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What is Design Thinking?

Explore everything you need to know about the powerful process shaping today’s digital landscape.

Design Thinking Basics

What is Design Thinking?

Simply put, Design Thinking is a powerful way for teams to solve tough problems together. It prioritizes people and prototypes, and is inherently iterative as it guides teams toward the most “desirable, feasible and viable” solution.

Since Design Thinking was first described in the 1970s, it has grown into a rich discipline championed by leading institutions and practiced everywhere from Nike to NASA.

2020 saw a dramatic rise in the number of Design Thinking related publications on the medical journal platform Pubmed.
The number of Design Thinking-related publications nearly doubled in 2020 as experts raced to find innovative ways to adapt. Source: Pubmed.

Who created Design Thinking?

The Design Thinking process practiced today was created through the combined efforts of many prominent engineers, economists and designers over the span of decades.

The founders of Design Thinking include Nobel Prize-winning American economist Herbert A. Simon, Welsh designer John Chris Jones, and British engineer Bruce Archer, who in 1979 characterized the “Designerly Way of Thinking” as equally powerful, yet distinct from the traditional “scholarly” methods. [1]

Herbert A. Simon, 1916-2001
Nobel-prize winning American economist, AI pioneer, professor and inventor of Design Thinking methodology. “Design is the process of changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Bruce Archer, 1922-2005
British mechanical engineer and professor of Design Research credited with inventing the term Design Thinking. [With industrial design] “I could be an artist and an engineer at one and the same time.”

John Chris Jones, 1927-
Welsh designer, engineer and founder of the design methods movement. Author of landmark book, Design Methods (1970). “I only did the design methods to get the ergonomics accepted … in order to get the product better.”

Horst Rittel, 1930-90
German Design Theorist and Berkeley professor known for coining the term “Wicked Problems” in the mid 1960s. “One of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems.”

What is Design Thinking vs Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is another approach for solving complex problems often used when implementing technical systems that rely heavily on each other.

Similar to Design Thinking, systems thinking requires overcoming fixation, visual reasoning, use of analogy, and observation of human needs; however, there are fundamental differences between the two approaches. [2]

With its focus on empathy and practical applications, project teams often leverage Design Thinking early in their development phase, shifting to Systems Thinking or Agile methodologies during development and implementation.

The Purpose of Design Thinking

What is the purpose of Design Thinking?

The purpose of Design Thinking is to produce innovative solutions that are desirable, feasible and viable. Also referred to as the Three Lenses of Human-Centered Design, these three overlapping criteria help ensure Design Thinking teams focus their efforts on creating usable products that people want.

As Don Norman says in The Design of Everyday Things [4]: “If the design complicates the engineering requirements so much that they cannot be realized within the cost and scheduling constraints, then the design is flawed.”

Three Lenses of Human-Centered Design

  • Is this solution desirable from a user perspective?
  • Is this solution viable from a financial perspective?
  • Is this solution feasible from a capabilities perspective?

By keeping the three criteria in mind, Design Thinking helps teams thread the needle through complex requirements and multiple stakeholders.

This venne diagram demonstrates the interplay between Desirability, Feasibility and Viability when developing human centered design solutions.
The aim of Design Thinking is to produce innovative solutions that are desirable to users, feasible to produce and financially viable.

What types of problems does Design Thinking solve?

The prominence of Design Thinking in business is largely due to its ability to solve “ill-defined” problems effectively. Also called wicked problems, these problems typically involve human needs which can’t be easily modelled as systems of inputs and outputs. Wicked problems are inherently ambiguous and can be difficult to discuss and compare.

Less-definedMore-defined
How do we improve our healthcare delivery?How do we improve our intake forms?
How do we reduce our environmental impact?How do we switch to recycled packaging?
How do we prepare students for the future?How do we provide secure logins to students?

As design thinker Bruce Archer originally described: “The ‘problem’ [with ill-defined problems] is obscurity about the requirements, the practicability of envisagable solutions, or misfit between the requirements and provisions”. [1]

Archer believed most of the problems people face in daily life are ill-defined, and thus ill-suited for approaches like the Scientific Method. And since Archer’s time, globalization and technology have only made life more complicated. As a result, most of the challenges today’s managers face are “wicked”, and can likely benefit from the Design Thinking principles and process.

