We are very thoughtful about the project topic and scope we use for design projects.
The The Wallet Project and the The Gift-Giving Project are two variations of what we call Design Project Zero (or DP0). DP0 is a 90-minute introductory experience. We often run this activity the first day of class or first-thing in a multi-day workshop. Both topics are something everyone has experience with, but experience in slightly different ways (thus students can get a lot out of interview someone else in the room).
The wallet project is great because every student has an artifact (their wallet or purse) that contain so much meaning in it. You can can get to some really interesting information about someone just by asking about their wallet. This project also tends to yield final solution ideas that are physical, and more easily prototyped.
The gift-giving project is great because the interview gets personal very quickly -- so many emotions, motivations, and traditions are tied up in gift-giving. We like to use this topic to get analytic-leaning folks to put functionality aside and think about feelings during this project. The solution outcomes tend to be more digital- and service-based, which are more challenging to prototype, and shows that you can prototype services.
Many topics will work well, but not any topic. Think about the following criteria for using a topic in this DP0 format:
The wallet project opens up a lot issues around identity, money, possessions, memories, security, loved ones, etc. The gift-giving project brings up issues of duty, love, purchasing, holidays, remembering, honoring others, etc.
What juicy issues will your topic prompt?
Select a project that you can imagine being satisfyingly solved with singular products, services, experiences, or campaigns. While design thinking can certainly be used for systems-level issues, start with a simpler challenge. The test for this is to ask yourself if the essence of solutions could be communicated in a single concept. If you imagine solutions to the challenge would require a blueprint, strategy, report, or list of principles to sufficiently communicate the basic idea, then it is likely not a good challenge for DP0.