This guide is brought to you by Overlap Associates, one of Canada’s leading Human-Centred Design firms. We’ve spent over a decade testing and working with design thinking tools of all shapes and sizes. The following list is a comprehensive breakdown of our favourite tools, including a few we designed ourselves. It’s with these powerful tools, resources, books, mindsets, and techniques that we’ve been able to bring positive change to our business and the passionate clients we work with.
Design thinking is human-centred, iterative, and collaborative. It’s a process that embraces design to reach better results for people, teams, and organizations. Design thinking is accessible to any experience level and an asset for any industry.
Whether you want to embrace design to achieve personal goals, reach new heights as a team, or improve the world around you, the following design thinking tools and resources will help you do that and more.
Design Thinking Tools and Resources Category Breakdown
- IDEATION & CREATIVE THINKING (#1-15)
- ESSENTIAL DESIGN THINKING BOOKS (#16-23)
- PLANNING (#24-30)
- DESIGN RESEARCH (#31-47)
- PROTOTYPING (#48-59 )
- AGILE (#60-69 )
- COLLABORATION (#70-75)
- BONUS: HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Design Thinking Tools for Ideation and Creative Thinking
Post-its are a hands-on way to generate, compile, and organize ideas. One of Overlap’s first strategies for ideation is Start Solo. Post-its let you write down your ideas by yourself first, then compile and share them as a group. You can also use Post-its to assign tasks, create calendars, and for Agile Project Management.
The physical act of writing on a sticky note forces decision-making and idea-sharing. A thicker writing tool limits the number of words you can fit on each Post-it and makes it easier to read. Aim for 3-5 words per Post-it to keep ideas clear and concise.
A more environmentally friendly alternative to Post-its, Slickynotes contain no glue and are 100% recyclable. They are a more expensive alternative, but Slickynotes can cut down on waste because they are reusable when paired with quality dry erase markers. They slide around on smooth surfaces so no more sticking and unsticking!
4. Post-it Full Adhesive Notes
Full adhesive notes unstick and restick for longer-term projects. They also happen to fit conveniently onto the left and right side of the touchpad on your laptop for inspiration, reminders, and lists.
5. A Personal Alphabet
Creating your own visual alphabet can help you develop your visual thinking, and everyone around you will be jealous of your meeting notes.
6. Design Thinking Notebook
A classic notebook with a design thinking twist. This notebook helps you navigate the design thinking process while providing plenty of room to keep your own notes throughout its dot grid pages. Inside you’ll find a guide to the human-centred design process, a decision tree, and a process map to guide your journey.
7. Pocket-Sized Notebook
Keeping notes is an important part of the creative process, and you won’t be able to capture anything without a notebook on hand. It can be a lot to carry and remember your journal, or bring full-sized notebooks everywhere you go.
Try an extra small Moleskine notebook. The hardcover books will be able to live through the wear and tear of following you around everywhere you go. There are also plenty of other, more economical brands too—just make sure you get something pocket-sized.
8. Idea Brief Worksheet
An Idea Brief Worksheet supports a consistent method for capturing your top ideas after an ideation session. Ever wonder what you’re supposed to do with all those sticky notes at the end of your workshop? This worksheet walks you through how to expand and articulate your idea, how to explore what makes the idea important and applicable to your project, and how to think through the information necessary to build a functional prototype.
Story cubes ignite the imagination and get the creative juices flowing. These story cubes use simple visuals to trigger ideas or stories that challenge the brain to think in new ways. Roll two cubes and work to build connections between them, or take turns adding a sentence to a story based on the visual you roll. There are countless opportunities for thinking creatively individually or as a group, and they’re loads of fun.
10. Five Whys
Uncover the root of a problem using the Five Whys exercise. Rephrase any problem into a “Why” question—”Why is problem happening?” or “Why is problem a problem?” Answer that question and form it into another “Why” question. Continue this until you have completed Five Whys and ideally reached the deeper problem space. This exercise can be completed solo or as a team.
More on the Five Whys including when and how to use this technique.
The Design Thinking Deck deck features a powerful set of nudges for tackling problems and challenges, big and small. Whether you want to improve the waiting room experience at a hospital, you are driven to meet the needs of your clients more effectively, or you’d like to create a better customer experience, these prompts will help you with any problem you’re facing.
