Why You Should Apply Design Thinking To Your Life

Through her workshops, Ayse Birsel coaches designers and non-designers alike to “design the life you love.”

Award-winning product designer Ayse Birsel stands before a room of 18 expectant Innovation by Design workshop attendees, the rainbow strands of a beaded necklace and an improvised lanyard of orange pipe-cleaners framing her petite, open face. “We have an hour and a half to design your life,” she says. Time to get down to business.


Birsel is the creator of Deconstruction:Reconstruction, a design thinking method that she developed and now teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her approach builds on the “design is thinking made visual” philosophy of Saul Bass, the legendary graphic designer known for his Hollywood movie posters. “Too often life comes at you,” Birsel tells her class, a musical lilt in her voice all that remains of her Turkish accent. The goal of her methodology is to “design a life that is consistent and coherent with who you are.”

Over the next 90 minutes, the workshop attendees deconstruct four aspects of life–emotion, physical, intellectual, spirit–and then reconstruct them according to their values and priorities. After a warm-up exercise, in which the group pairs off two-by-two and draws one another’s faces, the room is often quiet, save the scratch of pen on paper, as the class fills in the whimsical templates Birsel has designed. At each stage in the process, Birsel illustrates the methodology using examples from her own life. By the end, each student has produced either an illustrated “vision map” or a written letter-to-self that lays the groundwork for a life better lived.

“In a short amount of time you go to a sharp convergence of what matters,” Birsel tells Co.Design after the workshop adjourns. “You can take the complexity of life, and through design thinking focus and say, this is what I want. For me that’s what design is about: seeing complexity and creating coherence.”

She pauses as the last students file out of the classroom with their workbooks in hand. “Life is a great design project,” she says. “Most of the traditional notions of success have gone out the window. It’s our responsibility to figure those things out for ourselves.”

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About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.