches and goals: being inclusive and democratic (Scandinavian Cooperative Design in 1960s), designing social and ecologically responsible things (Design for the Real World – 1969), and recognising the importance of human experience and perception when designing
(Wicked Problems – 1973). In the 1980s, the name “Design Thinking” was coined and came into use in different professions and approaches as it became more human-centered. Nowadays, it is used in several sectors because of its simplicity and results, focusing on human experience and usability.

The aims of the methodology

Design Thinking aims at solving problems or questions in a practical/creative way and designing with a view to a future outcome. Design Thinking can be used in several fields but the common aim is to follow a process to design a product or service which will meet the needs of its users, in a continuous loop cycle of questioning, prototyping, trying it out, gathering feedback, improving it and repeating the cycle. It is all about the users instead of the developer trying to guess what their needs are.

The structure of the methodology

Design Thinking comprises different approaches and methods. Some follow 4 steps, some follow 5 or 6. The names of the steps can also be different. Common to each of approaches is:

  • Research (it can be called the “empathise stage”, or questioning) – to identify the needs of the target public or space.
  • Ideation – to brainstorm possible outcomes, taking into account the research done.
  • Prototyping – to create a product or service, a solution for the problem found, in the early stages, without trying to make it the final product yet
  • Testing – to test the prototype and collect feedback in order to improve it and meet the needs of the users.
  • Repeat – Repeat the cycle of prototyping, testing, collecting feedback and improving until reaching a final result, either due to time or resource constraints, or due to a common agreement that the final result was achieved with success.

The possible benefits of applying in to the field of youth work

One of the key elements that would benefit youth work is the idea of not making assumptions about what young people need or what may work for them. Rather, it’s important to carry out research by asking them directly, by creating new things and testing them with young people, and to keep repeating the process, involving young people directly. Young people play an active part in the development of the new approaches, methods and tools, that ultimately, will be for them and made by them.
This approach can be used in the development of anything, such as renewing a youth centre, creating a game, re-designing youth spaces, creating training modules, etc.

Aspects to take into consideration when usig this approach in youth work

Involve young people as soon as possible, starting with the research stage, asking them questions in order to gain a better understanding of what is needed and how to achieve it.

Be open minded and ready to fail. It is ok if your initial idea for developing something new does not
work or meet the real needs of young people. That is why this methodology works well, ensuring that whatever is developed, will see results in the end.

Repeat the cycle of steps as often as you may need. Constant testing brings out new things to improve and others to keep, improving the final output.



When you might use it: This method can be used when it’s necessary to create, test or/ and improve something, an activity, a project, a tool, etc.
Time Required: Depends on the objectives. It can be from 1 hour to several days.
How many people involved: At least 3 people, so you can seek feedback on the testing. There is no maximum limit.
Target: All possible target groups.
Where: It can be applied in any environment.
Materials Required: Flipchart paper, Markers, Diverse material to create the prototypes: old magazines, Lego, toys, Play-Doh, wooden blocks, scissors, glue, colour markers, colour papers, etc.

Step by Step Instructions

The method we describe is based on 6 steps. As noted in the description of the methodology, you may find other variants of Design Thinking.

1st Step – Identify the problem or challenge

What needs to be changed, is not working well, or needs to be created from scratch? You may do that by conducting interviews, having focus groups, desk research or brainstorming.

2nd step – Insights & Needs

During your research, what did you find out? What insights did you have (ideas to develop further)? Observe your environment and users. What needs were identified that your product or service might fulfil? We recommend using whiteboards or big flipcharts and sticky notes to write down the insights and needs you identify.

3rd step – Persona

Who will be the users of what you are developing? Try to write down and draw the main characteristics of the user. Imagine one single person who will be the user, give them a name, write down their needs and the reasons behind the needs. This will help you later to develop the concept.

4th step – Ideas

Brainstorm possible concepts and any ideas of what can be done or created. Do not limit yourself in this stage and allow all ideas to be welcome. Draw or write them down.

5th step – Prototype

Create a concept of what you want to develop. You can draw or create a 3D model using Lego pieces or Play-Doh (or any other material). If what you want to develop is more abstract, draw the main things and write down keywords.

6th – Test & Feedback

Open up your concept to users so they can try it out. Be open to receiving feedback and collect positive comments, criticism, questions and ideas.

Repeat the cycle or go back to step 4 to improve what you have created. You can adapt this method and adjust the flow to your requirements, since it’s a dynamic cycle that interacts in all steps.




The method can be applied to any target group. The adaptations will necessarily depend on the needs of the users, but since they are an active part of the process and one of the steps is identifying their needs, this method is inherently inclusive.

The method works much better if participants can discuss face to face, but online vriation though Zoom (or similar platforms) is also possible. You need an application that allows to divide the group in the break out rooms and you can use Google Jamboard to let them make notes in a visual way that can be shown to people from other groups.

Possible combinations with other methodologies

Design Thinking is already a very good methodology on its own. However, we recommend searching for various approaches to implementing it and identifying the one that works best for you. Besides that, any other methodology that can add value to this one is more than welcome.


1st example – Redesigning a youth space

Research the spaces that young people are using, especially if you have a youth centre. Interview young people to understand what is missing and what their needs are. Brainstorm with the young people on how to transform the space. Ask them to build a prototype (it can be by drawing, using Play-Doh or Lego, or any other material). Test it by sharing it with youth workers and other young people and get feedback. Improve the prototype and implement the new ideas about the space.

2nd example – Create a learning programme 

Ask young people what they would like to learn and how. Brainstorm ideas with them: how to make a
schedule, the possibilities for learning different topics, opportunities to learn with each other, etc. Design a learning programme taking into account the results of the previous steps. Test it by implementing it with young people and gather feedback. Improve it, adapt it according to the feedback obtained and implement new tests.


The methodological description is based on the text produced by Sergio Gonçalves. Developing Youth Work Innovation. E-handbook. Project Future Labs. Erasmus+, KA2, 2019. Publication of Humak University of Applied Sciences, page 32.

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