Each card provides a prompt that will help you to look at the problem you’re facing through a different lens, providing you with strategies to generate agile, low-investment solutions.
The Interaction Design Foundation is a leading voice in democratizing design knowledge, bringing together leading professors, authors, and designers. Their comprehensive online literature boasts a huge selection of open source, open access resources, including 42 articles on Design Thinking.
This handy set of cards offers short descriptions of human-centred design activities, including step-by-step instructions, so you can get started right away. From starting solo to making a decision via dot votes, these cards provide helpful prompts as you work your way through the design cycle (define, research, ideate, prototype, test, and decide.) The set of 24 cards feature simple instructions for reliable approaches to working on complex design challenges—perfect for any experience level.
Organize information and make connections using a mind map. MindMup and other digital mind mapping programs are a versatile asset for creating visual diagrams and illustrating relationships between ideas.
You can now use MindMup to visualize relationships even more clearly with options for dashed or solid lines, directional arrows, captions, and letter sizes.
Kumu is another great mapping software for organizing complex information into interactive maps. The program boasts visually appealing mind maps, an import option for creating a map from spreadsheet figures, and a Google Sheets integration for building maps from live data. Kumu also includes features that allow you to conduct a social network analysis, and automatically calculate values such as closeness, betweenness, and eigencentrality for that network.
Essential Design Thinking Books
By Don Norman
Have you ever pushed on a pull door or vice versa? That experience has a lot more to do with poor design than your own ineptitude with doors. Smart design should feel effortless and intuitive.
Don Norman’s book has become somewhat of a cult classic for human-centred designers. It will get you thinking about empathetic design that puts people’s needs first.
Here’s a quick video introduction to The Design of Everyday Things.
By Austin Kleon
Author Austin Kleon says that nothing is original anymore and by accepting this our true creativity can finally be trusted and realized. It’s a short and fun read filled with inspiration and creative insight.
Austin Kleon also has a great weekly newsletter where he sends subscribers a mixture of 10 recommendations, thoughts, or inspirations every Friday morning.
By Michael Michalko
What separates geniuses from the rest of us? Author Michael Michalko outlines several creative-thinking tips and tricks designed to get readers thinking outside of the box. With these techniques, you’ll be able to tackle problems large, small, obscure, and common in innovative and unconventional ways.
By Kelly Small
Full of 100+ actionable steps, Kelly’s book provides a roadmap for building a a more mindful and intentional living for ourselves, those around us and the environment. Some actions to dig into include:
- Co-create and collaborate
- Get obsessed with accessibility
- Demand diverse teams
- Commit to self-care
- Make ethics a competitive edge
- Be mindful of privilege
- Create for empowerment, not exploitation
By Tim Brown
Great ideas do not appear gift-wrapped and hand-delivered to a select few geniuses; great ideas are arrived at through extensive collaboration, and a focus on people’s needs. One of the prominent books written on design thinking, author Tim Brown reveals the human-centred nature of this problem-solving methodology.
You don’t need to be a designer to benefit from Change by Design—its principles can and should be applied to any field.
By Tom and David Kelley
Authors Tom Kelley and David Kelley seek to dispel the notion that some people are born creative, and some are not. They believe we are all creative, and that we can unlock the creativity inside of us by mastering a few simple strategies and guiding principles.
By Sunni Brown
You don’t need an artistic background to think visually—you don’t even need to know how to draw. Anyone can unlock and expand their visual thinking through doodling. Doodle Revolution gives you the basic shapes you’ll use and offers the encouragement you need to make doodling a regular practice.
by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo
A toolkit for innovators who want to break barriers, communicate more effectively, and generate new ideas. Gamestorming is filled with over 80 practical tools, including a few of the resources outlined in this list. This book isn’t just practical; it’s engaging and fun for teams and individuals from any industry.
24. Graphic Gameplan
This helpful exercise, outlined in the popular book Gamestorming, will get you where you want to go with a project. Follow up big ideas, and make sure they actually happen, with a Graphic Gameplan. Set up your Gameplan with a grid listing projects along the leftmost column and a timeline in days, weeks, or months along the top row.