Six Benefits of Design Thinking

  • Align diverse teams on specific goals
  • Unlock innovative ideas that delight users
  • Attract and identify high-caliber talent
  • Overcome ambiguity with confidence
  • Maximize the return on resources
  • Reduce risk in complex deliveries
Many business problems are hard to define, and Design Thinking offers a kind of toolkit to help you work through the ambiguity.
David Dunne, Design Thinking at Work [3]

Examples of Design Thinking in Business

Design Thinking’s ability to step back and reframe the problem from a user perspective has helped fuel countless business innovations over the past 20 years. Below are a few thought-provoking examples of when asking better questions led to groundbreaking solutions.

Nike: How can shoes help put in miles?

Nike's user ecosystem is an excellent example of the strength of design thinking.
For Nike, shoes are just the gateway to the complete athletic experience. Beyond innovations in materials and performance, Nike is a forerunner in athletic IoT, integrating sensors into their shoes to create an immersive athletic experience — not just a comfortable running shoe.

Nintendo: What if anyone can be a gamer?

The wireless Nintendo Switch controllers continue the legacy of user-first gaming established with the breakthrough Wii console.
In 2006, the success of new consoles was driven largely by advances in “power”. Instead of following this Sony/Microsoft model, Nintendo doubled down on improving the gaming experience for all types of users. The result was the Wii’s intuitive wireless remote that even grandparents could enjoy. [5]

AirBnB: How can homes feel like hotels?

AirBnB used design thinking to disrupt the traditional renting experience.
The radical idea that disrupted the hotel industry was born in 2007, when AirBnB founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky connected the difficulty conference-goers have with finding a hotel and their need to pay rent. Silicon Valley scoffed at the idea, thinking “no one wants to sleep in someone else’s bed”. But a great user experience and strong focus on photography proved them wrong. [6]

The Design Thinking Principles

Empathy, Expansive Thinking and Experimentation

Known as the “3 Es” at Google, these three principles embody the Design Thinking approach, and help setup teams for success. While Design Thinking takes skill and experience to apply, teams working to adopt the 3 Es are well on their way to achieving innovation by design.

Related Guide
How to Create a User Persona
Go to Guide

Principle 1: Empathy

In Design Thinking, walking a mile in your user’s shoes isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s the secret to success. And like running, the more miles you put in, the better you understand blisters. Adopting this principle requires a commitment to challenging what we think we know about our users (and ourselves). Leveraging diverse UX Research methods is a must.

Principle 2: Expansive Thinking

Innovation isn’t a lucky shot, it’s a repeatable approach for scouting the entire field of solutions testing the most promising options with prototypes. Adopting this principle requires both diverse teams, creative confidence, and divergent and convergent thinking. Read more about divergent and convergent thinking below.

Principle 3: Experimentation

Design thinkers leave the armchairs for the academics. Instead, we rely on the results of real-world data when making significant decisions. Adopting this principle means treating everything as a prototype until results say otherwise.

For designers, a prototype is a means to an end. The prototype itself has no value, but the learning gained from it has potentially a great deal of it.
David Dunne [3]

About divergent and convergent thinking

One major advantage of Design Thinking is its separation of “Divergent” and “Convergent” thinking. Simply stated, Divergent thinking creates choices and Convergent thinking makes choices. When working through problems alone, we usually apply both divergent and convergent thinking, evaluating every idea as it arrives. While this type of real-time filtering can work for individuals, it can be limiting when applied inconsistently in teams.

By differentiating between phases of Divergent and Convergent thinking, Design Thinking teams spend more time building on ideas, and less time poking holes in them.

Design thinking teams alternate between rounds of divergent and convergent thinking to shape solutions
Distinguishing between divergent and convergent thinking helps Design Thinking teams find more innovative solutions than otherwise possible.

The Design Thinking Mindset

What is the Design Thinking mindset?

While there are many aspects to the Design Thinking mindset, the most important is simply the confidence to share your thoughts without the fear of being judged. David Kelley, the engineer and entrepreneur who helped found Stanford’s d.school, describes this mindset as “creative confidence”. Without creative confidence, it’s difficult to move past the low-hanging ideas into innovative territory. [7,8]

Additional aspects of the design thinking mindset, such as embracing ambiguity and thinking with empathy, also play an important role in building user-centered designs.

