User experience, Product management

Design Thinking

A creative problem-solving process that involves understanding user needs, generating ideas, and testing solutions.

Also called: Creative Problem Solving, Human-Centered Design, UserCentered Design, Design Process, Design Methodology, Design-Based Problem Solving, Design-Led Innovation, Design-Led Problem Solving, Design-Led Thinking, Design-Oriented Thinking, Design-Based Innovation, and Design-Driven Innovation

See also: Business Model Mapping, Empathy Mapping, Mood Board, Service Blueprint, Stakeholder Mapping, Touchpoint Mapping, User Story Mapping, Value Proposition Mapping

Relevant metrics: User Satisfaction, Time to Market, Cost Savings, Quality of Product, Return on Investment, Number and quality of ideas, Collaboration, and User feedback

In this article

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a creative problem-solving process that focuses on understanding user needs and creating solutions that are both innovative and practical. It involves a series of steps that involve research, brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. The goal of Design Thinking is to create products, services, and experiences that are both useful and desirable for users. It is an iterative process that encourages collaboration and experimentation.

Where did Design Thinking come from?

Design Thinking is a term that was first coined by the American architect and design theorist, Richard Buchanan, in his 1992 paper titled “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” In this paper, Buchanan argued that design thinking is a process of problem-solving that is based on the principles of design. He argued that design thinking is a creative process that involves the use of imagination, intuition, and experimentation to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.

It was further developed in the 1960s by Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon, design thinking has evolved into a non-linear, iterative process that is used by teams to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

Design thinking is a process that is based on the idea that design is a process of discovery and exploration, rather than a linear process of problem-solving. It is a process that encourages collaboration, experimentation, and iteration in order to come up with creative solutions.

Here are some of the key players who helped to popularize design thinking:

  • Tim Brown. Tim Brown, the CEO of the global design and innovation firm IDEO, is widely credited with popularizing design thinking in the business world. Brown has written extensively on the subject and has given numerous talks and workshops on design thinking.
  • David Kelley. David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and the design firm, has also been instrumental in popularizing design thinking. Kelley is a leading proponent of human-centered design and has helped to develop many of the tools and methodologies that are used in the design thinking process.
  • Stanford The Stanford University (officially known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) has played a significant role in popularizing design thinking. The was founded in 2005 and has since become a hub for design thinking education and research.
  • Design firms. Design firms such as IDEO, Frog Design, and Pentagram have been instrumental in popularizing design thinking. These firms have helped to develop many of the tools and methodologies used in the design thinking process and have worked with numerous clients to develop innovative products and services.

Design thinking in modern product development

Design thinking has become increasingly important in the field of user experience (UX) design, as professionals must develop and refine their skills to understand and address rapid changes in users’ environments and behaviors. While it was originally used in fields such as architecture and engineering, design thinking has since been advanced by professionals from a variety of fields to address human needs in the modern age.

Of all the design processes, design thinking is almost certainly the best for “thinking outside the box”. It provides teams with the freedom to develop new and unique solutions, and to do better UX research, prototyping, and usability testing. By embracing the design thinking process, teams can develop innovative solutions that meet the needs of users in a rapidly changing world.

Merging empathy with economic viability

Design thinking is a dynamic and flexible process that merges the human perspective with technological feasibility and economic viability. It empowers individuals who may not have design backgrounds to utilize creative techniques, methods, and mindsets to solve complex problems.

Design thinking adopts a tripartite perspective: desirability, feasibility, and viability. Beginning with desirability, it seeks to understand what makes sense to people and for people, followed by feasibility, which examines what is technically feasible within the foreseeable future. Finally, viability explores what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model.

The design thinking process emphasizes taking action and understanding the right questions to ask. It involves adopting a fresh mindset and tackling problems from a novel perspective.

By employing design thinking, your team or organization can achieve a myriad of benefits, including:

  • Identifying and comprehending the unmet needs of your customers, clients, students, or users
  • Minimizing the risk of launching new products, ideas, and services
  • Generating innovative solutions that revolutionize the market, not merely incremental improvements
  • Increasing the speed of learning and iteration
  • Improving collaboration and tapping into the creative potential of teams and individuals.

