Responding to the Pandemic with Design Thinking

Posted on June 01, 2020
Responding to the Pandemic with Design Thinking

Today’s best innovators follow the principles of design thinking when dealing with issues large and small. With its direct, solutions-based means of problem solving rooted in user needs, design thinking can guide the public and private sectors in effectively responding to a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the first principles of the design process is empathy – understanding human needs in the context of the problem at hand. To find a way forward, it is necessary to get input from a wide variety of sources. This includes professionals, user groups, and other stakeholders.

It is crucial that governments balance advice and recommendations from experts with input from the public. Gone are the days when authorities made policy behind closed doors, consulting with specialists in private and then springing fully formed solutions onto citizenry. The public expects transparency from every level of government and to have a role in the outcome.

Messaging is crucial. Simple and direct communication is most effective. Britain’s public slogan during the pandemic was highly effective: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” This three-part message gives a clear directive and reasons for the direction.

When so much is at stake, governments need to resist the tendency towards authoritarian and heavy-handed measures. Rules surrounding social distancing and protective equipment will be easier to enforce through communication and consensus. Getting the public’s buy-in means coming up with innovative solutions and messaging that allow citizenry to feel informed and responsible.

The private sector as well can use design thinking as they navigate the devastating economic impact of the widespread lockdown. The most innovative businesses saw an opportunity to enhance their brand and provide a social service, such as a whisky manufacturer producing and distributing free hand sanitizer, garment makers sewing masks for frontline health care workers and UHaul offering a month’s free storage for college students caught in a bind.

To look at the coronavirus crisis as a problem amenable to design thinking is to acknowledge the realities of people’s expectations in the 21st century. In both the public and private sectors, citizens and customers need and want to be kept at the centre of planning and policy as much as possible. Embracing this notion is at the heart of the design thinking process, and a means to achieve innovation and discovery.


The topic of this article is inspired by the curriculum for the upcoming Schulich ExecEd program Certificate in Design Thinking 2.0: Tools and Techniques with a User-Centred Approach (online, July 20-24, 2020). The second stand-alone program in the Masters Certificate in Innovation Leadership, it allows participants to develop the skills and resources to consistently drive effective innovation.