Design and Discernment: Can Design-Thinking Be a Spiritual Power Tool?

March 5, 2019│By Dave Evans, Stanford Life Design Lab

Starting in the third century, many Christians began to see a clear distinction between sacred activities, like church, prayer, and missions, and secular activities, like cooking dinner or selling insurance. Sacred activities are easily recognized by their cultural distinction in language, ritual, and location (e.g., church).  Secular activities, by comparison, are done by Christians and non-Christians alike, described in non-religious language, and often led by non-Christians. “Secular” has come to describe something essentially godless. This is a profound error—most often called the sacred-secular gap—which has plagued the faith for over a millennium. 

Abraham Kuyper, theologian and Prime Minster of the Netherlands (1901–05), declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence . . .”¹ over which Christ is not sovereign. Of course, it matters whether or not someone is faithful, but the absence of a faithful participant or an expressly Christian approach does not mean that the Holy Spirit is missing or God doesn’t care. Fortunately in recent years, Christianity has been moving steadily away from this misunderstanding and embracing a broad engagement with God’s dream of human flourishing in all its forms. With this point of view, can the ideas of design-thinking help Christians in vocational discernment?

Design-thinking is the popular name for an approach to problem-solving developed at Stanford in the 1960s, originally named Human-Centered Design (HCD). HCD was invented to refine a repeatable process to develop innovative, distinctly human solutions and products. To do this, the process is grounded in how designers actually have ideas and how users actually use things.

Design-thinking is a globally recognized power tool for solving “wicked problems,” the kind of problems that don’t readily lend themselves to easy answers with equations or spreadsheets, essentially human problems. Refined over decades and proven thousands of times in practice on an astonishing array of challenges, from human-computer interactions, to education, medical devices, and life and vocational wayfinding, design-thinking has demonstrated its efficacy in leveraging human creativity to develop useful solutions that really work for people. Simply put, design-thinking helps us be more human. 

Being more human is exactly what God has called all of us to be. Every one of us bears the image of God (imago Dei). When we progress toward our better selves—our most human selves—we are leaning into God’s intention for us. The hope God has had for humanity from the start, to live in harmony with one another and in stewarding our world, is the fullest and truest expression of what it means to be authentically human. Design-thinking is one more tool that we, as faithful witnesses, can use to seek and serve God’s dream for all of us.


¹Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. (ref.: 1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam).

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