Design Thinking 2018 Austin Conference

My journey as a design thinking practitioner, just took a momentous leap forward.

A few days ago, I attended Design Thinking 2018, my first-ever design thinking conference, and it was an INCREDIBLE experience! My 3 days in Austin for this conference, are days that I know I’ll cherish and draw from for the rest of my career. These were days that I’m confident have made me a stronger design thinker, innovator, and business person.

My anticipation and expectations coming into Design Thinking 2018 were sky high. As the largest conference in the United States dedicated specifically to design thinking, Design Thinking 2018 held the promise of offering strong DT training and the opportunity to meet seasoned practitioners in the field. It certainly did not disappoint!

There were wonderful people at Design Thinking 2018, people who taught me a lot.

Throughout my 3 days, I met dozens of passionate, intelligent, design thinking aficionados ranging from newbies, to life-long practitioners. The attendees came from a wide-range of industries and functions, ranging from HR leaders in the public sector, to CEOs of design and innovation firms, to UX leaders at Fortune 500 companies.

Prior to the conference, I had forgotten how much I valued interacting with people outside my current industry. It was fascinating to hear how others from different companies and functions, tackled many of the same design thinking challenges that I currently face. They brought different perspectives, ones that expanded my knowledge of design thinking.

The educators, presenters, and trainers at Design Thinking 2018 were also top notch. With organizations like IDEO U, Continuum, and LUMA Institute leading the workshops and practitioners from leading design thinking companies like 3M and IBM, I knew I would be seriously expanding my design thinking toolkit and knowledge base.

It was 3 days of wonder. 3 days well spent. 3 days of personal fulfillment as my dream of attending a design thinking conference came true (and lived up to expectations!).

Highlights from my 3 days, and my personal takeaways are below.


Design Thinking University hosted by Continuum (workbook pictured on the right)

Picking a major and back-to-school jitters.

Day 1 of my conference experience started with me going “back to school”. Like college, I had to make a difficult choice and pick a path for my experience — either a one-day crash course in design thinking led by Continuum, or 3 separate sessions hosted by LUMA Institute, Mural, and IDEO U. I decided to spend the day at Design Thinking University with Continuum, with the hope of supplementing my crash course in design thinking, with some more formal education and guidance from industry leaders.

I was filled with excitement, anticipation, and first day of school jitters as I signed in at the conference registration table and entered the ballroom where Design Thinking University was being held. The ballroom was packed, certainly lots of interest in this class. I sat down at a table and my jitters quickly dissipated as I was greeted by a group of friendly design thinkers who were equally excited to “up” their design thinking game.

Design Thinking University was hosted by Toby Bottorf, Megan Welker, and Luke Hydrick from Continuum. They were tasked with the ambitious goal of delivering a 1 day crash course in design thinking, that included some user research, journey mapping, ideation, prototyping, and testing. It was a stand-out performance by Continuum, considering the time constraints and the significant # of participants (appeared to be ~60-80 students).

Getting out of our seats and learning design thinking by “design doing”

It was clear from the get-go, that we would be rolling up our sleeves for this workshop. Design Thinking University was less about design thinking theory, and much more about doing. After a quick overview of Contiuum’s design thinking process and plans for the day, we were put on a shuttle bus headed to downtown Austin, and ready to begin user research/discovery for our design challenge.

(Our trip to downtown Austin and Contiuum’s handy workbook that guided us through our empathy/discovery experience)

After our trip downtown, we returned to the ballroom to synthesize our findings, develop HMW opportunity statements, ideate, and create some pretty awesome prototypes that we were able to test on our instructors (who provided really helpful feedback that made me think differently about how I would approach a similar exercise in the future).

(Although many of the participants were new to design thinking, it was clear many had skills in certain areas of DT, including creating awesome prototypes (top-left/top-right)!)

We received 3 great pointers on how we might bring DT into our organizations:

  1. Partner with people in your organization who already know how to apply design thinking (if they exist) and establish a common language
  2. Don’t teach design thinking in the abstract, find a real problem/issue (since there are so many already out there) and apply design thinking to real projects/issues
  3. Find an executive sponsor to help champion

After Design Thinking University was over, we were treated to a welcome reception with the rest of the workshop day attendees.

