Design Thinking: A Tool for Rehabilitation

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Design Thinking, with its user-centric approach to problem-solving, is now being used as a tool in different restorative justice initiatives. Programs are teaching Design Thinking in an attempt to rehabilitate folks who are incarcerated with the end goal of lowering recidivism rates.

So, what exactly is Design Thinking?  According to the Neilsen Norman Group

          “The design-thinking ideology asserts that a hands-on, user-centric approach to         problem solving can lead to innovation, and innovation can lead to differentiation and a competitive advantage. This hands-on, user-centric approach is defined by the design-thinking process.”  

The process has 6 phases and is meant to be iterative and flexible, each phase can be revisited in order to maximize results. Below is visual of the process.

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The following are just two examples of how Design Thinking is being used as a tool in restorative justice initiatives.  

The Design Against Crime Research Center uses design principles in order to create products that thwart crime. They have partnered with others and started the Makeright Initiativebringing Design Thinking into HM Prison Thameside, a men’s private prison located in London, England. The men incarcerated in the facility are being taught Design Thinking as a process to create anti-theft bags. They start by creating user profiles and continue with the iterative Design Thinking process until they reach the final product, an anti-theft bag. The program has two main goals. One is to give the students applicable skills that can be used on resumes for future employment opportunities once released. The second goal is the thought that by learning the user-centered process, which includes the designer’s ability to empathize with a user, the chances of reoffending will be lowered.  

In 2013, the Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJ+DS) started a  program called Designing for the Inside Out. The program’s workshops teach Design Thinking to incarcerated folks across the United States. The design goal is to create spaces where restorative justice practices and initiatives can be held. As in the Makeright Initiative, the incarcerated folks are taught Design Thinking, giving them a skill set that can be used towards job searching during the reentry process. The program is taking the user-centered approach to an extreme literalness by giving the designers, and future users of theses spaces, a true sense of agency within the restorative justice practice.     

In both of these examples, while the product is important, it not necessarily the only goal.  It is the process one learns and how it can be applied throughout a person’s life that is a part of the rehabilitation process. It’s the way a person has to change the way they think about the world, themselves, and other people, which makes it such a valuable tool for rehabilitation in restorative justice initiatives.  

To quote Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology

             “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”  

The empathetic design process of Design Thinking being taught and how it can change a person’s perspective is where true opportunity to create change lies.