On Design Thinking

According to Patnaik (2009), Design Thinking is “any process that applies the methods of industrial designers to problems beyond how a product should look.” The term was already used as early as 1987 by Rowe in his eponymous book in an architectural context and has lately become popular through research done at Stanford University and the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany (Schmalzried, 2013). In his introductory article about Design Thinking, Brown (2008), the CEO and president of IDEO, uses the example of Thomas Edison to illustrate the underlying methodology. While Edison invented the lightbulb—which undoubtedly was a significant innovation in itself from a pure engineering perspective—he did not stop at that point. Rather, he understood that the lightbulb alone would be of no use to people, so he also created “a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful” (Brown, 2008). This means that “Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device” (Brown, 2008), which underpins that one of the prime principles of Design Thinking is to consider a broader context with the user at its center.

Three Requirements of Design Thinking

Brown (2008) characterizes Design Thinking as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s need with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”. Therefore, Design Thinking does not solely concentrate on users, but also takes into account the company perspective. This is necessary since without profitable companies, no human-centered products could be realized, which clearly do not come at no cost. Hence, Design Thinking focuses on people and industry to ultimately yield a methodology that serves both sides—if applied correctly; i.e., companies should not see designers as pure means to make existing products more beautiful, but to “create [new] ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and interests” (Brown, 2008). From all this, we can derive three requirements that have to be met if one wants to successfully apply Design Thinking for the creation of a new product. A product that is based on Design Thinking

  1. matches people’s needs (Brown, 2008),
  2. is based on feasible technological requirements (Brown, 2008), and
  3. creates customer value and market opportunity based on a viable business strategy (Brown, 2008).

According to Schmalzried (2013), these are similar to the “R-W-W” method by Day (2007), which can be summarized as: “Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth?”

To give an example, consider the Search Interaction Optimization methodology and toolkit that are at the heart of my PhD thesis. As for requirement (1) above, in the context of my thesis I had to consider two target groups. First, I developed means for human-centered design and development that are both, effective and efficient from a company’s point of view. Therefore, my primary target group were the stakeholders, designers and developers applying the new Search Interaction Optimization methodology and toolkit. Then, the secondary target group were the users who are ultimately provided with more usable products by the companies applying the approach. Hence, matching people’s needs corresponded to matching companies’ and users’ needs in that specific case.

What is a Design Thinker?

When it comes to the characterization of a person who applies Design Thinking, Brown (2008) specifies that Design Thinkers are empathic, which supports the successful application of a “people first” approach. Furthermore, they exert integrative thinking (Martin, 2009), i.e., thinking beyond the scope of purely analytical approaches in order to create “solutions that […] dramatically improve on existing alternatives” (Brown, 2008). Third, a Design Thinker is optimistic, which means they believe that there exists at least one solution that is better than the status quo Brown (2008). In addition, a certain amount of experimentalism is required, i.e., a Design Thinker must be happy to try out new (and potentially radical) things instead of just doing “incremental tweaks” (Brown, 2008). Finally, and probably most importantly, Design Thinkers collaborate, particularly in an interdisciplinary manner and also have experience in multiple fields (Brown, 2008).

Three Spaces of Design Thinking

Contrary to existing processes and methodologies that are established and predominantly used in today’s IT industry—i.e., “linear, milestone-based processes” (Brown, 2008)—, Design Thinking does not happen sequentially. Rather, Brown (2008) states that it “is best described metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a pre-defined series of orderly steps.” These spaces are given as follows:

Inspiration relates to actions such as investigating the status quo, defining potential target audiences, exploring the context the new product will be embedded in, going beyond that context to obtain a broader view, observing people, observing the current market situation etc. All of these are actions that “motivate the search for solutions” (Brown, 2008).

Ideation In the ideation space, scenarios and user stories are created, prototypes are built and tested (both informally and formally), outcomes are communicated etc., all in multiple iterations. That is, the “generati[on], develop[ment], and testing [of] ideas that may lead to solutions” (Brown, 2008).

Implementation The implementation space does not correspond to the technical implementation alone, i.e., programming tasks carried out by developers. Rather, it again involves a huge amount of interdisciplinary communication to pave the path to a usable product that is put into a broader context. This particularly includes business solutions and marketing, i.e., the implementation space “chart[s] […] a path to market” (Brown, 2008).