All in all, Design Thinking University was a wonderful way to start the conference.

Incredible first day. Met wonderful people who were dealing with some of the same challenges that I’m dealing with at my own company. Really appreciated the diversity of participants and hearing how they approach design thinking within their organizations. I worked hard but was not tired at the end of the day. I felt energized and proud of the work my team put together.


Broad range of design thinking case studies and best practices across industry.

One of the great things about attending a Day 1 workshops, was that I came into Day 2 already knowing some folks and no longer feeling like the new kid in school. Day 2 started off with some wonderful design thinking case study keynotes from design leaders across a variety of companies.

It was wonderful hearing case studies to supplement the research I’ve conducted on design thinking success stories.

I can honestly say that I learned a couple of things from every presenter at Design Thinking 2018. Some of my favorite sessions from Day 2 are highlighted below:

Collaborative Creativity: Applied Design Thinking (Eric Quint, Chief Design Officer, 3M)

Design Thinking 3M

(NOTE: Design Thinking 2018 had a dedicated note-taker named Sunni Brown. Sunni is no ordinary note-taker; she would listen to the presentations, then doodle summaries like the one above (summarizing Eric’s keynote). It was fascinating watching her work!)

Eric’s keynote was expansive and inspiring. He provided great perspective on the role of the CDO and design thinking within an organization. I drew inspiration from his counsel on how to better collaborate within your organization to bring creativity, innovation, and design to life.

Designed for Disruption (Dan Kraemer, Founder, IA Collaborative & Anthony Norris, SVP Customer Access Solutions, Fed-Ex)

Design Thinking IA Collaborative

“Design like David, go to market like Goliath”. Dan and Anthony provided great pointers for how companies (with a focus on larger companies) can outpace their disruptors by applying more agile mindsets (as often exhibited in start-ups). They concluded their presentation by providing 2 powerful questions for us to consider:

  • What disruptors are taking your customer touchpoints?
  • What fringe market should your company move into?

Is Design Thinking Scalable? (Mike Kornacki, Director UX Design, Johnson Controls & Kevin Wick, Executive Creative Director, Smashing Ideas)

Design Thinking Scalable

I loved Mike and Kevin’s presentation. Like Dan and Anthony in the prior presentation, it was awesome seeing such a strong collaboration between agency and client organization within the design thinking space. Kevin shared the story of how his team at Johnson Controls bootstrapped small wins in design thinking that snowballed into securing organization-wide commitment for DT. It was also fascinating to hear the role Smashing Ideas played in helping to facilitate this commitment.

Design Circuit 30 Minute Intervals – Mastering Each Step of the Design Thinking Process (various design thinking leaders)

Design Thinking Circuit Ideate(Teresa Brazen from Designit, Vinod Varma from AMEX, and Raska Ouk guiding our team through a lightening round of ideation exercises)

Prototyping Reference Guide

(Awesome prototyping reference guide provided by Justin Daab, President, Magnani & Danielle Galmore, Director New Business Innovation, Steelcase! Justin and Danielle did a fantastic job guiding us through the Prototytpe stage; both are a wealth of knowledge and delightful to speak with.)

We spent the afternoon in a Design Circuit, working with industry experts in each of the steps of the design thinking process. They provided some handy tools and advice, and were great to bounce ideas off of. Also great to hear questions and advice provided by the actual participants.

Day 2 ended with an evening spent at Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden, a great way to finish an action-packed day and bond with fellow conference attendees.


After 2 days of incredible design thinking content, there was no sign that the quality would drop-off. Design Thinking 2018 would finish off with a bang.

Creative Clarity: Finding Focus in the Midst of Ambiguity (Jon Kolko, Partner, Modernist Studio)

(Really loved Jon’s address, it was inspiring, so much so that I dove right into one of his books the moment I sat down on my flight back home)

Day 3 started off on fire. After opening remarks from Brian Burke and Kevin Wick at Smashing Ideas, we got to hear from Jon Kolko from Modernist Studio.