Begin with Project One and decide with group consensus which step is required first to reach your goals. Continue listing tasks moving along the row, column to column, until you reach your goal or project completion. Repeat this for each project listed along the left of your Graphic Gameplan. This exercise helps a group commit to project tasks and timelines, but you can also complete small-scale Graphic Gameplans as an individual to help you visualize what it will take to reach your own goals.
Learn more about Graphic Gameplans from Dave Gray, one of the authors of Gamestorming.
The Problem Brief Worksheet supports a consistent method for capturing the problem you’re trying to solve. The worksheet walks you through your current understanding of the problem, the facts, symptoms and causes of the problem, and the assumptions you need to validate through design research.
26. The $100 Test
Assign value to your ideas and set priorities by spending an imaginary $100 together. Allot a hypothetical $100 across all ideas as a group to mimic your limited resources, and reveal people’s true preferences. This exercise ignites a conversation around team priorities and can inform ongoing decision making.
More about the benefits of the $100 Test from Dave Gray.
27. Personal Kanban
A Personal Kanban is a very simple but effective system for organizing your to-do’s. A “Kanban” by definition is a Japanese manufacturing system where supply is regulated through an instruction card sent along a production line. As an organizational tool, a Kanban serves as a visual method for managing your work because you can see your tasks move through a process.
To set up a Kanban, organize all of your tasks into columns of To-Do, Doing, and Done. You can focus on one piece of work at a time, and see at-a-glance what you have on the go, what your priorities are, and what you’ve accomplished so far.
Post-its work well for this because you can physically move tasks along a “production line”. If you like to keep all of your work online, you can set up a Kanban with a Trello board.
Learn more about Personal Kanbans, and explore options for setting up more complex versions.
28. Business Model Canvas
Get your business model on one page. A Business Model Canvas is a visual tool for outlining important components—key partnerships, key activities, key resources, a product or services’ value proposition, customer relationships, channels to reach customers, customer segments, cost structure, and revenue streams. The strategic template will help your organization develop and document your business models.
29. Value Proposition Canvas
You’ll need this for completing your Business Model Canvas. Use a Value Proposition Canvas to design products and services that people actually want. It will help you make clear connections between what matters most to your customers and how your product or service eases their pain points.
Watch this video on how to create and maintain a Value Proposition Canvas. Learn more and download a Value Proposition Canvas here.
Much like an online version of a bulletin board or pinboard, you can use Pinterest for pulling together visual references for project visioning. Your ideas are saved and stored online, and you can invite others to collaborate on a shared board. You can also make a board private if you don’t want it viewed by others.
31. Empathy Map
Empathy Maps are a go-to tool for design thinking because they can produce deep insights and “aha!” moments. An empathy map is a worksheet for conducting an empathetic interview about an experience or problem. They can help you empathize with a client’s or stakeholder’s real experiences, wants, and needs from their own viewpoint.
Here’s more information on how to use an empathy map.
32. Feedback Grid
Add structure to your feedback by using a grid that collects insights that are both meaningful and constructive. A feedback grid encourages people to share what they like, what they would improve, what questions they have, as well as any new ideas.
The best part? It’s quick and easy, so you can begin collecting feedback right away!
33. Journey Map
Gather deep insights into people’s needs by mapping out specific events. Journey maps help you understand the experiences of participants, customers, or stakeholders through prompts that help recall all of the details of an event, including aspects that initially may seem insignificant.
34. Impact/Effort Matrix
An Impact/Effort Matrix groups ideas into four easy-to-recognize quadrants which help individuals or groups organize ideas and spot priorities. Once you’ve aligned all of your ideas in the matrix, it will be visually clear which will make the most impact, and which are easy to implement straight away.
Learn how to use the Impact/Effort Matrix to help you make better decisions. Find this tool along with many others in our Design Thinking Process Cards deck.
35. Power/Interest Matrix
A Power/Interest Matrix reveals which stakeholders should be your highest priorities when making decisions. Begin by generating a list of all of your stakeholders and then map them out on a 2×2 matrix based on the power (who makes the decisions) and interest (who is affected by those decisions) they have. This analysis helps build consensus in your organization or team about where your efforts should be going.
Personas are fictional accounts of people’s lives, based on real data. They are general enough to represent a segment of the community, but specific enough to help imagine a real person and their point of view. Personas can be used throughout the design process to ensure ideas respond to real people’s specific needs.
