5 min. reading time

Design Thinking is one of the much-hyped topics that we encounter again and again. But what is behind it?

What does "thinking creatively" mean? What do I need to be able to achieve it? Do I have to be a designer? I will try to get to the bottom of such questions, and in the process provide an introduction to the topic.

What's the idea behind Design Thinking?

Think of classic projects and the questions they raise. The goal is often to find the single "best" solution to a problem. Because we claim to be able to make everything perfect right from the start, we often feel stuck.

Design Thinking takes a different approach. It’s about iteratively experimenting, trying out solutions, gathering feedback, and perhaps even just following our intuition towards better solutions. So we don’t claim that our first idea is the best solution, but first allow ourselves to try something else – no matter how exotic or crazy – and check it afterwards. That's how we want to find out if our idea works: does it work for users? Is it really helping them?

Of course we might decide that it doesn’t. But this gives us the opportunity to learn from a design’s shortcomings, take a step back, and improve our idea based on the insights gained.

Design Thinking as a mindset

Design Thinking therefore is about a mindset, a mentality. A few principles are important:

  • Think from the users’ viewpoint
  • Adopt different perspectives
  • Permit "wild" ideas
  • Try something crazy
  • Risk making mistakes
  • … and, most importantly, build on each other’s ideas.

The last point is important, because we never conduct Design Thinking projects alone: we act in a team that is as interdisciplinary as possible, even when it comes to solving a very specific, subject-related problem. Everyone can contribute something from a different perspective, draw on other sources of experience, and thus contribute to creative problem solving.

Design Thinking = creative problem-solving

Even though it doesn’t sound as exciting as the term "Design Thinking", that's what it's all about: creative problem-solving.

We start with a concrete initial question, the "design challenge", and go through a team-based process which on one hand reveals concrete problems and the needs of users, and on the other comes up with a variety of solutions.

First we work completely within the problem area and ignore any possible solutions. We track users, determine any "pain points" they have in connection with the design challenge, collect a lot of information about why they do specific things the way they do, and gain as many insights as possible into the background of the design challenge.

Once we have built up a comprehensive picture, we move into the "solution space". Design Thinking now provides us with a variety of methods and tools to turn our knowledge into innovative, maybe wild, perhaps even groundbreaking ideas. The idea or ideas the team decides to be the most promising are selected and developed as prototypes. One principle is vital: to try to create a prototype that is as realistic as possible, which clarifies our idea and allows us to test it later. Everything is allowed, from use-case comics through to tactile prototypes built out of Lego to try out role-play – the implementation that makes a solution the best experience for users is the right one.

However, it’s important not to devote too much time to this stage, because it is quite likely that a prototype will be adapted or maybe even discarded. And that’s important: we use prototypes to get feedback from users and see if our design is an actual solution to their problem.

Phases of Design Thinking

Achieving problem-solving in this way results in iterative phases for the Design Thinking process:

  • Empathize: Understand and observe
  • Define: Define perspectives
  • Ideate: Find ideas
  • Prototype: Develop prototypes
  • Testing: Test your prototype

The process is like a framework that can be creatively filled with life. For example, two Design Thinking projects can look very different in their concrete design even if they both follow these five phases. That's the exciting thing about it: we work unconventionally, move fast, work with our hands, our heads and our hearts and break out of the restrictions of normal working life. This is how we can achieve something remarkable: together we can extract from team members’ heads real ideas that we might never have discovered in more rigid ways of working.

So I do have to be a designer?

No, definitely not. As you might have gathered, Design Thinking does not really have much to do with design. It is more about having a desire to understand and analyze a problem, to open oneself to new ideas and to come together in a team, creatively and courageously, to provide solutions that really help users, because these are the solutions that will lead you to success.