Jon came out of the gate, guns blazing, and I loved every moment of his keynote! He paired infectious energy and humor, with deep knowledge of how to create an environment/culture that embraces creativity. I found Jon’s tips to be directly applicable in creating an organizational environment that’s prepared to embrace design thinking.

Learning Fast: How to Bootstrap your way to a Thriving Design Culture (Joni Saylor, Design Principal, IBM Design Practice)

Design Thinking Joni Saylor

(Joni Saylor had a tough act to follow with Jon Kolko preceding her; she rose up to the occassion and absolutely nailed her presentation!)

Coming into Design Thinking 2018, I was probably most looking forward to hearing from Joni Saylor at IBM. Over the past few years, I have developed great appreciation for what IBM Design has achieved in the design thinking space. I often feature or cite their design thinking tools on this site.

It was fascinating to hear Joni tell the story of how design thinking entered IBM, and how they took the standard IDEO/Stanford d.School frameworks and made it their own, in a way that was appropriate for IBM’s specific needs.

To me, IBM is a case-study of what an organization with design thinking embedded in it could look like. It’s a beautiful sight. It’s something to aspire to. Joni cited that there are 120,000+ design thinkers in IBM… phenomenal.

(Joni also shared what happened to be one of my favorite slides from the conference – “Design Thinking isn’t a workshop”. I posted this picture on my Facebook page and my Twitter, within hours it became my most-ever liked post and most retweeted Tweet. Slide on the left shows one of IBM’s design spaces; my biggest regret of the conference was not being able to attend the IBM site tour)

Industry Power Hour – Design Thinking Short Stories

Design Thinking Nike

(Wilson Smith, Senior Design Director at Nike, either showing off his tennis forehand or working the clicker. One would expect pizzazz and style-points from a Nike veteran; Wilson certainly didn’t disappoint and delighted everyone with his performance of Hamilton, the musical. As a former athlete, I loved the inside perspective he provided on design thinking at Nike.)

After Jon and Joni’s inspiring presentations, there was an industry power hour featuring design thinking short stories from Fifth Third Bank, Pearson, UnitedHealth Group, and Nike. Good takeaways from each of the speakers, with Wilson Smith from Nike bringing down the house with his out-of-the-blue performance of Hamilton.

Maturity Roundtables – Overcoming Cultural Buy-In for Design Thinking

(Cantina’s “Experience Strategy Cards”)

Following the power hour, we had the opportunity to attend one of three roundtables. I chose one focused on overcoming cultural buy-in for design thinking, hosted by DT experts from NBC Universal, Charles Schwab, and Cantina.

The discussion was interesting, but one of the most interesting things I spotted was a deck of ‘Experience Strategy Cards’ created by Cantina. The cards looked like an effective way to get organizations speaking the same language around design thinking/service design, and understanding key DT tools (including how to use them, when to use them, and who to include).

The main conference concluded shortly thereafter. Attendees had the option to also take site tours to visit either IBM Studios Austin or USAA’s Chief Design Office. I really wished I could have attended one of those tours but I had a flight back home I needed to catch. My time at the conference was sadly over, but my plans for further integrating design thinking within my organization were just beginning.


I took a ton of notes during the conference of actions that I wanted to incorporate. Some were new ideas, some were reminders of things I’d forgotten that I need to start prioritizing.

These are not all necessarily best practices, they are just ideas that I plan to translate into action within my own specific organization.

