Design thinking is a methodology that can be used to create solutions to problems. It is called design thinking because it is the process that is generally used by designers to come up with successful products, for example a lightweight, stackable chair.

“Design thinking” is a bit of a buzzword at the moment, and if you’re cynical about buzzwords (after all, it’s just rational thinking that someone gave a fancy name?) then I hope this article explains why the hype around “design thinking” is worth investigating and implementing.

So what is design thinking?

Its recent increase in prominence is because organisations like IDEO and the have refined and added depth to the methodology and are using it to solve complex problems. More than stackable chairs, they’re designing better service systems and finding solutions to eradicate plastic from oceans.

IDEO defines design thinking as “a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

The design thinking methodology consists of five steps.

I’ll explain them using the example portrayed in one of the worst films ever made: Elizabethtown (sorry Cameron Crowe), in which Orlando Bloom’s character is a shoe designer. He designs a shoe with a fatal flaw that costs his company billions to correct. It was a mistake that he gets fired for.

Step 1: Empathise

Marketing and advertising gurus will know all about finding target audience insights. Empathetic research is taking this to the next level. All the stakeholders in the complex problem you are trying to solve have to be engaged on a personal level. The aim is to get them to tell you their stories to gain authentic insights.

The principle being that one is motivated to find good, sustainable solutions for people that one truly understands and cares about. This level of empathy is only possible with someone you have met and have had a genuine conversation with.

To use the shoe example again, one could conduct an interview with someone that loves their gym trainers. Let them tell you the story of each pair. Then let them tell you the story of all their other shoes – why they bought them, where they wear them, how long they’ve had them, etc.

Step 2: Define the problem

Problems are often stated from a business or company perspective: how do we make more profit or more sales, or how do we expand our product range? Design thinking requires the problem to be defined from an end user point of view. So instead of asking “How do we launch a shoe that will make us millions in profit?” rather ask “What type of shoe is really supportive in a gym environment but also looks really good when dancing in an upscale nightclub?”

The logic is so darn simple: if your product or service or innovation works well for the user, profit will be inevitable.

Step 3: Ideate

This is probably the step that most non-designer and even professional design participants find the most intimidating: coming up with the actual creative ideas to solve the problem. Design thinking participants are often insecure about their ideas and look for excuses not to voice them.

This is where an experienced ideation facilitator is worth their weight in gold: they will have a set of tools that almost ‘trick’ people into thinking of solutions. Facilitators should also be able to gently guide participants beyond their “we can’t do this” scenarios. I like using a book called Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko which lists and explains several good tools that can be used to ideate.

Brainstorming is one tool that is most often used to spur idea-generation. I find brainstorming works when a group of 3-5 participants are selected. They should be briefed not to be too critical of their own ideas – or the ideas of others. Rather they should think of as many crazy ideas as possible. In other words, give them explicit permission to be crazy. Once all the ‘crazy’ ideas have been written down and are represented on a wall or noticeboard, the second round of ideation can be done where the ‘crazy’ ideas are tested against the limitations inherent to the problem.

Often the limitations-ideation round has even more creative solutions, especially as the participants’ ideas flow has been loosened up in the previous round.

Step 4: Prototype

In this step, you have to create a cost-effective and easily implementable version of whatever solutions are the best so far. You could roughly make a mock-up of the shoe with scissors, cardboard and glue, just to get an idea of what it would look like and how the shoe would work. Here, the trick is not to get held back because the prototype does not look like a final finished beautiful product, but to understand that one is just testing the idea and it’s OK if the shoe looks as if it has been made by your nephew in Grade 1.

It’s all about getting a first impression of how the product or service would actually work.

When prototyping a  service you could act out the service using a bit of a role play and costume dressing. It’s amazing how many problems or solutions can be found and solved in even the clumsiest of mock-ups and role plays.

Step 5: Test

Once some kind of certainty has been reached on what the final solution/s might be, a bit of money and time can be invested to create a more final prototype or sets of prototypes that can be tested by the intended user. Again, this should not be a massive capital investment. What is important to observe is how your product, service or innovation is being used or interacted with, and to get as much feedback from the users as possible. This step can be repeated until all problems and issues have been ironed out, and only then can the final production of the ‘shoe’ begin.

The five steps of design thinking listed above do not have to be used in a linear fashion, but can be used interchangeably. Different problems might call for a different order of the design thinking steps, and for certain steps to be repeated several times.

Once one understands the beauty of design thinking, it is glaringly clear that the shoe-designer in Elizabethtown would never have had a billion-dollar failure if he had employed it. Firstly, he would have made sure he knew what people really wanted from a shoe design, he would have come up with much better ideas to address the actual needs of his potential customer, and he would have prototyped and tested the design several times before any real money was spent and lost.

Ps. If you want to try design thinking to solve a problem in your business, I recommend you download the Design Thinking Bootleg from the website. It’s free and it’s fantastic!

Carmen Schaefer,

Head of the Creative Department at Red & Yellow School, graphic designer,

a few felines short of a cat lady and loyal friend to the end.