Have You Tried Thinking With Your Hands?


“We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye…The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.” (Bronowski, 1973)

Designing government

Like most governments right now, we’re very excited about the potential of design to transform service delivery and policy making.

In the private sector, service design – applying the ways that product designers look at the world to designing services – has been gathering pace for several decades. Service design is now taught in design schools, part of MBA courses, and applied by businesses to everything from call centres to airport lounges.

However, until fairly recently, service design was almost unknown in public services. Denmark and Finland led the way with MindLab and the Helsinki design lab. Agencies like Participle, Thinkpublic and Snook and public bodies such as Kent, Knowsley and Cornwall councils were early pioneers in the UK. And last year the Cabinet Office set up Policy Lab – which works with UK government departments on tough problems, drawing on design methods to shed new light on what people really need, and what a better solution might look like.

We’re taking a design approach to developing our approach to design (if you see what I mean?!). An early part of that process involves gathering user insight. As an aspect of that, we wanted to introduce design to colleagues across the government. And we also wanted to capture their thoughts and insights into what it might mean for how they do their jobs.

Taking a crash course

So we looked westwards and found the ‘design thinking crash course’. The ‘crash course’ is a short, hands-on, introduction to the design process – developed by the d.School at Stanford University. In pairs, participants take a problem, identify real user needs and come up with some solutions. In 90 minutes.

Over the past year, we’ve run 10 crash courses – taking over 100 colleagues through a structured process of:

  1. gaining empathy
  2. defining the problem
  3. ideating solutions
  4. prototyping a chosen solution
  5. testing the prototype

We’ve tweaked the format a bit along the way, iterating to take feedback into account. For example, the ‘vanilla’ crash course comes with a challenge to ‘redesign the gift giving experience’. Participants on our first few sessions told us that they didn’t have much to say about gift giving. So we now use something a bit meatier. Usually rubbish collection – which (almost!) everyone has a view on. We’ve also developed bespoke sessions for teams that have a real, live problem they want to work on.

The power of prototyping

My favourite part of the crash course is the de-brief at the end – when we all get together and have a look at the prototypes we’ve created. I never cease to be amazed at the brilliant ideas that people have come up with in such a short space of time.

Prototyping is a key part of the design process – mock-ups of products or services help bring abstract concepts to life. Having a physical thing that the people you are designing for can interact with, will spark a very different conversation than if you simply explained the concept to them or presented them with a report. A prototype surfaces potential misunderstandings, different interpretations or assumptions, and helps to resolve them. For some participants, testing their prototype with their partner prompts a bit of an ‘uh-huh’ moment – when the power of the design process becomes evident to them.

Building a concrete and tangible prototype also taps into a different source of creativity: we’re ‘thinking with our hands’. Our hands can lead our mind; spearheading, as well as providing the outlet for, our thinking. Using our hands to build still emerging ideas forces decision, reflection and synthesis. It empowers and satisfies, creates a direct experience of something real in the here and now that feeds the mind, enriching the imagination.

And by thinking with our hands, our inner child is unlocked. Kids love to create new things, and aren’t hindered by the inner critic who wonders how other people might react to it.


The crash course is really easy to run – you just need a room, a load of stationery and craft materials and some enthusiastic participants. And the d.school has made it super easy for facilitators by providing pretty much all of the supporting materials – facilitator guide, participant worksheets, etc – available on their website.

It’s a great way to introduce people to design thinking. And design doing. Perhaps, even more importantly, it helps people uncover (or discover?) their own creative potential. And, according to several of our participants, it’s a bit of a stress buster!


Bronowski, J. (1973). Episode 3, The Grain in the Stone, The Ascent of Man, 40.17 – 43.44 minutes.

Lesley Thomson is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Jason Leow

I love your title, @Lesley. Struck a cord. I believe public servants think too much with their head instead of their hands, more to the left-side than the right. It’s understandable somewhat since much of our work falls under the scrutiny of the public eye, so everything has to be defensible. But since learning design thinking, I realized it’s a mode of thinking that’s just as important and relevant in our increasingly messy and complex world. Really hope that more government folks start “thinking with their hands” too!

Wanted to jump in to share some tools I collected to help my community back home. Thought it’s useful here too! Public Design Vault is a curated directory with 500+ design tools & resources for public good, all in one place. There’s even a forum and chat group to ask questions and help one another with answers, about design-driven innovation in the public sector.