What is Design Thinking? – A Comprehensive Guide to Creative Problem-Solving

What is design thinking? It’s a strategic, user-focused approach to solving complex challenges. This method embraces iterative cycles and welcomes user input to forge innovative solutions. Throughout this article, you’ll discover the essential phases of design thinking, its impact across different fields, and how it fosters a culture of creativity and problem-solving in businesses and organisations.

Key Takeaways

  • Design thinking is a user-centric, iterative process that embraces uncertainty and the potential for failure, with stages that can overlap, be revisited, or co-occur.

  • The approach consists of five interconnected phases: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, each offering a structured path for innovation and creative problem-solving.

  • Real-world applications across various industries demonstrate the efficacy of design thinking in driving business growth, with successful examples from companies like Braun, PepsiCo, and Airbnb.

Unlocking the Essence of Design Thinking

A group of designers collaborating on a project

Design thinking is fundamentally a user-centric, non-linear, iterative process. It is characterised by flexibility, allowing for continuous improvements and depth in understanding complex problems. The iterative nature enables various stages to overlap, be revisited, or occur concurrently, resulting in robust problem-solving outcomes.

Design thinking adoption extends beyond merely using tools or techniques; it necessitates a mindset transformation. This shift involves embracing uncertainty and the potential for failure. Within design thinking, failure is a stepping stone towards innovation and user-centric solutions rather than a dead end.

The Genesis of Design Thinking

The roots of design thinking can be traced back to the 1940s and ’50s, with the development of psychological studies on creativity and concepts such as ‘designerly ways of knowing, thinking and acting,’ laying the groundwork for what we now know as design thinking. Critical thinkers like John E. Arnold and L. Bruce Archer shaped this approach by introducing creative thinking and multidisciplinary knowledge concepts.

Seminal literature and significant events also influenced the evolution of design thinking. For instance, John E. Arnold’s ‘Creative Engineering’ and L. Bruce Archer’s ‘Systematic Method for Designers’ contributed to its theoretical underpinnings. The 1962 Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods also significantly shaped the history of design thinking.

The Five Phases of Innovative Solution Development

A person conducting user research and taking notes

A key feature of design thinking is its structure, which consists of five distinct yet interconnected phases known as:

  1. Empathise
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Each phase guides the creative problem-solving process, providing a roadmap for innovation and solution development.

Phase One: Empathise with Your Audience

The journey of design thinking begins with the Empathise phase. This stage aims to gain a deep empathic understanding of users’ needs and problems. It involves:

  • Observing real users in their natural settings to comprehend their motivations beyond just their actions
  • Using photo and video studies to capture how users solve problems and convey their experiences
  • Encouraging users to keep personal photo or video journals to document their experiences
  • Using analogous empathy to understand users’ experiences by putting yourself in their shoes

These tools help designers gain valuable insights into users’ needs and problems during the Empathise phase of the web design process.

Engaging with extreme users can reveal broad problems affecting the typical user experience. Another technique employed is bodystorming, which provides first-hand knowledge of user challenges and fosters empathy.

Phase Two: Define the Core Challenges

After empathising, the Define phase takes precedence. This involves synthesising the collected insights into clear, actionable problem statements that guide the design process. A human-centred problem statement focuses on the users’ specific needs and challenges.

The problem statement should strike a balance – broad enough to encourage creative solutions and narrow enough to provide direction and manageability within a single domain. Starting with action-oriented verbs can help drive actionable outcomes. Techniques like Space Saturate and Group, Affinity Diagrams, and Empathy Mapping are employed to cluster and categorise ideas and information, aiding in defining the problem statements.

Phase Three: Ideate and Challenge Assumptions

Once we clearly understand the user’s problems, the Ideation phase commences, a brainstorming stage to generate a broad spectrum of creative solutions to the defined user-centric problem. Techniques like:

  • Brainstorming
  • Mindmapping
  • Braindump
  • Brainwalk
  • Storyboarding
  • Bodystorming

Brainstorming sessions are used to visually and physically generate ideas on a site’s web page.

In addition to these, creative exercises like the Worst Possible Idea, How Might We questions, and using analogies foster diversity in creativity. Techniques like questioning observations and deliberate critical questioning are employed to challenge assumptions to challenge assumptions, which are crucial for breaking conventional thinking and driving innovation. One can explore various online resources for more examples of such techniques and related topics.