The typical steps in Design Thinking as defined by Stanford University

Design thinking is not a single, fixed concept with a universal definition. Instead, it involves a collection of mindsets and design-oriented practices that encourage cooperative problem-solving from a human-centric perspective. Design thinking is not an infallible methodology and should not be viewed as the sole approach to problem-solving.

However, the Design Thinking process is often described by the following typical typHoical steps:

  1. Empathize. The first step of the design thinking process is to understand the needs, wants, and behaviors of the users or customers. This involves gathering data through observations, interviews, and surveys to gain insights into their experiences and pain points.
  2. Define. The next step is to define the problem or challenge that needs to be addressed based on the insights gained from the empathy stage. This involves synthesizing the data and identifying the core problem to be solved.
  3. Ideate. In this stage, the design team generates a wide range of ideas and potential solutions to the problem. This can involve brainstorming, sketching, and other ideation techniques to generate as many ideas as possible.
  4. Prototype. The fourth step is to create a tangible prototype or a mock-up of the potential solution. This can involve creating physical models, digital prototypes, or other low-fidelity prototypes to test and refine the design.
  5. Test. The final stage is to test the prototype with users or customers to gather feedback and refine the design. This can involve usability testing, focus groups, or other methods to gather data and insights into the effectiveness of the solution.

A sixth, more arguably the most important step is often left out:

  • Implement. The final step is to implement the solution, which may involve creating a final, high-fidelity prototype and launching the product or service to the market. Ongoing evaluation and feedback are important to continue refining and improving the solution.

The foundational principles of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is based on a number of underlying assumptions that seeks to help cultivate a mindset that values empathy, experimentation, and creativity. These principles can guide us to create innovative and human-centered designs that meet the needs and desires of our ever-evolving society.

At its core, design thinking is all about finding practical and innovative solutions to problems. Here are the key principles that underpin the design thinking methodology.

  • Empathy and Human-Centricity. Design thinking starts and ends with people. By understanding and empathizing with the needs and feedback of users, design thinkers are better equipped to create solutions that resonate with their target audience. This principle highlights the importance of walking in the user’s shoes, seeing the problem from their perspective and feeling their pain points.
  • Collaboration and Diversity. Design thinking favors diversity and inclusivity, encouraging the participation of people from different backgrounds and disciplines. The value of collaboration lies in the fact that it allows for the pooling of ideas and perspectives, resulting in more creative solutions.
  • Ideation and Idea Generation. Design thinking is an idea-centric approach, emphasizing the quantity and quality of ideas. In the ideation phase, participants are encouraged to think freely and without judgment, generating as many ideas as possible. This principle fosters a culture of creativity, experimentation and encourages participants to look beyond the obvious.
  • Experimentation and Iteration. Design thinking is an iterative process that involves prototyping, testing, and refining. It’s not enough to generate ideas; they must be put into action, and feedback should be taken seriously. Design thinkers should be willing to repeat steps in the process to refine their proposed solutions and address shortcomings.
  • Bias Towards Action and Tangibility. Design thinking emphasizes taking tangible steps towards a solution, favoring action over discussion. By turning ideas into prototypes and testing them in real-world situations, design thinkers can validate their solutions and make necessary adjustments based on feedback. This principle encourages designers to be hands-on and proactive in their approach to problem-solving.

To enforce those princples, a set of rules is often imposed to impose more creative thinking.

  • The Human Rule. In every context, design activities carry a social aspect, requiring a human-centric point of view. Therefore, any social innovation we generate ought to center around human beings. As human beings, our cognitive and emotional complexities need to be accounted for in any design thinking approach.
  • The Ambiguity Rule. Ambiguity is an inherent characteristic of design thinking, and it cannot be eliminated or oversimplified. This rule dictates that the key to expanding your perspective and thinking outside the box is by exploring the limits of your knowledge and skills. Experimentation and embracing uncertainty is integral to innovative thinking.
  • The Redesign Rule. The redesign rule posits that all design is, at its core, a redesign. As technology and social circumstances evolve, human needs and desires remain relatively consistent. Thus, our goal is to redesign the means of satisfying these needs or achieving desired outcomes continually. This way, we create designs that serve the same purposes as before, but with updated methods and tools.
  • The Tangibility Rule. The tangibility rule asserts that creating prototypes or physical representations of our ideas helps designers communicate them more effectively. By making ideas tangible, it becomes easier to analyze them, get feedback, and test them in the real world. Tangibility also allows for an iterative process that can lead to significant improvements in design.

