A New Design Thinking Model – The Compass

We are risk takers, tinkerers, hackers, and most of all, design thinkers!  And designers iterate, right?! We are so excited to officially launch Compass, the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation’s new design thinking model.  And it’s all housed in our new Design Thinking Field Guide for you.  

For a number of years, the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation have used a design thinking process as one of our pillars for learning and real-world work.  Inspired by IDEO and Stanford’s d.school, this methodology provided a framework for working through design challenges. After learning so much about that model, including advantages and obstacles, revisions and insights began to emerge. In 2018, the MVIFI team began to explore and play with a new framework of design thinking.

Though many of the same tools exist, our new model allows designers to move more freely throughout the design thinking process, giving more flexibility and creativity within the framework.  With four new thinking modes on the outer bezel – discover, define, design and deploy – and four new design approaches on the inner ring – idea exchange, critique, fabrication, and craftsmanship – the Compass can create various combinations to spur action in a design challenge. Empathy, prototyping, and feedback will always live at the center. After all, this is user-centered problem solving!

Welcome to Compass!

The MVIFI Compass has three, main, interconnected parts that can be used in multiple ways.

Notice that the Thinking Mode ring and the Design Approach ring are aligned at “Design” and “Fabricate.” Using the core principle of Prototype, a team could create a physical product in order to learn by building. Starting with prototyping can sometimes provide an active way to move forward on a challenge. The prototype could then be used to probe for empathy.

A Pitch to Gain Feedback In this case, the outer ring is oriented to “Deploy,” and the inner ring is dialed to “Idea Exchange.” Choosing this route combination could allow for a team to practice sharing a developing storyline so that they can iterate how they are thinking through an issue based on some back-and-forth with others providing feedback.

Curiosity and ethnography are foundations of design thinking. With the Thinking Mode ring rotated to “Discovery” and the Design Approach ring rotated to “Critique,” the designer is choosing to employ the senses to search actively for information and data. This is about gathering understandings that will lead to later insights.




empathy, prototype, feedback

Empathy, prototyping, and feedback are at the center of design thinking. As designers, we are not simply creating “shiny objects” and convincing people they need them. Rather, we are working tirelessly to:

Understand people’s needs by empathizing with their situations and circumstances.

Build prototypes so that we can make our thinking visible, learn by doing, and see what physical things emerge.

Gather feedback so that we can iterate our prototypes to a higher resolution of complexity and clarity.


discover, define, design, deploy

The outer ring of the Compass consists of the four thinking modes: discover, define, design, and deploy. Solving real-world problems rarely takes a linear path. In fact, you’ll often change your course many times. These modes provide ways for designers to check their bearing and to ensure they are headed toward their goal.

To discover means to explore with curiosity so that we can gather insights and emerging understandings.

To define means to use trends and patterns from gathered insights to declare a “problem statement.”

To design means to create testable prototypes and viable solutions in physical form.

To deploy means to launch an iteration of a product or process. We believe everything is a prototype, so put a version out into the world so that people can use it and provide feedback for making it better.


idea exchange, critique, fabrication, craftsmanship

The inner ring of the Compass consists of the four design approaches: idea exchange, critique, fabrication, and craftsmanship. Let’s be honest, people care about products and deliverables. These approaches help ensure the prototypes and experiences we design are meaningful to our user(s).

Idea Exchange is about associative thinking, connecting with a diverse network and realizing that no one person’s idea is perfect.

Critique is the honest examination of the work. While there is judgment and value placed during critique, the main spirit is to improve, enhance and make better.

Fabrication is about bringing form to ideas and making hope visible.

Craftsmanship means a balance of form and function by dwelling on the final product long enough to get it just right.

Choose Your Route

All designers take different approaches to solving complex problems. The Compass helps us orient and find our way. While it may help the beginner to “go in order,” one can actually orient in any of these four thinking modes… design thinking is about going through each of the steps, not necessarily going through them in a certain order.


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