Prototyping and Testing: Bringing Ideas to Life

An artist creating a prototype of a product

Following creativity, the design thinking process progresses into prototyping and testing. This stage involves bringing the ideas generated in the previous phase to life, reducing the risk of failure by identifying and addressing potential issues early in the development process.

Phase Four: Prototype Potential Solutions

The Prototyping phase is all about exploration and refinement. Here, scaled-down product versions are developed, allowing teams to gain valuable user feedback. This iterative process enables a cycle of designing, testing, and revising, which may result in revisiting the Empathise, Define, or Ideate Phases to refine the solution further.

Various methods, including storyboarding, wireframes, and Lego builds, are used to construct the prototype. These methods are chosen to demonstrate functionality best and gather relevant user feedback. Effective practices in prototyping necessitate creating prototypes quickly to avoid unnecessary attachment, remaining focused on a central testing issue while being open to other insights, not overinvesting resources, and ensuring objective judgment and flexibility for necessary changes.

Phase Five: Test and Learn from User Interaction

Testing marks the final phase of the design thinking process. This rigorous evaluation entails using prototypes to gain insights into the product and its users, potentially leading to revisions in the design. Testing results can unearth new user problems or a better understanding of existing issues, necessitating revisiting previous design thinking stages for refinement.

Evaluating prototypes with users helps assess if the solution effectively addresses their problems, focusing on usability and functionality. Iterative prototype improvements are informed by identifying which features are successful and which are not during different stages of testing. Testing can vary from being moderated by a guiding team member to unmoderated and being conducted remotely or in-person to gather diverse user feedback. Combining quantitative data like task completion times with qualitative user comments comprehensively evaluates a prototype’s effectiveness.

Design Thinking in Action: Case Studies and Real-World Examples

A case study presentation in a business setting

Design thinking is not just a theoretical concept; it’s a proven strategy successfully implemented in various industry sectors. Companies such as:

  • Braun
  • PepsiCo
  • Nike
  • Airbnb
  • Uber

Many companies have leveraged design thinking to innovate and enhance their design products and services. By integrating design thinking into their core strategy, these brands have seen tangible business growth, improved market outreach and customer loyalty.

The educational sector has also benefited from design thinking. For instance:

  • Riverpoint Academy integrated design thinking into its curriculum with tangible results
  • Alpha Public Schools designed an entire high school using design thinking methodologies
  • Non-profits like the Golden Gate Regional Center have also used these methods to improve services for people with developmental disabilities.

The social sector has also seen the power of design thinking in action. With impactful projects in Vietnam and Africa, design thinking has been applied to address social challenges, such as improving access to clean water, nutrition among children, and malaria prevention. The quantifiable impact of design thinking is exemplified by RightCare Solutions’ end-to-end software reducing hospital readmissions by 26% and Bank of America’s ‘Keep the Change’ program leading to 10 million new customers.

Integrating Design Thinking into Your Business Strategy

A business strategy meeting with diverse participants

Adopting design thinking is imperative for organisations aiming to cultivate a culture of innovation. This involves:

  • Providing design thinking training
  • Involving customers early in the design process
  • Ensuring executive support
  • Adapting the approach to their specific business context

Embracing design thinking initiatives leads to tangible business growth, with evidence showing organisations outperforming the S&P 500 index and achieving better market outreach and customer loyalty in the company. One contributing factor to this success is the strategic use of external links on their website, which can enhance a company’s online presence and reputation.

User-centred design processes in design thinking contribute to iterative cycles of understanding the context, specifying user needs, designing solutions, and evaluating against user requirements to enhance usability. While facing challenges such as narrow application or unrealistic innovation expectations, companies can support design thinking by aligning with customer pain points and using structured approaches to pitch to management.

The Synergy Between Design Thinking and Digital Technology

Design thinking and digital technology complement each other. Virtual reality (VR), for instance, enhances design thinking by improving users’ perceptions of spatial relationships and problem scenarios, stimulating creative thinking, and strengthening creative confidence. VR applications in the design process allow for repetitive learning and experiencing multiple designs, contributing to a more thorough and imaginative exploration of solutions.

