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Design Thinking Isn’t Groundbreaking, It’s Essential

If you aren’t familiar with Design Thinking, it’s the newest marketing buzzword floating throughout the industry and has already been met with both passionate adopters and extreme critics. Branded by IDEO as a framework for user-focused, empathetic design, it has rapidly gained popularity as a way for multi-disciplinary companies to unify and collaborate as the requirements for their job become endlessly more complex. Companies like IBM are fully embracing Design Thinking to become “Design-Driven Companies”, producing their own branded manuals as internal resources for their staff.

A Google Image search for Design Thinking will show an array of flowcharts, cycles and infographics highlighting innovation (including one with the title “We Are All Designers!”). This is what most critics of Design Thinking don’t subscribe to: the idea that a 5 step chart will inherently solve all their marketing problems, much less allow anyone to create flawless design solutions. Design Thinking isn’t “that thing we’ve been missing” but just couldn’t figure out. It doesn’t replace craft, expertise and experience. But it is a way for people to reframe and formalize the problem-solving process—a back-to-basics mentality that organizes all the clutter and noise that comes with today’s complex and interconnected projects.

So—what exactly is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is not a new concept, it’s just a lens. A combination of the creative process and human cognition, it’s a vocabulary for making problem solving intentional and without bias (as best you can) in a time when we expect our problems to be automatically solved for us. Regardless of its perception, the fact that it has become a catalyst for more conversations about how we solve problems is a win alone.

Instead of just outlining someone else’s process (you can Google that all day), I think it’s more important to present the key values of Design Thinking. Defining a process that fits your unique situation is what Design Thinking is all about.


In Design Thinking, the term “design” means problem solving, designing solutions. It’s not solely visual design, or something exclusive to people with “Designer” in their job title. Everyone designs solutions to problems all the time: when we’re hungry and scrolling through a list of nearby restaurants, we’re designing a solution according to a series of factors (what you’re hungry for, if you’re allergic to anything, if you’re on a diet, etc.).

The key here is that we solve these problems based on bias, our personal preferences and experiences. This becomes problematic when you’re designing for someone else, as you’re imposing your bias when solving their unique problems. Design Thinking acknowledges that bias and focuses on the needs, preferences and journey of the person you’re designing for in order to develop a better solution. That’s the real value of empathy-based design: it quantifies what success means and gets teams aiming for the same goal, user effectiveness. For multi-disciplinary teams all concerned with individual facets of a project, this North Star is vital.

The best way to employ empathetic design is to actually reach out to your audience before a project has launched—the earlier the better. Focus groups, user testing and general surveys all give teams the insight they need to make critical decisions, and identify opportunities that their personal bias may have caused them to miss. If you can’t directly reach out to your audience, a simple empathy mapping exercise can help your teams get out of their own heads. Personal bias is still at play with empathy mapping, but it’s a good first step to getting teams to collaborate and see the bigger picture if nothing else is available.

While everyone can work to solve problems empathetically, it should be said that mature, experienced designers have the vision for how to take an idea to fruition. Design Thinking is a tool that brings everyone to the table, but it isn’t a substitute for a designer. It is definitely a great process for generating ideas and maintaining a cohesive voice, but progressing that idea through the creative process is a skill that’s learned, practiced and employed by great designers and creative teams.


The ‘thinking’ part is where the process really comes into play, and the area, I think, is the most flexible. Again, understanding what the key merits are versus finding the best flow chart really highlights the benefit of Design Thinking.

Regardless of which process you use, the goal of Design Thinking is to rapidly gather insight, develop prototypes, review, refine and then start the process over before actual development of the product. While this might sound like the creative process (it is), Design Thinking focuses on constant quick and rough iteration. Ideas will become developed iteratively, and focus on perfecting a solution before a deadline results in wasted time if you uncover new information along the way. Product quality suffers and personal bias takes over whenever isolated decision-makers run with multi-disciplinary projects, so it’s important to get the full team to work through the ideas of a project together—ideally with user insight—so they’re able to make key decisions earlier and provide team buy-in. This will also allow producers to do their work without foundational issues or roadblocks.

As humans, we collectively think better when we’re able to interact with our environment. Design Thinking promotes this by focusing on the use of physical prototypes. The goal here is to move an abstract idea from your head into a physical space so that it can be more tangibly modified and connected with other aspects of the project. Designers are taught to sketch their ideas out so that they can explore options easily and catch errors earlier. The point is not the sketch itself, but the act of moving the abstract into a tangible space. Mind maps, flow charts and hand-written notes are all “sketches” that make information physical. When teams have a system of modular representations of an idea in front of them, they’re able to manipulate and modify it much easier, like rearranging lego blocks into new creations. The tool of choice for most Design Thinking exercises is the sticky note as it implies quick, rough thoughts and can be physically moved and modified in a variety of situations.

Putting it Together

Essentially what Design Thinking tells us is that we all are capable, and actively employ its key ideas in our everyday life.

So why do we need to spell it out in the first place, and why is everyone suddenly so interested in something we already do without thinking about it?

For me, Design Thinking as a tool is itself in action. It is a modular, physical vocabulary for the abstract idea of problem solving. While the individual processes aren’t revolutionary, seeing them outlined and quantified provides a roadmap to what for some may be intuition. It makes it easier for diverse teams to understand and manipulate their processes like lego blocks for collaboration. It also shines a light on what product quality should mean in 2018: helpfulness as it relates to the end user. This may come naturally to some, but if Design Thinking gets teams to focus on others more, gets them speaking the same language and fosters their ability to challenge the the world around them—then I think a buzzword and a few critical tweets are worth it.