What Is Design Thinking?

What is design thinking? It’s undoubtedly a term that has exploded in use over recent years, but its meaning is a little more than fuzzy. Some believe it’s the key to innovation, while others argue that it’s overused and overrated. Some think it’s a revolutionary way of thinking, yet others say it’s simply a term stamped to human thought tendencies from the beginning. Here at Daedalus, we’re not going to pretend we have it all figured out because, quite frankly, the term is still evolving. Finding a firm definition of design thinking is part of the journey of this blog after all. However, there are some aspects of design thinking that we are sure about:

1) Design thinking is focused on dealing with the future

Analytical thinking is perhaps the most common type of thinking found in business and science currently. It presents a systematic way of figuring out why something happened by taking a problem and separating it into its constituent elements. If you are seeing your business’s profitability drop, analytical thinking will help you break down the problem to figure out what part of your business is contributing to the decline. When it comes to the future, however, analytical thinking can only help if there is no change in the circumstances that affect the parts that are analyzed. This condition is largely true when it comes to the laws of nature, which is why analytically derived scientific laws help us engineer tomorrow’s bridges, planes, and transistors. The business world is a different story–the environment changes all the time. Consumers’ desires reshape. Technologies develop. Economic forces vary. Design thinking is a systematic process for thinking through how to deal with these future happenings.

2) Design thinking is integrative

In opposition to analytical thinking, which is about breaking a problem down into constituent elements, design thinking is integrative.  It is about taking into account as much at once as one can, as the “solutions” often reside at the intersection of these constituent elements. (This could very well be because any solutions that involved one constituent element have already been picked off by analytical thinking).

3) Design thinking is iterative

A hallmark of design thinking is refining through cycles of creating and testing. This can be done with prototypes tested with users or just ideas that you, yourself, evaluate. During the creating stage, judgments are deferred to prevent stifling the seed of a good idea. But when judging an idea, what criteria should be used? That brings us to our next attribute…

4) Design thinking is people-focused (user/customer/stakeholder-centered)

Design thinking is anchored by its commitment to satisfying (and preferably delighting) users, customers, and stakeholders.  This commitment provides the basis for judging whether ideas are worthwhile. Let us take a few sentences to explain the user/customer/stakeholder construction. We included “user-centered” and “customer-centered” because it is a fairly common term, but design thinking goes beyond just the direct user to understand the web of people affected by that offering. In the design literature, the term “stakeholders” is more common. Purchases are often influenced by these webs of people, and understanding the needs of these influencers leads to more successful products and services. The stakeholder model is applicable beyond products. It is vital when implementing changes in an organization. Often a division implements an internal change without an eye to how that change may affect other divisions. When other parts of the company push back, change gets stymied.

  • You are dealing with the future: This coming weekend hasn’t happened yet. Circumstances may change. The weather is unpredictable. Cars may break down. Friends may call offering unforeseen opportunities.
  • Your thinking is integrative: You are balancing how much time you have; how much money you have; your friends’, spouse’s and kids’ schedules; the availability of tickets; the distance to events and so on.
  • Your thinking is iterative: Think of the conversations that you have while planning.

“Would you like to go to the movies on Saturday night?” [iteration 1]

“There was a lecture that I wanted to see on Saturday. Can we go to the movies on Sunday night instead?” [iteration 2]

“I’m busy Sunday night. Let’s both go to the lecture on Saturday and save the movie for next week.” [iteration 3]

  • Your thinking is stakeholder-centered: Obviously when organizing the weekend, you are thinking about what you would like to do. You are the “user.” Additionally, you think about the people around you who may be affected by your actions–your spouse, your children, the babysitter, your other friends, even your neighbors – and what they might think if you avoid trimming your hedges for another weekend.

Design thinking is not alien, but implementing rigorous design thinking in an organization can be tricky. The benefits of design thinking are great, however. Join us as we explore how design thinking can benefit your organization and the best way to integrate it with your culture to fuel consistent innovation.