We want leaders to use design thinking to increase their impact

Designing for Social Systems Workshop for Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) at Stanford University

The Designing for Social Systems Workshop is an intensive workshop at the d.school at Stanford University. It was created to help social sector leaders design more human-centered, strategic, and effective programs and organizations.

Workshop participants learn design thinking by tackling a real-world challenge in partnership with a nonprofit organization, and also develop a plan for how to apply these practices to their own work when they return home.

Workshops are a week-long and occur twice a year. The next workshop is in August 2020. The following case study is from a workshop in 2018.


The DSS program partnered with the San Jose Public Libraries to explore ways the libraries and other government and private entities could improve learning for San Jose residents.

Design challenge

Participants traveled to San Jose for a day. My team conducted interviews at two library branches and interviewed city and library staff, education focused nonprofits, and high school students.

Interviewing youth at the library


Following the interviews, we worked together to pull insights out of the data.

Helping team to draw out insights


Teams discovered and identified insights about the learning environment in San Jose as it relates to college and career readiness and the public library system.

Some of them are shared below:

Many efforts of the libraries and other organizations assume that teens have barriers to learning tech, and therefore work to help teens overcome these barriers. However, this may not be the case; perhaps a bigger factor is that youth feel deeply alienated from tech and tech culture. For many youth, tech culture can be associated with gentrification, inequality, and an increasing socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor in the Bay Area. Youth feel alienated from this culture and therefore find ways to reject tech and technology-related learning. There may be opportunity in reframing programs surrounding tech; teens use tech every day in their lives yet feel alienated from the culture that creates that tech. By making tech approachable and relatable, more teens could potentially be reached.
Teens have a pre-existing bias as to where learning takes place: in the school, not outside of school. At the same time, however, programs find success when they take learning (specifically technology-based learning) to the teens. For example, while programs in video editing at the library may have gained little traction, there was success in bringing GoPro cameras to skateparks and letting teens use them (and learn video editing at the same time). How could we take advantage of times when learning aligns with the teen’s interest, contributing to one of their goals and in a space where they feel comfortable.
Library fines can create a sense of criminality in the library, alienating San Jose residents that already feel culturally distant from the libraries. This contributes to a sense of distrust that already exists in some communities, spanning multiple generations. Perhaps the fine system could be rewritten, or programs could be in place, to reframe the way that residents see fines: not as a penalty or a crime but rather as a reminder and an incentive to return items when they are due.
Teens roam in groups and act based on what their friends are doing. However, library programming is geared towards individuals, not groups. At the same time, programs have a hard time attracting teens to participate in them. Therefore there is an opportunity to promote and design programs for groups of high-school students, and leverage their relationships with one-another.

More information can be found at DSS June Workshop Recap.

Design Solution

One of the things my team was struck by was the undercurrent of anger and mistrust towards tech and what it represents. For example, one young person told them, "I was taught that people who are rich and educated don't care about people like me." They sensed a catch-22 for young people – the feeling that the tech industry has a negative impact on community along with the idea that tech jobs were the only option.

Inspired by these conversations, my team developed dozens of "How Might We" questions to frame opportunity spaces and point to specific challenges that can be addressed.

Here are the three they used to brainstorm solutions:

  • How might we engage kids in the design of the city's future?
  • How might the tech industry function more like gangs?
  • How might we support librarians to support youth on their journey to different careers?

After generating a wide range of solutions (products, services, spaces, programs, policies, etc.), my team narrowed in on a specific solution. They saw an opportunity to leverage three key insights:

  • The library is already considered a safe space with high-trust relationships.
  • Transportation is a major barrier to access.
  • Youth want to see themselves as a part of the city's future.
Opportunity and solution worksheet

My team created 'Career Cab', a transportation service to the library that focuses on career mentoring for young people.

Project team with final concept

They mapped out a solution in order to build a low-resolution prototype to test.

Mapping out prototype

Career Cab was tested with high school students, San Jose Libraries staff, and Parks, Recreation, & Neighborhoods staff. The team received valuable feedback and ideas to refine their solution.

Testing out solution with library partner

All teams summarized and presented their project work–including opportunities identified and potential solutions–to library partners.


As a design coach, I wanted to create a positive, playful, and engaging learning experience. My team identified personal design behaviors to work on such as keeping humans at the center of the process, sitting comfortably with ambiguity, and showing unfinished work. I designed activities to support individual goals as well as to guide constructive team behaviors such as:

  • Sharing control
  • Inviting people's full authentic self
  • Integrating different personal styles into a collective process
  • Building off each other's ideas
  • Being willing to let go

At the end of the workshop, my team rated our work together as ten out of ten.

Project team rating team behaviors

More information can be found at DSS June Workshop Recap. Photos by Patrick Beaudouin

“Amie was my design coach during an amazing week-long experience at Stanford's d.school. She's a rock star -- creative, organized, enthusiastic. Her facilitation and design chops were impressive and appreciated by a team new to design.”

– Adene Sacks, Program Director
Irvine New Leadership Network

“Amie is a bright design thinker. I had met her at a Stanford d.school workshop where she coached teams on a design project for underserved community in a gentrified neighborhood. She smartly facilitated a successful team dynamic, showing creativity and leadership. It was a great pleasure working with Amie.”

– Elad Meshulam, Creative Solutions Manager
International Monetary Fund

“Fantastic to work with Amie. A skilled design coach who navigated our team seamlessly through the co-design process in a social service system context, would highly recommend.”

– Shelley Katae, General Manager, Strategy & Performance
Tāmaki Regeneration Company