Design thinking has provided a structure for addressing big, tangled problems and has articulated the value of design by fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration and the exchange of information, ideas, and research. However, like any process, design thinking has its limitations that must be acknowledged to move forward.

The Promise of Design Thinking

One of the promises of design thinking is the infusion of optimism it provides. It makes for a compelling narrative to say that there is a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it. However, the reality is that execution has always been the missing link in design thinking. Some versions of the process even omit that crucial final step of implementation.

It makes for a compelling narrative to say that there is a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.

The tools of design thinking may be aimed at the start of the product development process, but not its conclusion. When following up with teams to learn which workshop ideas had made it to production, the answer is often: “in the old way,” with a few lone geniuses working separately and then selling their almost fully realized ideas to top stakeholders.

Generating ideas is not the problem. The biggest challenge with design thinking is figuring out how to implement and pay for them. Success sometimes cannot be evaluated until years later, so the time-constrained workshops typical of the design thinking approach may not be appropriate. While design thinking can generate exciting and innovative ideas, the real challenge is bringing those ideas to life in a way that creates real value for users.

The Strength of Design Thinking: Empathy

One of the strengths of design thinking is its emphasis on empathy. The first step of the process is to empathize with the end-user through close observation of the problem. The designer’s eye frames any insights that emerge, putting the designer’s honed sense of empathy at the center of both the problem and the solution. By focusing on the needs of users, design thinking can create products and services that truly meet their needs.

So, what’s next for design thinking? The world still has no shortage of problems that need addressing, but design leadership and design processes themselves need to evolve beyond design thinking. Designers may actually be uniquely skilled at applying empathy to solve complex problems, but the terms “design” and “design thinking” should be used interchangeably. Instead of “empathy,” “make” and “care” are the concepts that should shape the design in the years to come. By emphasizing the importance of implementation, designers can move beyond generating ideas to creating real value for users. By prioritizing making and care, designers can ensure that the products and services they create are not only innovative but also sustainable and ethical.

Prioritize Making

Design thinking has offered a powerful framework for solving complex problems through radical collaboration and empathy. However, its limitations must be acknowledged in order to move forward. By focusing on execution and prioritizing making, designers can ensure that their ideas are not only innovative but also sustainable and ethical. The promise of design thinking is still there, but it is up to designers to evolve the process to meet the challenges of the future.



A global design and innovation firm that has been a leader in the design thinking movement. The company has worked with clients such as Ford, PepsiCo, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help them develop innovative products and services using a human-centered design approach.


Airbnb’s founders used the design thinking process to develop a platform that connects travelers with unique accommodations around the world. Airbnb’s success is due in large part to its user-centric design approach.


IBM’s has a Design Thinking Practice that helps clients develop innovative solutions to complex business problems using a design thinking approach.

Procter & Gamble

The company’s Design Thinking program has helped it develop new products and services that better meet the needs of its customers.

Relevant questions to ask
  • What is the problem I am trying to solve?
  • What is the desired outcome of applying Design Thinking?
  • What resources do I have available to me to apply Design Thinking?
  • What is the timeline for implementing Design Thinking?
  • What are the potential risks associated with applying Design Thinking?
  • How will I measure the success of applying Design Thinking?
  • What is the scope of the project that I am applying Design Thinking to?
  • What is the budget for applying Design Thinking?
  • What is the current state of the project that I am applying Design Thinking to?
  • What is the desired state of the project that I am applying Design Thinking to?
People who talk about the topic of Design Thinking on Twitter
Relevant books on the topic of Design Thinking
  • Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown (2009)
  • The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger Martin (2009)
  • Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by David Kelley (2013)
  • Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams by Dieter Rams (2009)
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman (2013)

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