Design Thinking Definition

Design Thinking Definition

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is often described as a method that brings innovation.

A way of working in project teams, experimenting, prototyping, designing, and testing a new product.

Design thinking is practiced by all sorts of companies and project teams across the globe. You might have heard of methods such as brainstorming, prototyping, shadowing, and scenario testing before. Maybe you even do them regularly.

But what exactly is design thinking? What does it include?

And why is design thinking so powerful?

This article gives you an overview.

Design thinking in short

Design thinking is a method of creative problem-solving. It’s a way of looking at the world with an open mind, questioning what we do and how we do it to come up with creative solutions to our problems.

Just as if we still were curious children.

It’s as much a project process as a practical skill and a mindset.


The project process encourages observing real-world problems.

Its structure forces the project team to connect to users at different stages of the process. This human-centered approach ensures that the outcome truly serves the end-user.

Design thinkers are relying on a range of different methods that structure their work sessions. Like tools in a toolbox, the methods are always the same but are used to shape very different products. They can be used to design a wide range of things, from physical products to services and even experiences.

Working effectively with these methods, activity analysis, shadowing, and role-playing to name a few examples, is a skill of its own that needs to be learned.


Having a multidisciplinary team is considered a must in design thinking. The more skills and thinking patterns are combined, the exponentially more ideas come out of the process.

Linus Pauling hit the nail on the head when he said

“the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas”.

But how are good ideas created? The secret to the success of a project (or in other words innovative ideas) is the design thinking mindset.

Going from ideas to a working product, the right team culture is key. There must be a good base of trust and openness, a bias towards action, and the willingness to fail and learn from failure.

Only if the many ideas from a first brainstorming session are tested, refined, and combined in an iterative process, something truly great will come out.

Putting this mindset into practice is a key skill a design thinker needs to train and share with everyone involved in the project.


Where was design thinking born?

Design thinking is a method that is often associated with IDEO, a product design, and consulting company.


David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, noticed that every time he described design, the word thinking was part of his explanation. David Kelley was one of the early influencers of the design thinking concept and may have provided the name to the concept with this reflection in the early 1990ies.

The psychology behind design thinking methods was discovered a few decades earlier. In parallel, the human-centered design approach formed around that time.

More and more designers started to work with the evolving concept:

How designers like David Kelley design products is not only shaping a beautiful-looking shell. It’s looking at a product’s users, their needs and struggles, and the broader environment, and drawing inspiration for a new product from those observations and conversations.

Design thinkers also strongly believe that designing is a team approach, including non-designers and users.

This approach was foreign and new at the time.

To train project team members and to further spread the concept in the design- and business world, IDEO founders David Kelley and Tim Brown started to bring the design thinking process to a broader public: Workshop methods were developed and books described both process and mindset.

it’s not the same to be a designer and to think like one

Tim Brown in Change by design


Design thinking ultimately is not necessarily what every designer does. In fact, it’s far away from what you might know from the traditional product design of the last century (designing a beautiful-looking shell). It is rather a way of thinking and working that was inspired by how human-centered designers work.

In turn, with the theory explained and the tools provided, everyone can learn how to apply design thinking.

Design thinking process

When tackling a problem, question, or task, there is a clear process that guides us in design thinking.

The project process has three phases:

First, we understand a task or problem. We observe users and think from their perspective. We define the situation and the user’s needs.

Next, we explore different options of how we can help the user. This includes making a variety of quick prototypes, testing them, and making better ones based on what we have learned.

In the end, we materialize the end product.

understand explore materialize

Each of those project phases has two steps; in total 6 steps that describe the design thinking process:



  • Empathize: We research around the broader topic of our task. Looking at the users, their behavior patterns, and environments, we can understand their point of view, motivations, and fears. We empathize with them.
  • Define: We summarize our findings from the first step. What is the task or problem we would like to develop a solution for? Who are our users? Are there different types of users? What is the bigger context? What do we know? What do we need to understand better?



Based on reflecting on the outcome of the first phase, we can go on exploring possible solutions.

  • Ideate: This is the phase where we generate a big number of ideas without questioning them. We build on each other’s ideas, discuss and exchange. With a systematic approach, we conclude with a few options we would like to further explore. The more different they are, the better.
  • Prototype: With quick and easy methods (pen, paper, cardboard, scissors, and tape for example) we create the first prototypes. These will materialize our thoughts and give feedback. In an iterative process, we refine them.



  • Test: Now it’s time to return to the users and test our prototypes. In an iterative process, we evaluate the best option and make it work for the users.

Typical industrial design will be part of the iterative process of prototyping and testing.

  • Implement: Design thinking doesn’t stop with the finished product design. In the last step, we ensure that the product can be produced, commercialized, and used.


Looking at the graphic, you will see arrows that go from each step back to the one before and even one from the last circle back to the first. This symbolizes the iterative nature of the design thinking process.

In no way is it a linear one-way street. During the project, it’s normal and necessary to go back to the previous step or previous phase to reflect and adapt.

Design thinking mindset

Design thinking is all about applying a beginner’s mindset. There are two approaches that might help you:

  • Connecting to our inner child:
    Curiously explore the world around us, touching and trying out, asking w-questions, and learning through trial and error.


  • Guide an alien visitor:
    In case you have a hard time with the child analogy, there is a second approach. Imagine you have a visitor from an alien planet. How would you describe our world to them? What would they ask and how could you explain so they understand?


The other part of the mindset is connected to how we behave in a team. For the design thinking process to work, everyone involved must apply an open mindset. Say goodbye to creative blockers like hierarchical teams or explain why something doesn’t work.

