What is Design Thinking?

person writing on white paper

There is a lot of talk in the design and startup community these days about the “design thinking”? But what is it? How does it work? And how can we benefit from it? Some consider design thinking a methodology, while others consider it a philosophy.  The one thing that everyone tends to agree with, however, is that design thinking is a systematic approach to solving problems and creating new opportunities.The design thinking approach can be applied towards any field and purpose. For example, this approach can help to restructure an organization, create a new product, brand or customer experience, or take a business to the next level.

What Are Some Common Design Thinking Mindsets?

Designer Mindset by Manuel Garzarón.

Last week, we attended a presentation on ‘design thinking’ by Manuel Garzarón, a multifaceted mechanical engineer and creative entrepreneur. He highlighted that design thinking is based on several mindsets:

1. Have a vision of the future. Don’t base your ideas on past work, but rather innovate based on your vision about the future.  Let your scenarios of the future guide your thinking.

2. Seek inspiration. Find an inspiring place to think and work with a stimulating environment.  Also, begin to surround yourself with things that inspire you and begin to seek inspiration in everyday life.

3. Acknowledge uncertainty. It’s important to understand that you won’t know all the facts in the beginning and that your thought process may very well fail. However, answers may come later through seeing how people use your product/idea/business. Manuel shared an example of a Japanese garden that did not have any trails. The idea was for visitors to walk freely without a pre-set path, thus they could naturally create the trails themselves.  This is acknowledging that uncertainty exists, but still managing to function.

4. Learn by doing. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and don’t overthink things. The best way to learn is to put your ideas into practice.  If you have an idea, just do it and see how it turns out.

5. Think with your hands. This means that you shouldn’t be stuck in your own head all the time.  When you have an idea, you should do whatever you can to grasp it and understand it as a tangible concept.  Get your ideas out of your head as soon as possible, whether through prototyping, sketching, or talking about them.

6. Go visual. Create visual aids to better convey the information you have. Visual aids are also helpful for your users to see your ideas more clearly.

7. Fail often, fail early, fail cheaply. Don’t be afraid to fail!  At some point, you probably will experience failure and it will only enrich your design thinking process. It’s actually better to fail early so as to avoid wasting too much of your time and budget. 

What is the Design Thinking Process?

Innovation Funnel by Tom Fishburne. Five design thinking steps by IDEO. Diverge and converge process.

To better explain the design thinking process, let’s contrast it with the regular innovation process. The regular innovation process is based on 4 steps: ideate, define, design and develop. These steps need to be managed in a linear fashion in order to innovate within an organization.Meanwhile, the design thinking process is based on 5 stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. They are not called steps because design thinking does not assign any order to how they should be followed. Rather, design thinking embraces the multi-dimensionality of a creative process and we are free to refer to the stages in the way that suits our workflow or thinking process best.As a consequence, the design thinking approach opens us to more ideas and creates more choices. It is then for us to manage these ideas by making choices. It’s a diverging and converging process as opposed to the linear innovation process:You will probably find these steps also familiar, as they have been part of the product development cycle for years. What design thinking does is simply bring together the best practices of user experience, agile development, iterative development, user testing,prototyping, multi-disciplinary teams,and creativity. It gives us a framework to solve problems and spur innovation in a systematic way.So let’s delve into each stage of design thinking a little deeper…


Empathy maps by Stanford.

Empathizing is at the core of the design thinking approach. It stresses the importance of listening to the needs and desires of our users and other people within the context of your specific problem. Design thinking provides a great tool to help us record our discoveries and insights during this phase in an organized way:empathy maps (stay tuned for more about this):


Problem Statement by Stanford.

During this stage we start to synthesize all the information gathered while listening and observing to people. We start to piece together the tangible challenge that is in front of us.  In other words, we clearly define a problem. One thing that design thinking highlights is the importance of framing a problem in an open way so we leave enough room to create solutions and new opportunities. For example, we are creating a design briefing tool My Visual Brief but we don’t frame the problem as a ‘design briefing problem.’ Rather, we frame it as: ‘how can we help designers communicate better with their clients?’ This opens us to more avenues and creative solutions.You could use this ‘problem statement’ template to frame your problem:


Brainstorming by Manuel Garzarón.

Once a problem/opportunity has been clearly defined, we start looking for ways to solve it. We start generating as many ideas as possible. We brainstorm or, in other words, weideate. Design thinking highlights that during this stage we should not reject ideas because they seem too simple or too basic. Any idea can be a seed for another. So pay close attention and examine every new idea with a fresh perspective.Design thinking also promotes a team approach to brainstorming, and especially embraces multi-disciplinary teams, which could bring together different point of views. This always gives better results.To finalize this stage, we narrow down all the ideas leaving only the best ones. 


Nike Lab Pillows.

Prototyping is all about visualizing our solutions. There are different techniques for that such as ‘sketching’, ‘rapid prototyping’, etc. No matter which technique you prefer, the essence of this step stays the same: here we are building rough drafts of solutions to determine whether or not our solutions actually apply to the problem. And, as suggested by design thinking, we should do it in a simple, fast and least-expensive fashion.Depending on the context, a prototype can later evolve into a ‘beta product’ or a ‘minimal viable product (MVP)’.


We love users by General Assembly.

The name of this stage says it all. When at this stage, we test our prototype with the users in order to receive the feedback and synthesize whether or not our solution meets their needs.

Wrapping up on the Design Thinking

So here we are. We’ve covered the basic principles behind design thinking, but there is so much more to it.  If you want to know more about design thinking, here are some good resources: