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What is Design Thinking? Definition, Explanation and Process

With Design Thinking, new and innovative ideas can be generated together and reliably. Design thinking is not about the perspective of a single expert, but about interdisciplinarity and different perspectives of several people. But in order to apply such diversity, people have to learn to think differently: existing knowledge is now networked, previously unconnected things are linked together, and this creates a much larger solution space. People with their values and needs serve as a source of inspiration in the Design Thinking process. In this article, we explain what exactly design thinking is, what the design thinking process looks like, and what successful examples already exist.

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What is Design Thinking?

Development and history of the Design Thinking method: Design Thinking is often referred to as a trend tool at innovation congresses and in the media, although the origins of the method and its principles go back many years. For example, scientists were already working on a user-centered approach to innovation management in the 1990s and earlier.

The term design thinking is often associated with David Kelley, who founded the internationally renowned design and innovation agency IDEO and was instrumental in establishing the d-school (the small “d” stands for design) at Stanford University. Here, design thinking is taught in a very practical way. In addition, SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner is considered a major promoter of design thinking. He supported both the d-school and, in Germany, the HPI (Hasso Plattner Institute) at the University of Potsdam, which is named after him.

Today’s answer on the question “What is Design Thinking?” could be that design thinking is a systematic approach to complex problems from all areas of life. The approach goes far beyond the classic design disciplines such as shaping and design. In contrast to many approaches in science and practice, which approach the task from the technical solvability, user wishes and needs as well as user-oriented inventing are at the center of the process. Design thinkers look at the problem through the user’s glasses and thus put themselves in the role of the user.

Design Thinking Definition

Under design thinking is understood a special approach to the processing of complex problems. The underlying procedure is based on the work of designers and architects. Design thinking is a method, a set of principles, a special mindset and a process with a variety of supporting tools. The essential characteristic is the focused user orientation.

Characteristics: Design Thinking is based on some fundamental characteristics or principles that are often grouped under the headings of team, process, and space:

(a) Team:

Multidisciplinary teams (“Diversity”, see Diversity Management): in the composition of a Design Thinking team, strict attention is paid to, among other things, different professional disciplines.

“T-shape” personalities: Diverse people with technical expertise are sought after. The vertical letter part of the “T” stands for outstanding expertise in a particular discipline. The horizontal letter portion symbolizes broad and interdisciplinary knowledge.

Innovation and answers to complex questions arise best in a heterogeneous team of five to six people. Different professional backgrounds and functions as well as curiosity and openness to other perspectives are the foundation of the creative work culture of design thinking. In our Design Thinking workshops, each team is accompanied by a methodologically trained coach during the process. This allows the participants to focus on constructive collaboration on content and to achieve the goals set.

To achieve the greatest possible learning effect, the teams always work towards tangible and concrete results. These are also regularly shared with the other teams. The division into small groups ensures that every perspective can be taken into account. A strong sense of cohesion is created within the teams, which has a lasting effect due to the high level of acceptance for the resulting concepts.

b) Process:

The process often includes the following steps: empathy generation, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

User and target group orientation in all process steps: One of the most important principles in a Design Thinking project is the strict user focus.

Divergence and convergence: During a Design Thinking project, phases of divergence (focus on quantity in analysis and diversity of ideas) alternate with phases of convergence (focus on condensing and merging insights and ideas).

Visualization, storytelling, prototyping: In Design Thinking projects, insights and ideas are often visualized in the form of sketches, storyboards and stories around user experiences. In addition, rapid prototyping plays a central role: even in early phases, (simple) prototypes are repeatedly developed and tested quickly and with little effort.

Iterative loops: The process of learning or a step-by-step approach to an ideal solution represents another key principle. Numerous studies on success factors in innovation management underline the high importance of iteration and prototyping.

c) Space:

Flexible space concepts: In the design thinking scene, flexible room concepts with plenty of space are preferred, in which, for example, high tables, whiteboards, Post-it notes and a large selection of materials are available for the rapid creation of prototypes.

