What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (2023)

Design Thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? What’s special about Design Thinking is that designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply these human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, in our lives.

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google and Samsung, rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and leading universities around the world teach the related methodology—including Stanford, Harvard, Imperial College London and the Srishti Institute in India. Before you incorporate design thinking into your own workflows, you need to know what it is and why it’s so popular. Here, we’ll cut to the chase and tell you what design thinking is all about and why it’s so in demand.

What is Design Thinking?

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (1)
© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Design thinking is an iterative process in which you seek to understand your users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions which you can prototype and test. The overall goal is to identify alternative strategies and solutions that are not instantly apparent with your initial level of understanding.

Design thinking is more than just a process; it opens up an entirely new way to think, and it offers a collection of hands-on methods to help you apply this new mindset.

In essence, design thinking:

  • Revolves around a deep interest to understand the people for whom we design products and services.

  • Helps us observe and develop empathy with the target users.

  • Enhances our ability to question: in design thinking you question the problem, the assumptions and the implications.

  • Proves extremely useful when you tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

  • Involves ongoing experimentation through sketches, prototypes, testing and trials of new concepts and ideas.

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In this video, Don Norman, the Grandfather of Human-Centered Design, explains how the approach and flexibility of design thinking can help us tackle major global challenges.

What Are the 5 Phases of Design Thinking?

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Hasso-Platner Institute Panorama

Ludwig Wilhelm Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

(Video) What is Design Thinking And Why Is It SO Popular? [Part 1]

Design thinking is an iterative and non-linear process that contains five phases: 1. Empathize, 2. Define, 3. Ideate, 4. Prototype and 5. Test. You can carry these stages out in parallel, repeat them and circle back to a previous stage at any point in the process.

The core purpose of the process is to allow you to work in a dynamic way to develop and launch innovative ideas.

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (2)
© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Design Thinking Makes You Think Outside the Box

Design thinking can help people do out-of-the-box or outside-the-box thinking. People who use this methodology:

  • Attempt to develop new ways of thinking—ways that do not abide by the dominant or more common problem-solving methods.

  • Have the intention to improve products, services and processes. They seek to analyze and understand how users interact with products to investigate the conditions in which they operate.

  • Ask significant questions and challenge assumptions. One element of outside-the-box / out-of-the-box thinking is to falsify previous assumptions—i.e., make it possible to prove whether they’re valid or not.

As you can see, design thinking offers us a means to think outside the box and also dig that bit deeper into problem-solving. It helps us carry out the right kind of research, create prototypes and test our products and services to uncover new ways to meet our users’ needs.

The Grand Old Man of User Experience, Don Norman, who also coined the very term User Experience, explains what Design Thinking is and what’s so special about it:

“…the more I pondered the nature of design and reflected on my recent encounters with engineers, business people and others who blindly solved the problems they thought they were facing without question or further study, I realized that these people could benefit from a good dose of design thinking. Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be (for example by using the "Five Whys" approach to get at root causes). Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don't try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called "Design Thinking."

— Don Norman, Rethinking Design Thinking

(Video) What Is Design Thinking? An Overview

Design Thinking is for Everybody

How many people are involved in the design process when your organization decides to create a new product or service? Teams that build products are often composed of people from a variety of different departments. For this reason, it can be difficult to develop, categorize and organize ideas and solutions for the problems you try to solve. One way you can keep a project on track, and organize the core ideas, is to use a design thinking approach—and everybody can get involved in that!

Tim Brown, CEO of the celebrated innovation and design firm IDEO, emphasizes this in his successful book Change by Design when he says design thinking techniques and strategies belong at every level of a business.

Design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers and leaders who seek to infuse it into every level of an organization. This widespread adoption of design thinking will drive the creation of alternative products and services for both business and society.

“Design thinking begins with skills designers have learned over many decades in their quest to match human needs with available technical resources within the practical constraints of business. By integrating what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable, designers have been able to create the products we enjoy today. Design thinking takes the next step, which is to put these tools into the hands of people who may have never thought of themselves as designers and apply them to a vastly greater range of problems.”

— Tim Brown, Change by Design, Introduction

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (3)
© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Tim Brown also shows how design thinking is not just for everybody—it’s about everybody, too. The process is firmly based on how you can generate a holistic and empathic understanding of the problems people face. Design thinking involves ambiguous, and inherently subjective, concepts such as emotions, needs, motivations and drivers of behavior.

In a solely scientific approach (for example, analyzing data), people are reduced to representative numbers, devoid of emotions. Design thinking, on the other hand, considers both quantitative as well as qualitative dimensions to gain a more complete understanding of user needs. For example, you might observe people performing a task such as shopping for groceries, and you might talk to a few shoppers who feel frustrated with the checkout process at the store (qualitative data). You can also ask them how many times a week they go shopping or feel a certain way at the checkout counter (quantitative data). You can then combine these data points to paint a holistic picture of user pain points, needs and problems.

Tim Brown sums up that design thinking provides a third way to look at problems. It’s essentially a problem-solving approach that has crystallized in the field of design to combine a holistic user-centered perspective with rational and analytical research—all with the goal to create innovative solutions.

