Can design thinking transform your career?

Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans say you can prototype your life just like you would a smart phone. MT went to find out.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 19 Sep 2016

Bill Burnett is very West Coast. Short-sleeved shirt, easy smile, wry without losing optimism. A Silicon Valley veteran who’s designed everything from Apple laptops to Star Wars toys, he’s now the executive director of Stanford’s, famous as the cradle of many of the area’s tech stars.

What he exudes above all is curiosity – and it’s a quality he tries to cultivate in his students in the University’s most popular elective course, Designing Your Life, which he teaches with Dave Evans.  

‘I don’t think you should ever grow up if growing up means giving up that creativity, that curiosity that children have. That would be terrible. Instead we say let’s figure out what you want to grow into.’

We’re not surrounded by bright-eyed students in sunny California. We’re at a workshop in London, put on by the How To Academy for the launch of Burnett and Evans’ new book. Burnett is trying to distil the contents of his class into two hours, teaching us to find inner fulfilment by applying the tech sector’s design approach to our own lives and careers.

I had a sceptical squint before I even arrived. Life is most definitely not, I thought, a box of iPhones.

In fact, most of Burnett and Evans’s principles fit well with the world’s great philosophical, spiritual and religious traditions, albeit with snazzier names and a very unphilosophical grounding in scientific studies.

Among them are:

-          Accepting things you cannot change (‘gravity problems... there is a class of problem that’s not a problem. Gravity’s not a problem, it’s just a condition, something you live with. You can’t solve gravity.’)

-          Listening to your instincts (you need ‘emotional/intuitive/spiritual knowledge’ as well as ‘cognitive knowledge’); and

-          Bias for action (‘I know I sound like Yoda, but there’s no trying, only doing. Trying’s just a mindset that allows you to have excuses for your behaviour and performance.’)

The uniqueness of the Stanford approach starts to emerge when Burnett starts talking about bounded and unbounded problems.  ‘There are many ways of solving problems and you always want to use the right tool to solve the right problem,’ he says.

If you wanted to build a bridge, for instance, you’d want to use engineering thinking, which allows you to solve problems precisely, because it’s a well-bounded problem - you know all the variables and parameters, you crunch the numbers and end up with the one, correct solution.

Business thinking is better for when you don’t have perfect information - you make estimated guesses to decide on the best outcome. Design thinking, on the other hand, is reserved for unbounded problems.

In this context, that means not knowing enough to solve or even guesstimate your way to solution. Instead, you have to ‘build your way forward’. Figuring out what people want in a new product or service is a classic unbounded problem and so, says Burnett, is life itself.

There was a lot of truth in that, I thought, but I was still unsure how far design thinking would actually help me – deciding to be 6’6 with a chiselled jaw and a chrome finish was hardly an option, after all. Burnett began to make more sense when he got to the detail.


Finding solutions using design thinking is based on a very simple set of principles. The first thing a designer needs to do is reframe the problem as it’s given them. ‘Every time someone came in with a problem it was the wrong problem,’ says Burnett, who also ran a design consultancy for many years.

In the case of your life and careers, what need reframing are dysfunctional beliefs – harmful and often widely held opinions that hold you back. For instance, instead of saying ‘work is not supposed to be enjoyable – that’s why they call it work’, you can reframe it as ‘enjoyment is a guide to finding the right work for you’.

The idea that you need to have figured everything out by a certain age, that you should find your ‘passion’ and that there’s one idea or career that’s right for you are all for the chop (well, the reframe).

‘All these dysfunctional beliefs propose life as a problem that needs to be solved... our reframe is that life is an adventure to be enjoyed, and a particularly creative one if you do it well,’ says Burnett.


Once you’ve reframed your problems in more positive ways that allow different solutions, it’s time to come up with new ideas. Lots of them.

‘All the data says that if you have lots of ideas you choose better. Never go with your first idea. It’s always the worst. It’s the idea that your brain’s served up because it doesn’t want to work hard on the problem,’ says Burnett.

For us in Burnett’s workshop, this ‘ideating’ process involved ‘Odyssey planning’ – drawing three distinct visions of what your next five years could look like, to the dulcet tones of a sitar solo (sadly, he didn’t play it himself).

The first is if you continue on your current path, but on the assumption everything goes well. The second is to imagine what happens if life conspires to put the kibosh on the first journey tomorrow (think of it as a plan B, only more positive). The third is more fanciful – what would you do if money was no object?

We then had to present them to the person next to us. The point is to help you understand what really inspires you, while saying it aloud to someone is apparently correlated with a greater chance of actually making a change.


Having reframed and ideated, we were all rather excited to get to the meat in the design sandwich: prototyping. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this wouldn’t entail building little robots of the lumberjack-astronaut-poet from my odyssey plan.

‘Prototyping the life design way is all about asking good questions, outing our hidden biases and assumptions, iterating rapidly and creating momentum for a path we’d like to try out,’ Burnett explains.

This can involve ‘life design interviews’ and ‘prototype experiences’. The former is simply finding someone whose job, career or indeed life is one you might like to have, and getting their story. Why do they love (or hate) their job? What does their day look like?

Prototype experiences on the other hand are more hands on and can range from short unpaid projects or work shadowing to three-month internships. The answers these give you can then help refine the questions for your next prototype - expect to have to repeat this numerous times before you're happy with the result. 

Getting people to agree to all that sounded pretty tricky. ‘You just have to ask – and remember, most people enjoy being helpful,’ says Burnett. It’s important to make sure they don’t think you’re not sneaking around for a job, as that will quickly close doors.

We all left the workshop full of beans, as people are wont to do after listening to Valley types for more than twenty minutes or so. As usual, it faded after a couple of hours, and doubts set in.

Do I really want to call total strangers and ask to shadow them? This all sounds like a lot of effort. What if I’m okay with what I’m doing now? Perhaps designing your life is a great way of finding out but, as Burnett and Evans say, ‘you can’t solve a problem you’re not willing to have’ – if you really want to make a change, you have to be ready to go ahead and do something about it.

That’s a career hurdle no amount of coaching or designing can get you past.

Image credit: kelvinsong/Wikipedia

Designing Your Life: Build a life that works for you by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans is published by Chatto and Windus.


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