Design Thinking Process: What is the Design Thinking Process like in detail?

Design thinking process in detail: The Design Thinking process steps are not uniformly defined in the literature, in university education and in practice and differ slightly from one another depending on the source. The following explanations are based on the process of Stanford University/USA as an example.

The Design Thinking process starts with the Empathize phase. In addition to the classic desk research, ethnographic and qualitative market research methods in particular contribute to gaining knowledge. Design thinkers observe, conduct in-depth interviews or try their hand at self-awareness from the user’s point of view. Building on the information gathered, the subsequent Define phase focuses on formulating a precise question. Often, one or more so-called personas are created for this purpose. These are fictitious people who represent certain user groups. They are an aid for the user-centered focus and for the formulation of the initial question (called “point of view” in Design Thinking language) as the basis for idea generation: What specifically does this person described need and why? In the Ideate phase, problem solutions and ideas are generated. The way of working is divergent, because the initial aim is to achieve the greatest possible quantity. Creativity techniques can be used to support this. The Ideate phase is concluded convergently, i.e. with a condensation and selection of particularly promising approaches. The Prototype phase follows in the process of idea generation. Rapid prototyping is used here, i.e. prototypes are created, tested and, if necessary, quickly discarded again for learning purposes using the simplest means and, above all, without great effort. These can be used, for example, in 2-D as sketches, wireframes or storyboards, as 3-D models (e.g. using the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method) or as films. Prototypes are shown to users in the test phase and successively improved.

It should be noted that in Design Thinking projects the process steps are applied very flexibly. In the course of the iterations, it almost always happens that phases are run through several times.

The goal of design thinking processes: Innovation

The goal of Design Thinking processes in organizations and companies is the creative solution of a problem or a task or the creative development of new products or business areas: In other words, an innovation. An innovation does not always have to be an invention that radically changes the world as we know it. Meaningful innovations can also be “small”. For example, if a team develops an idea for making internal workflows and processes more effective or faster, this is definitely an innovation for a company that is worth investing in.

Prototyping - "Fail often and early!"

A central aspect of the design thinking process is prototyping. In an iterative process, more and more detailed prototypes are developed step by step, and feedback from stakeholders and, above all, customers is obtained on essential aspects of the prototype (critical function). The motto “fail often and early” applies. The goal of prototyping is to try out the innovation team’s ideas with the customer as early as possible in the innovation process, to gain valuable insights from the customer’s perspective, or to uncover weaknesses. Fail early” has a positive effect on the outcome of the process and saves the company valuable resources.

Design Thinking Application Examples

The range of applications for design thinking is constantly growing. Companies are using the method for a wide variety of topics, e.g., for generating product, service and process innovations. Accordingly, Design Thinking is used, for example, in so-called Corporate Think Tanks, in which future-oriented topics such as foresight, strategy and innovation are worked on. Design sprints, which have become known in particular through Google Ventures, are a special variant. Here, a problem is worked on in a focused manner in a 5-day sprint week. In addition, some nonprofit organizations have discovered the method for themselves and try to solve the big problems of mankind. Even schools, among others in the USA or in India, have integrated Design Thinking projects into their curricula.

3 famous Design Thinking examples from the practice

Example #1: Airbnb

Design thinking thrives on trying things out, experimenting and making things, the error culture and rapid prototyping.

The story of how Airbnb came to be is an example of this and almost a Silicon Valley myth. Art school graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky had already been up to all sorts of shenanigans and creative projects during their design studies, and had known each other for a long time from their design studies.

In 2007, the two rented out sleeping spaces on air mattresses in their shared apartment in San Francisco out of a need for money. It was a good thing for them that almost all hotel rooms in the city were fully booked because of an important design conference. The platform airbedandbreakfast.com was born, today known as Airbnb. It took the founders several attempts to get the company up and running and they were initially ridiculed for their idea.

In the early days, the founders had trouble figuring out why certain ads were very successful and others were not. Using methods, they quickly found that unsuccessful ads had one thing in common: they had bad photos.

