TL;DR: Design Thinking is often considered a buzzword or bullshit and many people—even if familiar with the concept—struggle to define it in a brief, but concise way. In this article, I develop such a definition: “Design Thinking is the understanding that the process is the design and therefore all people involved, no matter their role, are responsible for creating a product that is useful, functional, aesthetically appealing, and affordable.”
Recently, I conducted a little ad-hoc survey with five friends who are all in some way involved in design or start-up environments. I asked them to answer the question What is Design Thinking? as briefly as possible without doing research beforehand. I did this because I noted that I myself wouldn’t have been able to spontaneously give a precise, one-sentence definition of Design Thinking. Therefore, I was very curious which answers my questionees would provide. This is what they said:
- A buzzword.
- To think and work interdisciplinary and user-centered in order to solve problems.
- To work solution-focused rather than problem-focused in order to find a really good solution rather than just fixing a problem, and ideally doing it interdisciplinary.
- Methods to develop a design that has a good user experience.
Although not representative, these answers highlight several things that I’ve also consistently observed. First, there is the perception that Design Thinking is used in a buzzwordy manner, i.e., it “ha[s] much of the original technical meaning removed, being simply used to impress others” (Wikipedia). Second, some believe it’s a concept that doesn’t provide added value, which is related to the fact that many talk about or even apply what they believe is Design Thinking without knowing or understanding what it actually stands for (i.e., they are bullshitting). This again is partly related to the third observation: It is difficult to get consistent definitions or explanations of Design Thinking from different people, even if they have been in touch with the concept before. This was exactly what I expected.
Given the above observations—before we dive deeper into how to answer the question What is Design Thinking?—let’s first debunk three common misconceptions here:
- Although Design Thinking might be perceived as a buzzword nowadays due to its heavy overuse, it’s not a novel term. Already in 1987, architecture and urban design professor Peter G. Rowe published a book titled Design Thinking.
- Design Thinking is not bullshit, although it might be often perceived as such. After all, the term simply means “thinking like a designer”. This doesn’t exactly seem like bullshit to me since designers have created some pretty awesome things that have influenced and are still heavily influencing people’s everyday lives. Please refer to Susie Hodge’s book When Design Really Works for 80 very compelling examples.
- Design Thinking is a mindset, not a process (otherwise it would be called the Design Process), just like entrepreneurial thinking is not a process (cf. Silicon Valley mindset). However, Design Thinking can very well be embedded in or lead to a process—a highly unstructured one—in which the three spaces of Design Thinking (Inspiration, Ideation, & Implementation) are visited and revisited in no particular order until a desirable solution is found. Such a process also highly depends on the environment and the artifact that is being designed. For more on this, please refer to my previous article On Design Thinking.
Besides the above, it’s also important to note that I’m not talking about graphic or visual design here, which are not the same as design, although many people believe so. Rather, they are more specific subdisciplines. Or, as Steve Jobs once said: “Some people think design is how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
With this as a basis, I now want to work towards a precise, one-sentence definition of Design Thinking. As already mentioned, essentially, Design Thinking means nothing more than “thinking like a designer”, which implies an understanding of what design means. So, in order to work towards the intended definition, let’s have a look at what (good) design actually is.
According to Avle & Lindtner (2016), a design is “the materialization of an idea either as artifact or product”. Moreover, Hodge (2017) explains that for such an artifact or product to be considered a good design, it has to have a range of practical applications, function optimally, and be attractive and affordable. On top, it should be timeless with respect to its construction, function, and aesthetic appeal (Hodge, 2017).
However, it is important to note that a good design is inevitably entangled with the process from which it emerged, which is why in their paper, Avle & Lindtner (2016) always speak of “design(ing)” rather than design. This is related to the following statement by Granfield (2017) from her excellent article about the current state of UX design: “The premise of design thinking is exactly this: All team members, regardless of their role, are responsible for the design because the process is the design; the screens and the experience are the end result.”
In my opinion, this is a very striking sentence about Design Thinking and therefore one of my favorite ones concerning the topic (in fact, it inspired me to write this article in the first place). With this, we now have all the ingredients to construct a concise, one-sentence definition of Design Thinking:
The understanding that the process is the design and therefore all people involved, no matter their role, are responsible for creating a product that is useful, functional, aesthetically appealing, and affordable.
This definition particularly implies that the process has to be interdisciplinary (as was mentioned in two of the answers above) and human-centered (also mentioned twice) since it is impossible to design a product that is useful, functional, aesthetic, and affordable without considering the user’s needs and desires. When having another look at my friends’ answers at this point, it becomes clear that answer № 3 came closest to a correct definition of Design Thinking.
To conclude, I want to note that we must keep in mind that design & Design Thinking always happen in a broader context than the above definition can capture. Or, as Avle & Lindtner (2016) put it: “design is as much about making artifacts as it is about producing national identity, reputation, and economic gain.” This, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
Avle, Seyram and Silvia Lindtner (2016). “Design(ing) ‘Here’ and ‘There’: Tech Entrepreneurs, Global Markets, and Reflexivity in Design Processes”. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI.
Granfield, Monica (2017). “A Design by Any Other Name Would Be So Delightful”. In: ACM Interactions XXIV.2.
Hodge, Susie (2017). Design: 80 berühmte Entwürfe. Librero.
Thanks to Martin and Rob for their feedback on drafts of this article.