Top Design Thinking mindsets

  • Creative confidence
  • Embracing ambiguity
  • Empathetic thinking
  • Open-mindedness
  • Goal oriented

How does Design Thinking differ from creative processes?

The traditional creative processes used by artists and designers to create shared experiences are similar but not the same as those used in Design Thinking. While both lean heavily on empathy, divergent thinking and brainstorming activities, Design Thinking relies less on intuition and more on collaboration.

Blue oceans over blue skies

While blue-sky brainstorms can be helpful, the Design Thinking process remains focused on addressing specific unmet needs.

Collaboration over competition

By unpacking the intuitive processes that designers use, even teams with a range of design experience stay on the same page.

Experiments over expressionism

While Design Thinking embraces aesthetics as an important element of the user experience, there is little room for subjectivity or self expression.

The Design Thinking Methodology

What is the Design Thinking methodology?

The Design Thinking methodology is a problem solving roadmap for cross functional teams. Also called the “Design Thinking framework”, the methodology outlines seven specific steps grouped into three major stages. Using the design thinking methodology as a compass, teams can quickly understand where they are in the design thinking process, and what activities and tools are at their disposal.

This Integrated Framework models the Design Thinking Process in three stages, comprising seven steps. The five core steps in the Design stage begin with Empathy, finish with Test, and iterate through a series of Ideation, Definition and Prototyping.
The Design Thinking methodology (also referred to as the Design Thinking framework) is a roadmap of stages and steps that teams use to develop innovative ideas together.

Key elements of the Design Thinking methodology

Design Thinking stages: There are three stages in the complete Design Thinking Process: Discover, Design and Deliver. Called “The 3 Ds of Design Thinking”, these stages provide convenient checkpoints and help businesses integrate Design Thinking into their existing workflows.

Design Thinking steps: There are seven steps of Design Thinking: Research, Empathy, Define, Ideation, Prototype, Test and Implement. While each step logically follows the next, they are highly iterative, and some steps such as Ideation and Prototyping are returned to frequently within a typical design process.

Design Thinking activities: Design Thinking activities describe all the different tools and techniques teams can apply during the process. Each activity is designed to help teams collaborate on a specific aspect of the opportunity, and results in a specific deliverable. Because design thinking is largely workshop-based, design thinking activities are typically time-boxed and facilitated by a moderator.

Related Guide
How to Run a Design Thinking Workshop
Go to Guide

What are Design Thinking workshops?

Workshops are where all the principles and practices of design thinking come together. Unlike regular meetings, Design Thinking workshops have clearly defined inputs, activities, and alignments required before calling it a day. These elements are crystallized in a Design Thinking workshop agenda, which serves as the playbook for collaboration.

In practice, design thinking workshops include 6-12 participants and run for 1-3 days depending on the scope of the problem and the desired outcomes. While participating in a workshop is not challenging, mastering their facilitation is both an art and a science. Learn more in our guide to Running a Design Thinking Workshop.

So What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a powerful way for people to solve problems together. It was developed by engineers and designers as a “solution-based” approach to “wicked problems”, and has since been widely adopted and adapted by teams of every type.

In practice, Design Thinking works closely with UX Research and UX Design disciplines to complete innovative projects better and faster than otherwise possible.

Design Thinking ideas to remember

  • Design Thinking is a solution-based problem-solving approach
  • The iterative process separates divergence from convergence
  • Specific tools and activities help teams work through ambiguity
  • Facilitated design workshops are critical
  • The 3 Lenses of HCD: Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability
  • The 3 Es: Empathy, Expansive Thinking and Experimentation
  1. Archer B. Design as a discipline. Design Studies. 1979;1: 17–20.
  2. Melissa T Greene, Richard Gonzalez, Panos Y Papalambros, Anna-Maria McGowan. Design Thinking vs. Systems Thinking Design: What’s the Difference? 2017.
  3. Dunne D. Design Thinking at Work: How Innovative Organizations are Embracing Design. University of Toronto Press; 2018.
  4. Norman D. The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. Basic Books; 2013.
  5. Kumar V. 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization. John Wiley & Sons; 2012.
  6. Berger W. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Bloomsbury USA; 2014.