  1. Talk to your customers… in person. It’s not good enough to analyze data, read market research reports, or digest strategy decks. To truly emphasize with your design target, get out of the office and interact with them.
  2. Don’t teach design thinking in the abstract/theory. Apply it to real problems to demonstrate its power. Once you get that first win, it can be a powerful snowball effect within your organization.
  3. Use design thinking to remove barriers to design thinking with your organization. There is considerable power in empathizing with naysayers of design thinking; you must understand naysayers, to design a gameplan that transforms them into believers. Use the basic tenets of classic storytelling structures to tell a compelling story supporting design thinking
  4. Build your design thinking “dream team” to accelerate design thinking initiatives. Actively seek other cross-functional partners in your organization who are well-versed in design thinking, to build momentum and organizational buy-in. Find an executive sponsor.
  5. In highly matrixed organizations, consider building a cross-functional innovation steering committee. Participatory co-design is a great tool. Need to co-own or you’ll compete. However, ensure that the problem/challenge you’re trying to solve through this co-design approach, is clearly defined.
  6. Find ways to measure design thinking initiatives; integrate results from design thinking efforts with your innovation metrics dashboard. Business dashboards should span beyond financial metrics. Create KPIs for design thinking… for me, that might be something as simple as # of hypotheses tested, # of customers we’ve spoken directly with, basically anything to help reinforce key design thinking behaviors and demonstrate progress from those efforts.
  7. There’s power in prototypes, don’t let perfect get in the way of good. Lean more heavily on low/medium fidelity prototypes to quickly bring ideas/concepts to life and to start getting feedback from both customers and internal stakeholders. Don’t procrastinate on building prototypes due to the desire to be perfect. Ship, ship, ship.
  8. For innovation functions, empathize with not only your external customers, but also your internal customers. If you’re on an innovation team that hands off concepts to a business owner team, consider conducting some empathy mapping with those business teams to understand how best to hand-off a minimal viable product, in a way that that team can, and will want to commercialize.
  9. Relentlessly keep the specific problem to solve at the forefront. Before diving into a solution, a tactic, or an idea, keep the problem to solve posted on a wall or somewhere very visible to constantly remind yourself to ask whether you’re providing solutions to the right problem.
  10. Consistently meet with others outside your organization, function, and industry, to find new ways to tackle common design thinking challenges. The one idea that I was constantly reminded of throughout Design Thinking 2018, is that there is considerable value in understanding how shared challenges are tackled in other industries, as diversity in perspectives can often translate into that breakthrough idea you’ve been seeking.


There were plenty of book recommendations made throughout the conference. Here are some of the books I made note of (the recommender is listed in parenthesis)

  • ‘Communicating the New’ by Kim Erwin (Continuum)
  • ‘The Wide Lens’ by Ron Adner (Eric Quint, Chief Design Officer – 3M)
  • ‘Design the Life you Love’ by Ayze Birsel (Eric Quint)
    • NOTE: Apply design thinking to self-improvement was not discussed in depth at this conference. I think this is a wonderful application of design thinking, one that I have used on myself.
  • ‘Innovation by Design’ by Thomas Lockwood and Edgar Papke (Eric Quint)
  • ‘Creative Clarity’ by Jon Kolko (Me — I dove into this book after hearing Jon speak and so far, I’ve really enjoyed it)
  • ‘The Ambidextrous Organization’ by Jens Maier (Shaun Gummere, VP Service Design – Cantina)
  • ‘Accelerate’ by John Kotter (multiple people mentioned John’s “Dual Operating System” concept)


I left Design Thinking 2018 feeling like a much stronger design thinker practitioner. I was very sad to leave Austin as I had made new friends and some great contacts to share ideas with. I learned so much by sharing my challenges with practitioners from other industries. The time spent was an investment in myself. I had high expectations and the conference did not disappoint these lofty expectations. I look forward to staying in touch with the wonderful people I met.

I’m going back to work feeling smarter, energized, more confident, and much better armed to champion design thinking in my workplace. I also have a broader DT network that I can lean on, learn from, and mentor.

There was great value in this conference, for both new and seasoned practitioners. I would certainly do it again!

To the organizers of Design Thinking 2018, thank you for making my design thinking conference dream a reality, and for providing me a full conference pass that served as a 3 day investment in myself as a design thinker. It was WELL worth the time away from home and work.

Design Thinking 2018 Media Partners

The Accidental Design Thinker (proud media partner of Design Thinking 2018)

And for those of you reading this who attended the conference or presented, my sincerest gratitude to each of you. Thank you for all that you shared and for being just wonderful people to spend time with. You all were the secret sauce in this conference and I am grateful for the opportunity to have met many of you.

Cheers to Design Thinking 2018 and hope to see you all in the future!

  1. […] 5/11/18 UPDATE:  I went and it was awesome! Read my takeaways here… […]


  2. […] by attending my first-ever design thinking conference. I had the opportunity to not only attend Design Thinking 2018 in Austin, but also serve as an official media partner for the conference. It was an incredible experience […]


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