To solve this problem, a (now very successful and famous) photographer program was started to help landlords with inviting photos. This analysis and solution is billed as a “turnaround” in AirBnB history. Within a few years and with more than a billion in revenue in 2019, Airbnb has now revolutionized the hotel industry.

Example 2: Baby incubator - Embrace

Another moving example of meaningful and user-centered product development and sustainable problem solving is the development of the Embrace baby incubator.

In 2008, a group of students at the Stanford Institute of Design engaged in the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability project to address the problem of high infant mortality among newborns in developing and emerging countries.

The extreme challenge for the team was to develop a baby incubator that would protect children born prematurely in emerging countries due to hypothermia.

At the same time, the new incubator had to be many times cheaper than a normal, high-tech baby incubator in a hospital and thus affordable for people from these countries.

The team spoke with hospital staff, doctors, nurses and mothers in Nepal. A key finding was that mothers in rural areas often don’t have the ability to get to the hospital quickly enough during the birthing process due to the frequent lack of infrastructure in developing and emerging countries.

After many design drafts and clinical tests, the small, flexible, mobile and much more affordable Embrace incubator was born.

Example 3: MRI equipment for children

Doug Dietz had been an industrial designer at General Electric Healthcare for more than 20 years. One day, he witnessed firsthand a little girl in a hospital going into an MRI machine he had designed.

The girl was so afraid of the technical device and cried so much that the experience left a lasting impression on Doug.

Without further ado, Doug attended a workshop on Human Centered Design at the d.school in Stanford. Through many observations and the exchange with and inspiration from other experts, he was gradually able to empathize better with the special user group of children.

Since then he has been developing the “Adventure Series” for MRI devices. His most famous prototype is an MRI device designed like a pirate ship. Children who now have to go in for an MRI exam now experience an interactive pirate voyage, rather than the fear of an uncertain exam.

In addition to General Electric Healthcare, other companies such as Philips Healthcare now offer such MRI experiences.

Critical appraisal of Design Thinking

The positive aspect of Design Thinking is that the basic philosophy and the systematic yet flexible process with a strict user orientation and its iterations have proven themselves in practice for a wide variety of topics. In addition, team members develop a pronounced commitment and dedication to the challenge set for them.

Design thinking demands constant feedback between the developer of a solution and its target group. Design thinkers ask the end user questions, take a close look at their processes and behaviors. Solutions and ideas are made visible and communicable as early as possible in the form of prototypes, so that potential users can test them – long before completion or market launch – and provide feedback. In this way, design thinking generates practical results.

Innovations and valuable problem solutions combine three essential components:

  • (technological) feasibility
  • (economic) viability
  • (human) desirability.

Design thinking takes the human perspective as the starting point for the objective of designing innovative products, services or experiences that are not only attractive, but also feasible and marketable.

A critical aspect, in addition to the effort involved (time, personnel), is the difficulty of not overstretching the process. The weakness of many a designer is not to find an end and to keep looking for further improvement possibilities. As a project manager or design thinking facilitator, it is therefore necessary to control the phases of convergence and divergence in a very targeted manner, and to intervene in the process in a structuring manner. In addition, it is criticized that the implementation step is missing in the classic Design Thinking process. Design thinking can lead to extremely creative results, but even with this method there is no guarantee of success. Market researchers also criticize the insufficient quantitative validation. This argument must be accepted, but conversely, market research also reaches its limits and cannot provide any guarantees regarding its recommendations.

Degree of dissemination and outlook for Design Thinking

Design Thinking is enjoying increasing popularity. Currently, more and more industries and organizations are discovering the working principles, mindset and approaches underlying Design Thinking. In an environment characterized by complexity and rapid change, Design Thinking can be an extremely useful tool for meeting the challenges of our time efficiently and promisingly. In this respect, a growing degree of dissemination can also be expected for the future.

What if we
finally talked?

It is going to be worthwhile.