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How To Train Your Dragon The Viking Way…err.. The Design Thinking Way.

How To Train Your Dragon The Viking Way…err.. The Design Thinking Way.

First of all, I must admit that I am a movie buff. And though being in the mid-forties, I still enjoy catching up every Avengers series with my kid and also other animated cartoon movies. However, there are a few of them that left a deep mark in my thought process. One of them is undoubtedly this movie “How to Train Your Dragon”. I have at least seen this movie 7-8 times and its sequels.

To be honest, the movie has some very in-depth learning and particularly when you start imbibing Design Thinking in all that you do, the movie starts talking to you. I have watched the movie (as I have earlier mentioned) a number of times and each time it has thrown ample insights to me. 

The story revolves around our hero, a young Viking named Hiccup, who solves a huge problem not only for him but for the entire Viking clan, neither by weapons nor by any deep divine power but purely by methodical and correct approach. As the movie suggests, it’s not the goal but the process, the journey, that is important. A meticulous step-by-step guide to innovating something that is capable of changing the world. 

Let me analyze and take you through the process – The Design Thinking. Conceived by Tim Brown of Ideo in the year 2006, the method initially started as a 3-step process of Understand, Create & Deliver which later evolved as a 5-step process of Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. It should be understood that Design Thinking is not a miraculous cure. But it can certainly help. It is not a sure shot solution but a journey to a better solution. It is not the design that is important, but it captures the quality of the designers and can motivate and encourage the ecosystem. It is not a Quick fix and it takes time to implement. And yeah, it might not guarantee success but if done in the right intent and correct manner, it can be revolutionary. 

5 steps of design thinking

Allow me to take you through the journey keeping the movie as our central theme. So how was the situation for the Vikings? It was pretty bad. They had a grave problem, fire breathing dragons raiding their homes and destroying them, stealing their sheep. Clueless about what could be a better solution to solve this problem, they embraced strategy based on physical violence. The strategy was to kill the dragons whenever they were seen. The second generations were also brainwashed and forced to see the world through that key hole. This model is entrusted by the Viking chief, Stoic, who had enormous strength and huge build. His motto was very clear “Kill on Sight, Kill on Sight, Kill on Sight”.

Kill on sight, Kill on Sight, Kill on Sight

However, his son Hiccup neither had the build nor had the mental frame. He could at best become a mechanical engineer. He dreamt to become a “maker”. But he was the minority and always mocked at by peers. By a sheer chance he was able to capture the mysterious and most terrifying “Night Fury” dragon with his ballista (a catapult used in ancient warfare for hurling large stones). But he chose to keep it in secrecy.

He knew if he kills it, he will no longer be a minority, he will be a champion. But he chose to take a different path. He chose to free the dragon. The dragon also chose to reciprocate.  

Breaking the dominant model:

Hiccup took pity and chose to free the dragon. 


Next few days he deliberated that there can be another way other than confrontation. He tried to validate or confirm if it was only an instinct. In Design Thinking, it is important to make an equilibrium between what you know and what you see. While it is important to read the subject, it is equally important to go to the field to find new learnings.

Finding a gap between what society believes and what is the reality is a great start and is called insight. Hiccup quickly realized that what he had experienced in the form of an unspoken peace with a dragon, is the proof that the dominant process had major flaws.

By consulting some existing literatures, he realized that the Vikings do not know much about the dragons as they were so obsessed by their violent belief. All they knew is the dragon’s fighting abilities, they knew nothing about their way of life, how they felt.

Thus, started Hiccup’s journey of the first step of Design Thinking, i.e. Empathy.


Empathy corresponds to understanding. As he started visiting the dragon repeatedly, he started shadowing him, following his mannerism, characteristics, what he eats, how he behaves, his anatomy, movement, and making sketches time to time. He had been lucky as “Night Fury” got stuck on the edge of a lake surrounded by cliffs. This allowed him to conduct his research in ideal conditions. The luck factor should not be neglected in a design thinking approach as it sometimes influences the process. 

Hiccup’s approach was user-centric, and not entirely technique. He could have perfected the ballista that allowed him to catch more dragons, but he started studying the dragon and made the effort to understand the needs of the dragon. It was no longer seen as a target to conquer but as a thinking being with needs, constraints, and desires. 

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Design Thinking is a guide, it is not absolute and should not be followed blindly. However, it offers a set of recognized and articulated practices that will allow you to progress without losing sight of reality.


  1. The core idea of this article is influenced by a similar article by Maxim Nialiv of Stormz.
  2. Change by Design by Tim Brown, Ideo
  3. Design Thinking for Startups by Jimmy Jain
  4. I am thankful to the entire cast and crew of “How to Train your Dragon”. Knowingly/ Unknowingly they presented us with a movie that had deep learning.


This article needs to be consumed only for knowledge purpose. My intention is not to earn anything out of it. I just presented a wonderful analogy brought to us by Maxim Nialiv. I do not claim the core idea is mine. However, my analogies and understanding has been entirely mine. 

Way Forward:

There are number of movies that directly or indirectly brings in Design Thinking processes as part of their story partly or in totality. My humble request, if you find such stories, do share with us. 

#designthinking #empathy #define #ideate #prototype #test #thinkdifferent

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