What is Design Thinking?

I was in a meeting on Friday with the owner of a large IT services company. Over coffee we discussed what we do and how we help our respective clients. I was explaining that we use design thinking to help our clients transform their organisations, when he stopped me and asked “what is design thinking?“.


I’ve spent my whole life trying not to use jargon. I’m not a fan of business-speak and yet here I was, launching into a monologue about what we do and assuming that people know what design thinking is.


The reality is that most people don’t know. It’s still a young concept, made popular by IDEO over the last 25 years. So what exactly is it?


What is Design Thinking?


Google ‘design thinking’ and you’ll find a plethora of articles and different definitions.


In simple terms, design thinking is a way of applying a designer’s mindset to solve problems. It’s a deeply human process, indeed we use terms such as ‘human centred design’ to describe the work that we do. Instead of sitting in a room trying to guess what people want, we go out and ask them and watch how they use products and services. Observation and empathy are important skills for design thinking.


Key phases in the design thinking process


  1. Discovery phase – at the outset we don’t accept that the problem we’ve been asked to solve is the correct one, so we carry out research to ascertain what the ‘real’ problem is. Often there can be an underlying reason that is causing the problem.
  2. Develop phase – once we’ve done our research then we start brainstorming possible solutions. This is often done with users as well as staff – it’s what we call a co-created solution. In this phase, no idea is a bad idea. It’s about creating as many possible solutions as possible. This is known as ‘divergent’ thinking. We then narrow down the number of possible solutions using ‘convergent’ thinking.
  3. Prototype phase – next we take these ideas and turn them into physical solutions that we can test with users and gather feedback, further refining the solution.
  4. Implement phase – finally we introduce the refined solutions into the process. Again we’re looking to gather feedback from users so that we can continue to improve the user experience.


Ultimately we’re looking to create solutions that hit the innovation sweetspot in the above diagram. We know that successful solutions are those that are not only economically viable and technically feasible, but importantly will be desirable.


Design thinking helps us achieve that.