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Coaching and Design Thinking

Posted by Zsuzsi Bayer | January 15, 2018 | Comments (13)

Design thinking is more popular than ever. Originally developed at Stanford University’s, this human-centered method helps teams find innovative solutions to existing problems. While working in Berlin, I had the opportunity to learn design thinking at the Hasso-Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany. Though there is a whole process to design thinking, I’ll only be presenting selected techniques from it, which I believe enrich the coaching practice.


Design thinkers are encouraged to go out into the real world and talk to people who are affected by the issues they are looking into. By conducting interviews with open-ended questions, they can uncover invaluable and often surprising information. Like investigators, they are curious to find what is really out there. Listening is also a foundation of coaching, but sometimes coaches need a reminder to listen to their clients through their inner investigator.

Be Visual

From writing Post-it notes to drawing on a whiteboard, using LEGO or clay figures, design thinking is all about giving your ideas a shape. Many coaches have folders and papers with client information or documents on their laptop. How about creating visual images of the clients instead? Values, hobbies and goals look good on paper, but they might look even better as headers on Post-its, a tool that the clients themselves could find useful.

Focus on Journey over Outcome

The design thinking approach is focused on the process and is not attached to any outcome. This leaves a lot of freedom for true exploration and an opportunity to have the client’s best interest at heart. By concentrating on the journey itself during coaching—and not the solution, it opens up endless possibilities, both for the client and the coach. More often than not, answers come to the client organically after exploring the topic without the pressure of a solution.

Fail Early and Often

Lots of clients (and new coaches) are afraid of failing, and this means that they might play it too safe—there is always an excuse just around the corner! One of the design thinking rules is to fail early and often, and then to keep going. It might be beneficial to mention this rule when you first start off with a client so it creates a space for them to fail with their coach by their side.


In design thinking, collaboration is very important. Design thinkers work closely together, building on each other’s ideas and accepting different opinions. In coaching, the client and coach form their own team, in which both are equally essential to make the relationship work. This coach-client duo is the basis for the partnership upon which coaching is built. Being fully respectful of the client’s needs and wants creates the foundation for teamwork.

Encourage Wild Ideas

Brainstorming in design thinking is a highly collaborative effort that encourages wild ideas. Sometimes clients stick to reality too much and might need some encouragement to think more innovatively. Such out-of-the-world ideas unleash the creative flow, while putting an end to rigid and limiting beliefs. If the client accepts a few ideas from their coach, it is a great time to remind them of wild ideas and to lead by example.

Have a Beginner’s Mind

Design thinkers are usually asked to look at pre-existing problems and issues. In order to avoid preconceived ideas and to discover new angles, they assume a beginner’s mind. This helps them to see everything with a fresh eye. Keeping a beginner’s mind while coaching a client gives the coach the opportunity to go deeper into the experience of the client. As for the client, they can begin to discover a well-known territory through an entirely new perspective.

As a coach and design thinker, I’m always looking for new tools that help me grow both professionally and personally. I hope that the above-mentioned techniques will inspire coaches to bring aspects of design thinking into the coaching relationship.

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Zsuzsi Bayer

Zsuzsi Bayer is a Certified Co-Active Coach who has recently applied for the ICF PCC Credential. With 12 years of unique international experience, she uses her intercultural skills to coach expat clients in Hungarian, German, English and Spanish. Zsuzsi is an alumna of the University College London (Bachelor of Arts in Language and Culture), ESCP Europe (Master of Science in Marketing and Creativity) and Hasso-Plattner Institute School of Design Thinking. She is currently studying a Master in Gestalt Psychotherapy.