“Design thinking taps into capacities we all have but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It is not only human-centered; it is deeply human in and of itself. Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality, to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols. Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as dangerous. The integrated approach at the core of the design process suggests a ‘third way.’”

— Tim Brown, Change by Design, Introduction

Design Thinking Has a Scientific Side

Design thinking is both an art and a science. It combines investigations into ambiguous elements of the problem with rational and analytical research—the scientific side in other words. This magical concoction reveals previously unknown parameters and helps to uncover alternative strategies which lead to truly innovative solutions.

The scientific activities analyze how users interact with products, and investigate the conditions in which they operate. They include tasks which:

(Video) The Explainer: What Is Design Thinking?

  • Research users’ needs.

  • Pool experience from previous projects.

  • Consider present and future conditions specific to the product.

  • Test the parameters of the problem.

  • Test the practical application of alternative problem solutions.

Once you arrive at a number of potential solutions, the selection process is then underpinned by rationality. As a designer, you are encouraged to analyze and falsify these solutions to arrive at the best available option for each problem or obstacle identified during phases of the design process.

With this in mind, it may be more correct to say design thinking is not about thinking outside the box, but on its edge, its corner, its flap, and under its bar code—as Clint Runge put it.

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (4)
© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Resetting Our Mental Boxes and Developing a Fresh Mindset

Thinking outside of the box can provide an innovative solution to a sticky problem. However, thinking outside of the box can be a real challenge as we naturally develop patterns of thinking that are modeled on the repetitive activities and commonly accessed knowledge we surround ourselves with.

Some years ago, an incident occurred where a truck driver tried to pass under a low bridge. But he failed, and the truck was lodged firmly under the bridge. The driver was unable to continue driving through or reverse out.

The story goes that as the truck became stuck, it caused massive traffic problems, which resulted in emergency personnel, engineers, firefighters and truck drivers gathering to devise and negotiate various solutions for dislodging the trapped vehicle.

Emergency workers were debating whether to dismantle parts of the truck or chip away at parts of the bridge. Each spoke of a solution that fitted within his or her respective level of expertise.

A boy walking by and witnessing the intense debate looked at the truck, at the bridge, then looked at the road and said nonchalantly, “Why not just let the air out of the tires?” to the absolute amazement of all the specialists and experts trying to unpick the problem.

When the solution was tested, the truck was able to drive free with ease, having suffered only the damage caused by its initial attempt to pass underneath the bridge. The story symbolizes the struggles we face where oftentimes the most obvious solutions are the ones hardest to come by because of the self-imposed constraints we work within.

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (5)
© Wystan, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Stories Have the Power to Inspire

Why did we tell you this story about the truck and the bridge? Well, it’s because stories can help us inspire opportunities, ideas and solutions. Stories are framed around real people and their lives and are important because they’re accounts of specific events, not general statements. They provide us with concrete details which help us imagine solutions to particular problems.

(Video) Why is Design Thinking so successful?

Stories also help you develop the eye of a designer. As you walk around the world, you should try to look for the design stories that are all around you. Say to yourself “that’s an example of great design” or “that's an example of really bad design” and try to figure out the reasons why.

When you come across something particularly significant, make sure you document it either through photos or video. This will prove beneficial not only to you and your design practice but also to others—your future clients, maybe.

The Take Away

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? (6)
© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that consists of 5 phases: 1. Empathize, 2. Define, 3. Ideate, 4. Prototype and 5. Test. You can carry out the stages in parallel, repeat them and circle back to a previous stage at any point in the process—you don’t have to follow them in order.

It’s a process that digs a bit deeper into problem-solving as you seek to understand your users, challenge assumptions and redefine problems. The design thinking process has both a scientific and artistic side to it, as it asks us to understand and challenge our natural, restrictive patterns of thinking and generate innovative solutions to the problems our users face.

Design thinking is essentially a problem-solving approach that has the intention to improve products. It helps you assess and analyze known aspects of a problem and identify the more ambiguous or peripheral factors that contribute to the conditions of a problem. This contrasts with a more scientific approach where the concrete and known aspects are tested in order to arrive at a solution.

The iterative and ideation-oriented nature of design thinking means we constantly question and acquire knowledge throughout the process. This helps us redefine a problem so we can identify alternative strategies and solutions that aren’t instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.

Design thinking is often referred to as outside-the-box thinking, as designers attempt to develop new ways of thinking that do not abide by the dominant or more common problem-solving methods—just like artists do.

The design thinking process has become increasingly popular over the last few decades because it was key to the success of many high-profile, global organizations. This outside-the-box thinking is now taught at leading universities across the world and is encouraged at every level of business.

“The ‘Design Thinking’ label is not a myth. It is a description of the application of well-tried design process to new challenges and opportunities, used by people from both design and non-design backgrounds. I welcome the recognition of the term and hope that its use continues to expand and be more universally understood, so that eventually every leader knows how to use design and design thinking for innovation and better results.”

— Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO, in Design Thinking: Dear Don

References & Where to Learn More

Enroll in our engaging course, “Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide”

Here are some examples of good and bad designs to inspire you to look for examples in your daily life.

