Image credit: Miro
There’s no single definition for design thinking. It can be an idea or a strategy, and it can be a method or even a way of seeing the world. It’s also something that has grown beyond the confines of any individual, organisation, or website.
Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, describes design thinking as ’a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success’.
To put it simply – design thinking is a way to solve problems through creativity. It isn’t a fail-safe approach, nor is it the only approach. But based on the impact seen in the work, the relevance of design thinking has never been greater.
What is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is an iterative process in which one seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions which can be prototyped and tested. The goal is to identify alternative strategies and solutions that are not instantly apparent with your initial level of understanding. Thus, design thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems creatively and collaboratively.
For UX designers, design thinking revolves around an interest in understanding the people for whom we design. It is about increasing observation, developing empathy with the target users, and enhancing their ability to question. Design thinking uses creative activities to foster collaboration and solve problems in human-centred ways.
Design thinking can be thought of as both an art and a science. It combines investigations into ambiguous elements of a given problem with rational and analytical research. This magical concoction reveals unknown parameters and helps uncover alternative strategies, leading to truly innovative solutions.
A Designer’s Mindset
“Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, and then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be. Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking.” – Don Norman, Rethinking Design Thinking.
To think like a designer requires dreaming up wild ideas, taking time to tinker and test, and being willing to fail early and often. The designer’s mindset embraces empathy, optimism, iteration, creativity, and ambiguity. And most critically, keeping people at the centre of every process.
In his book Change by Design, Tim Brown shows us how design thinking is not just for everybody — it’s about everybody, too. The process is based on how you can generate a holistic and empathic understanding of people’s problems. Design thinking involves ambiguous and inherently subjective concepts such as emotions, needs and motivations. It centres on uncovering the drivers of behaviour.
Design Thinking: Then to Now
Design thinking draws attention to the skill and craft of designers. A craft that sees designers promoting a shared language and using creative tools to address a vast range of issues better. Many celebrated designers of the past century model this approach.
From small products to large buildings, household objects to industrial systems, we can look to trailblazers like Naoto Fukasawa, Florence Knoll, Le Corbusier, Paul Rand, Saul Bass and countless others to understand the many stars that constellate the notion of design thinking.
Each of these individuals knew that to design well requires attention to context and consequences. An elegant and practical solution doesn’t exist in isolation but in connection with the systems that support it and that it, in turn, supports.
Over the decades that design thinking has existed as a practice for solving problems, the problems it’s best suited to tackle have changed. The approach remains as potent as ever, even as the planet and society face daunting challenges—shifting political structures, climate change, the rise of automation, the transformation of social welfare systems, and widening education gaps.
No matter the scale of the problem—design thinking keeps humans at the centre. As designers, we often design for large systems – but the voices and needs of the individuals within those systems continue to guide the process and shape the outcome.