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Comments (13)

  1. Chris Kenber says:

    I have always been in favour of human-centered methods. Design thinking is most definitely an important part of business coaching

  2. Clare Norman says:

    I agree that design thinking has a lot to offer coaching, and vice versa. I worked on the Employee Experience team at Accenture, and used a coach approach to all of our ethnographic interviews. Those employees who took part in the interviews said at the end that it had helped them to get clarity on their own needs and desires, so they could now go and declare those to their managers and other stakeholders who could support them to achieve what they most wanted. So we had a win/win – we got the information we needed to design great journeys for our people; and they got something meaningful out of those interviews for themselves.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’m actively exploring the connections between Design Thinking and Solution-Focused Brief Coaching, as well as how it connects or not with ICF core competencies. It’s proving to be an intriguing exploration. I particularly find the British Council’s double diamond frame useful. This notion of how do we facilitate divergent thinking and how is that similar and different to facilitating convergent thinking. And then the areas of decision-making and pivoting.
    And then the coaching question – how do we partner and create a context in which clients can move forward?
    I’d be glad to continue this discussion – please contact me on

  4. Thanks for this post. I have been part of a fantastic learning lab project focused on creating accountable health communities and we are fully integrated with design thinking. Although I am a consultant on this project, it’s really got me thinking about expanding this method in non-standard ways with my private coaching clients. I know there is so much rich value here!
    I am curious how others are using technology to also further integrate with their clients. One idea that comes to mind is client-shared Pinterest boards reflecting values and/ or perspectives. Would love to hear what other coaches are playing with. thank you, Kimberley

  5. Debra Brosan says:

    As a fellow Gestaltist and user of Design Thinking as an educator, organization development consultant and executive coach I was delighted by this article.

    Too often we move into action without taking a “pause” and experimenting with what may work, and what may not.

    Design Thinking and coaching pay attention to what the individual wants to achieve, what will bring delight, what that looks like, what might get in the way, and giving it a “let’s try” experiment.

    Thank you for this, Debra

  6. As a permaculture teacher & designer I use the permaculture design process in coaching.

    I can see overlaps with design thinking:

    investigate = survey,
    be visual & encourage wild ideas: yes creative ways are encouraged, may ways of mapping are used,
    focus on the journey not the outcome: we hold off taking the design decisions as long as we can, as there can be unexpected outcomes along the way,
    collaborate: cooperation not competition, permaculture is modelled on nature and uses many of its principles in human, sustainable design,
    have a beginner’s mind: permaculture is a framework, ethical design science and makes use of many tools to help thinking in new creative ways.

  7. Candida Semensato says:

    Thanks for the article. Very interesting. I’m from Brazil and I’d like to have you talking about it for our chapter. Is it possible? Please contact me on

  8. Thanks for the post! It was such a coincidence, I also wrote an article about design thinking and how it can be used in the design of your own life: in accordance with the book wrote by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

  9. Sandra Kassatly says:

    Hello, I would like to know whether Design Thinking or Human Centered Design can be used as a core methodology and approach to coaching and self development? I am a Master graduate in HCD and have done short trainings in job coaching and psychology. Would it be enough to start helping individuals on their personal paths and become a practitioner of design thinking in the field of coaching?

  10. Jorry says:

    Great article! This article is so helpful for everyone. try to read this, this article is about applying design thinking course creation process. I hope this article may help you too, thankyou 🙂

  11. Ashley Jablow says:

    Hi Zsuzsi, thanks for your great article. I just happened to stumble on it and was excited to see that you and others recognize the value of connecting and integrating design thinking and coaching. I actually published a similar article a couple of months ago and thought I’d share as another take on the topic

    Keep up the good work! Thanks again,

  12. Ahmed Ageel says:

    Thank you Zsuzsi,

    I loved the explorative approach to Design Thinking versus Coaching, and my ignited curiosity comes through what you shared under the heading “Encourage Wild Ideas” specifically with the statement :

    “Such out-of-the-world ideas unleash the creative flow, while putting an end to rigid and limiting beliefs. If the client accepts a few ideas from their coach”

    My curiosity regarding this statement is that “in which ways can the coach share ideas with clients”, also, “In what ways would the Design Thinking approach towards sharing ideas put an end to client’s rigid and limiting beliefs”.

    I’m thrilled to explore this with you
    Thank you lots with a beautiful day

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