Learn more about creating personas and how to organize your personas from usability.gov.
37. Need Statements
Need Statements take design research—what you hear from people—and turn that engagement into specific, digestible sentences. You might pull these statements from what you hear in surveys, street team research, or empathy maps, e.g., “I need my commute to be less stressful” or “I need a space to work without distractions.” This simple format helps you identify themes and group insights within often complex problem spaces.
38. How Might We Questions (HMW…)
Convert identified challenges or Need Statements into questions that begin with How Might We (HMW). The Need Statement, “I need a space to work without distractions” would turn into, “How Might We create distraction-free workspaces?” HMW questions should be human-centred, focusing on the needs of people. The power of a HMW question lies in its optimism and openness to many possible solutions.
39. Dot Stickers for Dot Voting
You can use dot stickers to facilitate quick and effective group decision-making. When you need to narrow down ideas, clearly outline the options on a visual display and divide up the dot stickers, usually three per person. Each dot sticker counts as one vote.
People can divide up their votes any way they want, or place them all under a favourite option. It’s a visual way to poll a group that gives you a clear picture of which option, or options, people favour. The best part? Dot voting makes sure everyone’s voice is heard.
40. Community Prioritization Board
Harness the power of dot voting on a larger scale. Community Prioritization Boards help you figure out which ideas resonate most with your community or a large group. They engage in a unique way because the boards don’t just ask what people want or what they would like to see, they ask them to commit to specific priorities.
To set one up, you order four potential ideas in a row on a large display. People are given three dot stickers that they can place underneath the idea or ideas they think are the most important or exciting.
Learn how to use and set up your own prioritization boards.
41. Clipboards for Street Teams
Although it’s a simple tool, clipboards are valuable for gathering research out on the street. Street Teams are quick, face-to-face interviews with the general public or a target group that often take place out in public or on the street. They capture candid responses from a wide range of community members whom you might not be able to reach in another way. When you’re out of the office on the street, a simple clipboard becomes your own portable desk.
Journaling can be a powerful way to collect in-depth data on a person’s experiences. Setting up participants with a journal can provide you with rich insights over time. Participants can write as little or as much as they want, and it can save you time when compared to organizing and conducting long interviews.
Ethnography helps you surface problems and solutions you never knew existed. What if, instead of sending out surveys or running phone interviews, you went out and watched how people behave in the real world? Ethnography is a human-centred research method that immerses the researcher in a participant’s own environment in order to uncover more in-depth and often profound insights.
With ethnography, you have to be especially careful about participant privacy and researcher safety. Make sure you and your team are prepared before jumping into any ethnographic research. Do your homework to learn all that you can before getting started.
Human-centred design depends on getting out there and interacting with real people. From interviews to ethnographic observation, it can be difficult to coordinate schedules around the needs of your participants. Ditch the back and forth emails with Calendly, an online tool that lets you set your availability, share your calendar, and have others book a time that’s convenient for them.
Although less nuanced than face-to-face interviews, online survey platforms like SurveyMonkey are still a good resource for reaching a large number of community members, customers, or stakeholders. They can complement information from interviews, or, when in-depth research methods are unavailable, they can get you started collecting general data.
Typeform is another online service with survey templates that are particularly conversational and aesthetically appealing, which make it an ideal tool for gathering data from younger audiences. The free version is limited, but it offers enough to get you started.
A Testing Brief Worksheet supports a consistent method for capturing a testing plan for a prototype. For many people, prototyping is the hardest part of the design process. This worksheet helps you determine what you need to test, with whom, and what you’re hoping to learn. It will capture key features of your prototype, provide details for others to begin testing, and gather information about relevant stakeholders.
Have an idea that’s just in the preliminary stages? Get it out there as soon as possible by creating prototypes. Play-Doh is a cost effective, simple, and playful resource for doing just that. The sooner you begin prototyping, the sooner you can begin gathering valuable feedback.
Continue prototyping and playing with Lego. The act of building will help you visualize your ideas, and the limitations of Lego pieces will get you thinking creatively. Plus, once you’ve built your creation, you can begin getting constructive feedback.
Use a sketchbook to take notes, doodle, draw diagrams, and sketch prototypes.
