Why the Wallet Exercise is such a great starting point for Design Thinking Classes

I probably just broke a world record: I went with over one thousand people through the Stanford d.school “Wallet Exercise”. Realizing that, I told the team I won’t facilitate this exercise again. But there is a reason why the wallet exercise is the perfect kick-off for any Design Thinking class.

Images ETH Week: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Images ETH Week: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Something unique

The Wallet Exercise is an incredible work of design in itself being a fast-paced project though a full design cycle. It is a group activity where students pair up and tell each other about their wallets, ideate, and make a new solution that is tailored for the needs of their partner.

We at Spark Labs have designed a couple of other variations for our purposes, too: the Backpack Exercise for kids and teenagers or the Recycling Exercise for our Swiss audience that just loves recycling. But in all honesty, none of these are as clear and effective as the Wallet. I would therefore like to share my view on what makes this exercise so popular and so effective.


Something common

The first thing that makes this exercise so appealing is the fact that it is based on an object which everyone, in any culture or context will understand. This makes it incredibly easy to work with people from all backgrounds and even cultures simultaneously. Also, it is an object that has not really been redesigned or rethought at all for the past hundred years. It represents a typical case of “but this is how we´ve always done it” embodied in an object.


Something at hand

When you want people to redesign something, you want them to be able to see, touch and play with the current solution. In an educational setting, you either have to bring such object to the group or make sure this is something everyone already has with them. But the wallet holds a more meaningful value than any of these other objects or experiences, which leads us to our next point.


Images ETH Week: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Images ETH Week: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Something important

One of the “aha!”-moments of this exercise is when you ask people to raise their hands if they have actually taken out their wallet. Without fail, less than 10-15% of the participants have actually shown their wallets. We believe we know enough about an object because we use it every day. This is a perfect example of linear vs. human-centered, iterative problem solving.


Something personal

Once participants take out their wallets the minority of them will hand the wallet over to their partner to explore. This is the true stroke of genius in this exercise. We often carry much more than just money or credit cards in our wallets; we carry pictures, souvenirs, coupons, keys, receipts, etc. Wallets in most cases say much more about a person, than he or she is willing to express.


Fully packed exercise

It is hard to believe this one-hour Wallet Exercise can have so many lessons packed into it, the ones mentioned above being just a few. So will it be my last wallet exercise? Probably not.

Alan Cabello