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Design Thinking – What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Design Thinking – What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Design thinking has attracted a lot of buzz in recent years. It has been widely adopted in the software development / website development industry, an area which makes it easy to quickly iterate and prototype products. Quite recently, design thinking has made its way into big businesses, where companies such as IBM use the methodology in their processes.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an approach to idea generation that is founded on principles such as empathy (user centricity), problem identification, ideation (idea generation) and testing. The way it works is a repetitive cycle of divergent and convergent thinking, which was brilliantly visualised by the Design Council, and was later called ‘The Double Diamond model’.

The model works well in explaining the three milestones of a project realised using the design thinking approach:

  1. Project kick-off – moment when we know more or less what the problem area is. If a company wants to follow the design thinking process, they need to say goodbye to lengthy brief documents and instead provide problem solvers with the data necessary to identify the problem.

  2. Problem definition – moment when, after exploration and distillation of the data, we know what problem we are aiming to solve. “The right words are important. It’s not ‘design a chair’, it’s…’create a way to suspend a person’. The goal of the definition stage is to target the right problem to solve, and then to frame the problem in a way that invites creative solutions.” (source)

  3. Solution – moment after exploration, prototyping and testing design ideas when we agree that the idea is polished enough to be shipped. Of course products can be infinitely optimised and refined, but the first iteration of pushing a product live is very important and should be preceded by the whole design thinking process.


The entire design thinking process should be facilitated by collaboration to allow teams to dig deeper into the cross-functional expertise they collectively gathered and to enable creative synergy to flow freely in the exploration stages. One of the strongest advocates of the design thinking method is Tim Brown, CEO of the award-winning design agency IDEO, who said that “the faster we prototype, the faster our ideas evolve”.

Prototyping is one of the foundations of design thinking. From small websites through to physical products and business models, we should prototype our ideas, as this is the only way to validate them. We can theorise forever, but getting our product in front of real people will tell us much more than we could ever imagine ourselves.

All creation and distillation should be done together, with a range of workshops that, properly facilitated, can get teams results much faster than traditional, waterfall-like handovers. Apart from collaborative sketching or data analysis, you can improve your team’s creativity by employing other methods such as game-like activities during your workshops.

Where is it used?

Traditionally, design thinking was formed in the mid 20th century during the industrial design boom, as an approach to facilitate creativity, mostly in industrial design. Along with the emerging digital design field in the late 20th century, design thinking was adopted by usability specialists and web designers to generate ideas, prototype and test their creations.

Design thinking doesn’t necessarily need to be used in small design projects, it can be used pretty much anywhere where ideas can be generated. This is recognised by world-class consultancies such as McKinsey. Whether you are designing a chair, a website, a customer service infrastructure or a new supply chain model, design thinking will enable you to create meaningful solutions.

Roger Martin, in his book “The Design of Business”, attempts to prove that business people shouldn’t just acknowledge the leading role of design in modern organisational workflows, they should adopt design thinking in their strategies and business activities. More and more venture capitals and enterprises, such as PepsiCo, Kia, Apple and Google, introduce C-suite design positions in their structures and many famous startups were co-founded by designers. “According to a recent Design Management Institute (DMI) survey, all of the top 20% of cumulative-funded, VC-backed ventures who raised additional capital since 2013 have a designer as a co-founder.” (source)

The Lean Startup movement, that accelerated the Web 2.0 boom of the 2000s, drew inspiration from the design industry and adapted the design thinking methods to create methodologies to rapidly iterate on business models.

The benefits of using design thinking

To sum up, design thinking provides teams and whole businesses with a number of benefits, ones that nobody should neglect:

  1. Better empathy towards the end users – that can only be built with a structured research stage.

  2. Better team involvement, which will increase employee engagement and reduce communication issues, as mutual understanding will be facilitated.

  3. Making decisions based on real feedback data, not guesswork. Prototyping is the only way to get validation and remove assumptions.

  4. Faster delivery – by involving the whole team in the process, you reduce communication processes and, in the end, reduce the risk of fully developing and shipping a product that is not ready or is not right. Redevelopment of any product after its launch is always the most costly round of changes. Why not make them earlier?