Approaches, Design Thinking

What is design thinking? – An introduction

5 May , 2016  

Summary: Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that involves multidisciplinary teams. It is based on the methods and the processes of (industrial) designers. It takes an optimistic perspective on the world perceiving problems rather as solvable challenges. It originates in design, but has transitioned into (innovation) management, education and other areas over the last years.

Basic principles of design thinking

Since design thinking is a rather open concept, many people ascribe different things to it. Nevertheless, if you look at the relevant literature, the following basic principles will always be named in some way or another:

  • Design thinking is dedicated to empathy and curiosity
  • It is based on prototyping and testing
  • It focusses on experiences rather then easy solutions

These principles can be observed in any human-centered design project – even in the classical design fields. When looking at design thinking as an approach in business and other previously non design-related areas the following additional principles apply:

  • Design thinking involves an iterative structured process
  • It brings together people from diverse backgrounds
  • It is best applied when the outcome of the project is open and unknown

Let’s look at these basic principles in more detail.

Empathy and curiosity for other peoples’ perspectives on the world

THE mantra behind design thinking is to keep the people you are designing for in mind while designing for them. Everything you do in a project that claims to use design thinking should be based around understanding who these people are and what their actual problems, needs or even unmet needs are.

There are many wonderful stories of how gaining empathy and observing the potential users inspired radically new, better solutions. For example:

  • The story of Doug Dietz from the US: He designs MRI machines for GE. When he finally developed empathy for the kids who are scanned in his machines, he understood the need of a re-design of the MRI experience.
  • The story of Arunachalam Muruganantham from India. He created a low-cost sanitary pad for women in developing countries after trying out himself, what using sanitary pads actually feels like.
  • The story ofFlorence from Paris, France, who was supposed to design a bathroom experience for elderly people, at the Paris and observed her grandmother.
  • The story of a project, in which I personally lead the empathy and research activities in Stuttgart and Heidelberg, Germany, where we designed a new planning experience for Mercedes-AMG engineering teams and observed and engaged with the Mercedes-AMG teams very closely.

Empathy is the most rewarding and the most arduous part of any design thinking project. It is most rewarding, because once you have a clear understanding of your target user(s), you will have the great feeling of working on something meaningful and of solving an important challenge.

The arduous part, though, is: you actually have to engage with other people. Sometimes when design thinking is applied in a workshop, people skip the empathy or research part and just pretend to know. This is not, what I mean: In order to build empathy you really have to go out and to learn about the world out there from a perspective that might be completely different to your own. This takes time and effort, but will be a valuable preparation for the rest of the process.

Prototyping and testing as an ideology

There is one big thing you can learn from design: the philosophy of prototyping. It doesn’t matter if you look at engineers, who have to design a technical solution, at interaction designers, who want to shape the flow of a software program, or at visual designers, who are supposed to formulate a corporate identity: all of them prototype!

Prototyping can be different things: usually sketching is a very early prototyping method. After that you build out aspects of your concept using any kind of physical material. This method is called rapid prototyping. Once your concept becomes more mature the prototypes will be more detailed until you have the final product.

All this prototyping only makes sense when you also use your prototypes to gain more empathy for the people who are supposed to use the new solution to their problem. Instead of sticking to one solution early in the process, in design thinking you create many options to choose from and test your way through them. Design thinking is therefore radically iterative: you create ideas and prototypes and test them – over and over again.

Focus on experiential solutions

When you put the people whom you are designing for at the core of your project it becomes obvious soon, that they usually don’t look for a specific product, they rather look for an answer to their problem. With this in mind you will find that not only a physical solution has to be designed in a specific way, but the whole experience from buying it, using it up to discarding it can be designed. This is equally true for services – not only the core of the service should be shaped but also the surrounding circumstances.

This approach offers a lot of room for innovation and it ensures a more holistic approach to solving a given challenge. If you only design the physical solution you might loose out on a great variety of things. If you look at the entire experience of your solution you will be able to differentiate it much more from others.

Design thinking and its’ structured processes

The design squiggle


This iconic representation of a design process by Damien Newman shows very nicely how a typical design project unfolds. While you don’t know much in the beginning, empathic research and prototyping help you to clarify your concept and to finally come up with a design.

Since the emphasis of uncertainty and even chaos on this visualization often makes non-designers a little nervous, other representations of design thinking processes show it in a much more structured and simple way. They usually give a certain amount of steps, which the design team agrees upon. Usually all of these processes describe an initial phase in which you do research and empathize with the future users. Then you synthesize the information you have gathered, ideate multiple solution proposals, prototype some of them and test them.

The @ Stanford university for example currently uses a five step process to describe this approach:

5 Step design process by @ Stanford

© @ Stanford



The HPI School of design thinking in Potsdam works with six steps. So does frog design in their design thinking toolkit. Other teams rather keep it short and simple: the SAP design and co-innovation center for example uses the three step description of Discover – Design – Deliver and also IBM names three steps: Observe – Reflect – Make.

Whatever words and steps you describe in your process, is not so important. The important thing is, to be mindful of it! Instead of just muddling through a project, it is very helpful to have a process that the whole team agrees upon. When you trust in your own process, the fear of uncertainty that could arise in a project with open outcome is much easier to overcome.

Multidisciplinary teams

The reason for working with multidisciplinary teams is similar for many different approaches to creative collaboration. Due to the complexity of the world, it is much easier to find solutions that actually work, when you have people with diverse perspectives at the table. In design thinking this concept is applied in a really radical way.

Due to the previously described attention towards the work process also the team as such receives a lot of attention in design thinking projects: you always make sure that your work process is good for the team atmosphere and a non-hierarchical work culture. Since design thinkers perceive everything as a design challenge, also their collaboration will be designed consciously. Going on regular team events, playing games, involving improv theatre methods as warm-ups or just telling each other how the work process feels at a specific moment makes a huge difference.

“Wicked problems” with open outcomes

Design thinking can be used best, when the topic at hand is rather complex and fuzzy. Horst Rittel coined the term “wicked problems” to describe problems (mostly in public policy) where the mission is not clear and it therefore is also not clear “whether or not the problems have been solved.” In such cases,

one cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve. [see Rittel & Webber: Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning]

Whenever we speak about “innovation” it is unclear upfront, what the outcome will be. Besides that it is difficult to analyze the innovation challenge comprehensively beforehand and solving it later. Solving will go hand in hand with understanding and that is why the iterative, multidisciplinary approach of design thinking exactly addresses these kinds of problems.

That said: many companies still use design thinking approaches to improve their products. In this case the outcome might not be as open and as “wicked” as in an ideal design thinking project, but the basic principles remain the same.

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