Instead, here are some points to internalize. They help establish a positive team- and the company culture opens for design thinking:


  • Like a curious child, we ask for the reason, look to find the root cause, and understand the system behind what we have in front of us. We ask questions and learn through touch and feel (testing).


  • No idea is a bad idea
    Team members must feel empowered to build on each other’s ideas


  • Open to possibilities: In design thinking, we are wide open to different outcomes


  • When we test prototypes, we are willing to accept that we did not yet find the one that works


  • We don’t try to forecast a certain outcome


  • When we interview customers, we don’t fish for the answer we want to hear but place ourselves in their shoes and truly listen to what they have to say


  • Welcoming the “new”: Design thinkers are constantly looking for new ways to solve problems. While we learn from the existing, we are not fixed to industry standards and traditional ways of doing things. If we find a different way of doing things, for example, a new material to use, a new production method, or a different way of providing a service we are testing if the new one could work just as well or even better than the old one.


  • “fail early and often; learn quickly”
    The earlier an idea doesn’t work out, the lower the costs attached. That’s why design thinking focuses on exploring very different ideas to find the one concept that works. Only by doing that, something truly great comes out.


  • Welcoming action: To get to an end product, it’s required to take action! Throughout the process, taking action helps to get clarity and answers but also reduces cost:


  • We make many quick prototypes before we spend a lot of time perfecting one design.


  • We seek user feedback when we have questions. Observing them interact with a prototype and letting them explain how it works gives us more valuable clues and answers than only talking about a design.


  • When stuck in the process, we go back to the drawing board, do more research and add another design loop.


  • We are not afraid of failures; in fact, there are no failures in an innovation project: With the described iterative process, we go from product brief to final product.


We try and learn in the process and are open to adapting the process on the go, depending on what we need for the project to become successful.

This mindset must be internalized not only by the whole project team but also at management level.

Design Thinking Mindset

How design thinking is applied

The design thinking process can be applied to any type of problem, in any industry.


It’s a way of looking at the world with an open mind, questioning what we do and how we do it to come up with creative solutions to our problems.


Having a team with members from various backgrounds means that we have a bigger pool of knowledge, experience, skillsets, and way of thinking we can draw from.


Multidisciplinary project teams

Design thinking is not only practiced by designers. In fact, it works best in multidisciplinary teams!

Gone are the days when a small group of designers locked in a room comes out with their design that the engineers then need to figure out how to produce.


Who should be on the team? An example for a team that brings out a new physical product

The design thinking team ideally combines everyone involved in the process of a successful product launch – designer, engineer, product manager, production, software developer, customer, end-user (customer and end-user are not always the same person), …

While not all those people are part of the core team, they are consulted or invited to the team in different stages of the project.


Who should lead the team?

For someone first working in a design thinking team, design thinking methods might be very different from their usual work practice. They also might be something that traditionally was not their key expertise.

With practice, it will become intuitive how to define the project plan, how to structure team meetings and workshops, and how to plan for prototypes and user feedback. It is a skill that a project leader will learn over time.


In companies and project teams new to design thinking, it’s very important that there is a design thinking expert who can implement the design thinking elements. They should work with the project leader and are fully responsible for the design thinking element of the project.


The design thinking expert could be an internal person who is familiar with design thinking (not only in theory but has practical skills and experience in project work with design thinking).

But it could also be an external design thinking coach who consults the team leader and leads off workshops.


In any way, the design thinking expert should

          closely work together with the project leader to plan the project

          introduce design thinking theory to the project team

          decide which methods are used in which stage of the process (ongoing decisions)

          moderate meetings and workshops with design thinking elements

          Guide team members throughout the project work to ensure that design thinking approaches are implemented to their fullest potential.


Remember: The person leading the design thinking element of the project is not necessarily the project leader. If it’s not the same person, they will work hand in hand to combine both skill sets.


The every-day in a design thinking project

From experience, team members will fall back to doing things the traditional way outside of defined design thinking working sessions quite quickly. This is completely normal and understandable – it’s just how they know that they can do their work best.


A project team who has not yet gone through a few projects with design thinking will need guidance from the design thinking expert to be able to cohesively apply design thinking to all levels of the project.


The design thinking expert should give feedback to team members on how they can implement design thinking throughout their own project work.

For example, adding the human-centered angle to a business case, preparing questions for a user test, reasoning for or against a certain design, …

Solving problems in the real world and driving innovation

To create successful products, we need to understand user needs, the ability to create a profitable solution, and the technical skills to make it happen.

The sweet spot in the middle is where innovation happens.

desirable feasible viable


The design thinking process begins with empathizing with users to understand their needs. Once we have a deep understanding of our users’ needs, we begin to develop solutions that meet their needs.

Because design thinking is focused on solving a problem for the user, the products created with a design thinking approach will be what a target customer really needs. The product will be both practical and easy to use for them.


In design thinking, we don’t stop at the product concept and design. By understanding the manufacturing process and learning from production throughout the prototyping and design process, we can influence the product design in a way that it’s easy to produce.



Lastly, in design thinking, we consider the whole business model around the product – how it’s effectively marketed and sold. This ensures that we have a profitable product.


Design thinking is about taking all of those angles into consideration and balancing them.

That’s the secret to how design thinking creates business impact and drives innovation.

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Design Thinking Definition

Sep 1, 2022 | Design Thinking, PRODUCTIVITY

last updated: October 10, 2023

by Corinne

by Corinne


  • The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley (book)
  • Change by Design by Tim Brown (book)
  • Design thinking defined” by IDEO design thinking (home page)
  • Design Thinking 101” by Nielsen Norman Group (blog article)
  • Fraunhofer Institut Method cards by Fraunhofer FIT (cards)
  • Design Thinking Toolbox by Michael Lewrick, Patrick Link, Larry Leifer (book)

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