Already worked on creating your own alphabet? You’ll never need to take notes on a computer or plain lined sheets again—a sketchbook is all you need.
These Fineliner super fine coloured pens pair nicely for taking sketch notes.
51. Prototyping Kit
Iterating regularly is a crucial part of design thinking, and prototyping kits can help those ideas come to life for you and your teammates. Prototyping kits are ideal for generating immediate feedback. Use your kit to visualize your ideas with simple materials such as cardboard, popsicle sticks, tape, stickers, markers, pipe cleaners, and other crafting supplies.
Not all prototyping needs to be in 3D. Whiteboards are an extremely effective way of ideating, gathering feedback, and prototyping an idea.
53. Dry Erase Paint
Dry erase paint is a fun and useful whiteboard alternative that will give you a huge space to work with. It will engage your team and get people talking about your unique office design.
Utilize your windows for a quick brainstorming session or to gather feedback. With quality dry erase markers, you can ideate on windows instead of whiteboards, especially on a cloudy day. Plus, it adds a fun aesthetic to your office space without having to find space for another whiteboard or whiteboard wall.
55. Quality Dry Erase Markers
A few of the tools on this list would be useless without quality dry erase markers. You don’t want to take bargain markers to your full whiteboard wall, and you definitely don’t want to take that risk on your office windows.
Try these refillable Pilot BeGreen Whiteboard Markers.
56. Paper App by FiftyThree
The people behind the FiftyThree company say that people are at their best when they are creative. Paper is an immersive drawing app that lets you capture and realize ideas anywhere you go. Jump into the act of creating and thinking visually by using Paper for diagrams, art, sketches, handwritten notes, and more.
Get your ideas out in the world as soon as possible by creating prototypes early and often. Invision lets you create online interactive prototypes of user interfaces that can be shared with colleagues and assessed quickly. And it’s free!
Canva is a free online prototyping tool that’s easy to use for beginner or novice designers. You can use Canva to prototype professional 2D graphic materials quickly and easily—which means you can begin getting feedback in minutes.
Visme is an online tool for creating presentations and infographics. In addition to having aesthetically pleasing and engaging designs, the templates are easy to use, making it an ideal resource for first time designers and old pros alike.
60. Agile Wall
Agile refers to a way of working that is iterative and flexible. The methodology originated in the software industry, but many of the powerful Agile principles—from responding to unpredictability to delivering value often—can be applied to non-tech industries as well.
An agile wall visualizes project work and acts as a flexible project management system. Projects are broken down by main tasks, which are then broken down further into smaller tasks that can be completed in one day. Work flows down through the wall columns passing from upcoming work, to this week, to today, and lastly, completed.
Learn more here: Adopting the Agile Way: Creating a Culture of Trust and Productivity.
61. Large 8” x 6” Post-its
Use 8×6 Post-its to organize large-scale agile walls. An 8×6 sheet will represent a larger task that can be broken down into smaller, day-long tasks, represented on regular 3×3 Post-its. The smaller Post-it tasks get assigned to or chosen by team members to complete. All pieces of work make their way down the Agile Wall until they reach the row marked completed.
Keep track of projects and maintain flexibility with Trello. You can mimic a physical agile wall online to share with clients or for remote teams. Trello encourages and facilitates collaboration, all while keeping teams accountable and on the same page. Try Trello’s calendar view for an added layer of organization.
Asana shares many similarities with Trello and is another excellent online project management tool. Assign due dates, leave comments, share files, break down tasks, and collaborate from anywhere. Asana has a flexible and versatile calendar feature for keeping track of daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.
64. Pivotal Tracker
Visualize work, break down tasks into manageable chunks, and make priorities clear with Pivotal Tracker’s online interface. Guided tools for iteration help prepare teams for the unpredictable, making it the ultimate program for agile workflows. Pivotal Tracker’s shining feature calculates a team’s velocity—an actual rate of completion based on how quickly you’re churning through tasks.
This government website outlines the principles of Agile methodology, while also providing the tools and guidelines needed to put it into practice within your own organization.
By Pamela Meyer
The Agility Shift claims the worst thing an organization can do is “plan” because at any time any number of unpredictable obstacles can turn up. Author Pamela Meyer gives readers the know-how to put Agile methodologies into practice, so you can be prepared for the challenges of the ever-changing future.