While a Design Thinking process usually starts in the inspiration space, transition between any two of the spaces is possible at any time (Brown, 2008), which clearly distinguishes it from established business processes. One example could be that while working in the implementation space, a Design Thinker notices that the new product can not be well communicated to customers, which might make it necessary to enter the inspiration space (again) and perform a new analysis of the current market situation and customers needs. If it turns out that a different marketing strategy would be sufficient, they can then return to the implementation space. A second example would be a series of several paper prototypes that all indicate the previously developed user stories to be irrelevant. This could result in a return to the inspiration space for defining new target audiences or paying closer attention to specific groups of users.

Design Thinking as a Process

A more concrete implementation of the Design Thinking methodology has been realized in the Human-Centered Design Toolkit by IDEO.org (2011). That is, although the underlying principles remain the same, they build on a more defined process. The toolkit guides designers (which, according to the Design Thinking methodology, can be project managers, developers etc.) through a three-step process, i.e., “Hear”, “Create” and “Deliver”. This happens in order to provide solutions that are “desirable, feasible and viable” (IDEO.org, 2011) from a human-centered point of view.

Complementary to this, David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and d.school, defines five elements for the Design Thinking process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test (Kliever, 2015). By empathizing, you understand “the beliefs, values, and needs that make your audience tick” (Kliever, 2015). In the next step, the collected information are analyzed and translated into insights about the audience and the challenge to be faced (Kliever, 2015). Once the challenge has been defined, in the Ideation phase (which is also one of Brown’s Design Thinking spaces), everything is about finding possible solutions, i.e., it “is a brain dump of ideas, and nothing is off limits” (Kliever, 2015). Finally, in the last two stages, multiple ideas are translated into prototypes and tested with the audience (Kliever, 2015). Depending on whether or not a prototyped and tested solution proves suitable, it might be necessary to iterate one or more of the previous steps (Kliever, 2015).

It might seem counterintuitive to talk about Design Thinking processes after having introduced Design Thinking spaces earlier (“Design Thinking does not happen sequentially”). However, Kelley’s process is perfectly in line with the concept of Design Thinking spaces, where you do not follow a predefined path. The spaces and processes of Design Thinking go hand in hand. While you follow the above process, you necessarily move through the three spaces of Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation in no particular order, iterating previous steps if required.

The Design Thinking Process
The Design Thinking Process visualized by the K12 Lab.


To conclude, I would like to quote Steve Jobs, who said:

Design is a funny word. Some people think design is how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.

Moreover, I would like to refer to Google’s principle

Focus on the user and else will follow.

To give just one example for this, if you write a blog post, it will not become popular because you are using some fancy SEO tools. It will become popular if and only if you have created a piece of great content that fulfills the needs of your audience. As a Design Thinker, be bold, be unpredictable, be creative! You do not (necessarily) have to be a Photoshop artist for this. Hypothesize, but make your hypotheses testable—and test them. But still, do not rely on data alone as a starting point, which might prevent radical and potentially better solutions. Finally—and most importantly—do not let legacy processes restrict yourself. Yet, at the same time make sure that Design Thinking remains too unpredictable to become a legacy process itself.

(This article has also been published in theuxblog.com on Medium.)


Brown, Tim (2008). “Design Thinking”. In: Harvard Business Review 86(6), pp. 84–92.

Day, George S. (2007). “Is It Real? Can We Win? Is It Worth Doing?” In: Harvard Business Review 85(12), pp. 110–120.

IDEO.org (2011). Human-Centered Design Toolkit. isbn: 978-0-9914063-0-2.

Kliever, Janie (2015). “Design Thinking: Learn How to Solve Problems Like a Designer”. https://designschool.canva.com/blog/design-thinking/ (July 9, 2015).

Martin, R.L. (2009). The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. Cambridge, ma: Harvard Business School Press.

Patnaik, Dev (2009). “Forget Design Thinking and try Hybrid Thinking”. http://www.fastcompany.com/1338960/forget-design-thinking-and-try-hybrid-thinking (July 9, 2016).

Rowe, Peter G. (1987). Design Thinking. Cambridge, ma: MIT Press.

Schmalzried, Dirk (2013). In-Memory-basierte Real-Time Supply Chain Planung [In-Memory-based Real-Time Supply Chain Planning]. PhD thesis. University of Leipzig.


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