A study revealed that VR significantly positively influenced creative design process performance, particularly in the design and planning stages, testing and modification, and thinking and sharing. The immersive experience and realistic 3D visuals of VR increase enjoyment, learning motivation, and self-efficacy, which benefits the creative design process and design thinking.

The future of design thinking in business is anticipated to integrate with systems thinking, AI, and agile methodologies, enhancing resilience and capacity to address unforeseen challenges.

Tools and Resources for Mastering Design Thinking

Many online courses, books, and resources are available for those interested in learning and applying design thinking principles. Stanford University’s d.school and Harvard Business School Online offer in-person and interactive online courses on design thinking. Books such as ‘Change by Design’ by Tim Brown and ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman are seminal works that provide vital insights into the design thinking process. Interestingly, Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has also emphasised the importance of design thinking in developing innovative solutions.

Online courses like IDEO U’s ‘Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate’ and the ‘UI/UX Design Bootcamp’ by Springboard offer structured learning environments with hands-on experience in design thinking. For free resources, IBM’s ‘Enterprise Design Thinking’ and The Interaction Design Foundation’s extensive guides are great places to start. Additionally, you can explore publicly accessible websites for more information on design thinking.

Measures such as training impact, the number of projects applying design thinking, and employee satisfaction can quantify the success of design thinking initiatives.

The Ripple Effect of Design Thinking on Society

The influence of design thinking extends beyond business and innovation, significantly impacting society. It has been applied in the social sector to develop better solutions to social problems through a human-centred approach, focusing on systemic solutions that emerge from the grassroots level. Some critical aspects of design thinking in the social sector include:

  • Redefining traditional problems to align with observed needs
  • Working closely with clients and consumers in communities
  • Developing relevant and culturally appropriate solutions in social innovation

Social innovators can create meaningful and sustainable societal change by applying design thinking principles.

Community development is enhanced by design thinking with the influence of local expertise and the engagement of multidisciplinary teams, leading to a broader range of impactful solutions for complex social issues. The view of design thinking has broadened to address complex human concerns, branching from traditional product and service design to broader societal issues.

Design Thinking Myths Debunked

Despite the extensive benefits and applications of design thinking, certain misconceptions still prevail. One of the prevalent myths is that design thinking only applies to well-defined problems. Contrarily, design thinking applies to various design challenges, including ill-defined problems and complex ‘wicked’ problems that require innovative, solution-focused strategies.

‘Wicked problems’ in design and planning, as characterised by Horst Rittel, are intricate issues with no definitive solutions and myriad interdependencies. These problems are perfect candidates for design thinking, demonstrating their versatility and applicability across various challenges, including those found on the World Wide Web.


In conclusion, design thinking is a powerful approach that enables the development of innovative, user-centric solutions. By adopting its principles and phases, businesses can foster a culture of innovation, enhance their products and services, and achieve tangible growth. With its broad applicability, from tackling ‘wicked’ problems to driving social innovation, design thinking is vital for any organisation looking to stay ahead in today’s fast-paced, user-driven market.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is design thinking in simple words?

Design thinking is a strategy that analyses problems with a product or service and develops creative solutions to improve them, focusing on consumer needs and employing an iterative, hands-on approach. It’s beneficial for tackling ill-defined or unknown problems and involves five key phases.

What are the five stages of design thinking?

The five stages of design thinking are empathising, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. These stages involve researching user needs, defining problems, generating ideas, creating solutions, and testing them.

What is the primary goal of design thinking?

The main goal of design thinking is to create human-centred solutions that lead to better products, services, and processes by focusing on the needs of the people they’re made for. Additionally, design thinking aims to identify alternative strategies and solutions that may not be immediately apparent.

What does design thinking teach you?

Design thinking teaches you to discover knowledge through exploration, define problems, develop potential solutions, and assess the work. It also helps understand users, challenge assumptions, and create innovative solutions through phases like Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. It can be used to develop solutions for end-users and boost creativity and innovation at all business levels. Additionally, it helps in fostering problem-solving skills, collaboration, and empathy.

What is the basic definition of design?

Design is the process of planning and creating detailed drawings of something. It involves both art and planning.