What Is Design Thinking, Anyway?

27.03.2018 |

Episode #1 of the course Introduction to design thinking by Lee-Sean Huang


Hi, my name is Lee-Sean. I’m a design consultant and educator. I co-founded the consultancy, Foossa, where I work with leaders at companies, nonprofits, and governments to expand their capacity to create and innovate.

Over the next ten days, we will go through an introduction to Design Thinking, which has been used by Fortune 500 companies and top design firms to innovate new products and services. A 2014 study by the DMI Design Index found that design-driven companies have outperformed the companies in the S&P stock market index by 228% over ten years. This course will help you leverage design as a competitive advantage for your team and organization.


Design Thinking Defined

Here is a working definition: Design Thinking is a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame, and solve problems.

While Design Thinking has become a hot topic in the business world and media lately, it has a history that goes back decades. In the 1960s, inventor Buckminster Fuller pioneered the concept of Design Science (a precursor to Design Thinking), which promoted cross-disciplinary collaboration of experts. This was rare at the time, but today, Design Thinking openly embraces collaboration across diverse fields.

Design Thinking isn’t “owned” by any organization or consultancy. The term describes the method and mindsets that have emerged organically within various fields of the design discipline for creation and innovation. There are as many flavors or “dialects” of Design Thinking as there are designers and design thinkers. You will find that Design Thinking is fairly intuitive once you get the hang of it. It has many similarities with other methodologies, such as the scientific method. From now on, I will use the acronym DT to refer to the topic of our course.

DT starts with gaining an understanding of human needs. This requires empathy, or understanding the feelings and emotions of users, the people who will be buying and using the products and services we create. DT emphasizes user needs and balances them with the constraints of business goals and technical feasibility.

The “thinking” part of DT is a misnomer. It is not just about thinking. It is about making and doing as a way to think, solve, and discover. DT is about ACTION through sketching, prototyping, and testing in the real world to quickly and cheaply learn about what works.


Simple But Not Easy

DT is simple but not easy. Here are the basic steps:

1. Discover: Use empathy to understand human emotions and uncover needs.

2. Define: Narrow down and frame the problem space into a manageable creative brief.

3. Ideate: Come up with many different possible concepts and solutions to address the brief.

4. Prototype: Choose some of the most viable and promising ideas to sketch, mockup, and build.

5. Test: Put prototypes into the hands of potential users to see what works and what needs improvement.

6. Repeat: Continue the cycle over again with constant iteration, refinement, and improvement.

We will go deeper into each step of the DT method and mindset over the next few days. Think of these steps as a compass for navigating the uncertain world of innovation, rather than a tightly prescribed and defined set of train tracks. In practice, you and your team may find yourselves jumping through and around these steps at any given point in time. These steps form a shared vocabulary for understanding the mindsets and actions needed at different stages in the innovation journey.

Tomorrow, we will meet a puffy and sometimes prickly mascot to remind us of the dynamic mindset we need for effective DT.


Recommended reading

Design Thinking Origin Story, Plus Some of the People Who Made It All Happen


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