By Taffy Williams
Even the most well-thought-out business plan can unravel due to unforeseen obstacles when an organization fails to master agility. Think Agile provides Agile case studies to help you assess your flexibility and willingness to adapt.
There’s also a Free Audiobook available.
68. Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity
By Langdon Morris, Moses Ma, Po Chi Wu
Learn how to apply Agile methodology and accelerate the innovation process. In this book, you’ll get actionable Agile techniques along with 11 case studies from top innovation practices like NASA, Netflix, Nike, and The New York Times.
By Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, Ken Schwaber
Traditional post-mortems or retrospectives often wait until the end of a project. Unfortunately, at that point it’s too late to make changes. This book will give you the tools and tips you need to fix problems along the way, because an Agile methodology depends on continuous iteration.
70. Mid-Project Retrospective
Retrospectives are a crucial part of any successful collaboration, and they shouldn’t be saved for the end of a project. Adding in retrospectives throughout allows you and your team to learn, iterate, and improve along the way.
Here’s a simple script to follow for an agile retrospective:
- What did we do?
- What went well?
- What obstacles or barriers occurred?
- What did we learn?
- What are the implications for our work going forward?
71. Anchors and Sails
Need a quick and visual retrospective? Identify what puts wind in your sails and what’s dragging your team down. Use the simple Anchors and Sails exercise to visualize current sails (things that are going well), and current anchors (things that are holding you back). Conclude with a quick discussion about how to amplify the sails and reduce the anchors.
72. ORID framework
ORID is a facilitation framework that enables a group of people to reach an agreement or clarify differences through focused conversation. This style helps groups and individuals arrive at insights and alignment in order to achieve goals together.
- ‘O’bjective – What does the group know? What are the facts?
- ‘R’eflective – How do people feel? What did they like or dislike?
- ‘I’nterpretive – What are the issues and challenges?
- ‘D’ecisional – What is the group’s decision or response?
You can use ORID to frame conversations, to design a meeting, or to deliver a reflection at the end of a session.
Mural is an online brainstorming tool that enables teams to work together remotely, regardless of whether they are in the office, at home, or living abroad. Think of it as a virtual whiteboard!
74. Paste App by FiftyThree
Build stories with this new app for teams from the creators of Paper. Use Paste for real-time collaboration. It’s ideal for strategy decks, brainstorms, research gathering, and storytelling. The app integrates with Giphy, Figma, Dropbox, Google Docs, Slack, and more.
75. Paper by Dropbox
Not to be confused with the Paper app from FiftyThree, Paper for Dropbox is a Google Docs alternative for real-time collaboration, ideation, interactive meeting notes, and more. Just like Google Docs, it acts as an online Word document, with additional features such as inserted to-do lists, task assignment, code blocks, and embedded animated gifs. Paper also integrates with dozens of other tools including YouTube, Pinterest, Trello, xkcd, Soundcloud, Instagram, and so many more.
Google Docs are great too, especially for any written content with multiple contributors and for making editing suggestions, but it doesn’t seem right to take numerical credit for this one.
The following are more mindsets or skills, but they still deserve a mention. You’ll achieve better results with all of the tools above when paired with a healthy dose of empathy and curiosity.
Design thinking is an empathy-driven approach to interacting with the world around us. Empathy is incredibly important for realizing design thinking in your personal life and your work, and it all starts with listening and trying to understand the experiences and needs of others.
Yep, the last one here is a reminder to embrace curiosity—the desire to learn and know more. Be curious when trying these tools and resources and you’ll be well on your way to design thinking success.
Virtual Design Thinking Training
Learn how to use design thinking in your projects and across teams. We offer courses online and in-person for individuals and groups. See some of our featured courses on our events page, check out all of our group training options or sign up to be the first to learn about upcoming individual training dates.
If you got through this list of design thinking tools and resources, and you’re still looking for more:
- Learn How You Can Prepare For The Future Using Strategic Foresight.
- Learn How to Create an Ideal Workspace Using Human-Centred Office Design.
- Shake Things Up With 6 Alternatives to Traditional Meetings.
- How to Run a Five-Day Design Sprint.