Read this informative article “What Is Design Thinking, and How Can SMBs Accomplish It?” by Jackie Dove.

Read this insightful article “Rethinking Design Thinking” by Don Norman.

(Video) What is Design Thinking?: Understanding Design

Check out Tim Brown’s book “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation Introduction,” 2009.

Learn more about Design Thinking in the article “Design Thinking: Dear Don” by Bill Moggridge.

Images

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

FAQs

What is design thinking and why it is so popular? ›

In essence, design thinking: Revolves around a deep interest to understand the people for whom we design products and services. Helps us observe and develop empathy with the target users. Enhances our ability to question: in design thinking you question the problem, the assumptions and the implications.

What is design thinking short answer? ›

Design thinking is a process for solving problems by prioritizing the consumer's needs above all else. It relies on observing, with empathy, how people interact with their environments, and employs an iterative, hands-on approach to creating innovative solutions.

What is design thinking explain with example? ›

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

What is design thinking and why is it a good approach to social problems? ›

When applied to social problems, design thinking can be used to craft product-service combinations that are intended to create an experience to do away with such issues. In doing so, the social problem is identified as a design problem that could be solved by creating services, models, or experiences.

When did design thinking popular? ›

The 1970s: The Principles of Design Thinking Started to Emerge. Cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was the first to mention design as a way of thinking in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial.

Who made design thinking popular? ›

Design thinking is created not only because Tim Brown coined the word that became a buzzword. There's a logical reason to it. Design thinking is created because big corporation lack the ability to be creative and on extreme cases, aren't able to create new products and services that meet unmet needs of their customers.

What does design mean to you answer? ›

A design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or for the implementation of an activity or process or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a prototype, product, or process. The verb to design expresses the process of developing a design.

How do we use design thinking in real life? ›

However, design thinking can also be used to solve personal problems, and to design and build your future.
...
Steps to Follow to Apply Design Thinking to Design Your Career
  1. Keep a Good Time Journal. ...
  2. Track Your Energy. ...
  3. Create Three Odyssey Plans. ...
  4. Define Your Problem. ...
  5. Ideate. ...
  6. Prototype and Test.

Why do we need design thinking in our life? ›

Design thinking can help you choose between options and maximize the outcome of your time and effort. In this article, we'll be using IDEO's design process as the guide; Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

How does design thinking help solve problems? ›

Design thinking allows teams to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. The iterative and non-linear nature of the design thinking process allows product teams to work dynamically to develop and launch innovative ideas.

What is the most important focus of design thinking? ›

Design thinking is a solution-based framework, so the focus is on coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible. Ideation is both a core design thinking principle and a step in the design thinking process.

What is the most important skill of a design thinking? ›

Empathizing with users

Empathizing is an early step in design thinking where you obtain an understanding of the problem, typically through user research. Empathy is crucial because it allows you to set aside your own assumptions to gain insight into users and their needs.

Is design thinking still popular? ›

Design thinking is still relevant now and even in the future. It has different meanings, different forms and types, agree. But, it helps one to have a good knowledge of what the users need and the best ways to incorporate users needs into the design in order to enhance usability and acceptance of the product by users.

Is design thinking for everyone? ›

Everyone should be using design thinking.

DT is an iterative method of deeply empathizing with people's needs/wants/problems, and developing/testing solutions that meet those needs.

What makes design thinking unique? ›

Design thinking is unique in creating a culture to encourage creativity and radical collaboration by bringing group members with different backgrounds and knowledge to work together to solve problems.

What are the 3 most important elements of design thinking? ›

There are five key elements of the Design Thinking process:
  • Human-centered. If you don't understand the person who will be using the thing you're trying to create, it simply won't work. ...
  • Creative and playful. ...
  • Iterative. ...
  • Collaborative. ...
  • Prototype driven.
2 Nov 2020

What are design thinking skills? ›

Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving in which the practitioner seeks to understand a potential product or service's end user, including their goals, challenges, and aspirations. They then use that knowledge to conceive solutions. As a methodology, design thinking is meant to be iterative.

Is design thinking effective? ›

Design thinking has proven to improve the world around. Considering its ability to generate ground-breaking solutions in a less disruptive, yet creative way, it is more than just a process – it is an innovation.

What is design in my own words? ›

Generally speaking, it is the process of envisioning and planning the creation of objects, interactive systems, buildings, vehicles, etc.

How do you answer interview questions about design? ›

2. Example system design interview answer
  1. Step 1: Ask clarifying questions.
  2. Step 2: Design high-level.
  3. Step 3: Drill-down on your design.
  4. Step 4: Bring it all together.
21 Dec 2021

What is design process in your own words? ›

Design process is a way of figuring out what you need to do, then doing it. Along the way you might solve one or more problems, try to achieve a goal, and/or create something specific. The first critical step to understanding the design process is that it's not about working the “right way” or “wrong way”.

What is Introduction to design thinking? ›

“Design thinking draws on logic, imagination, intuition and systemic reasoning to explore the possibilities of what could be, and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user (the customer). A design mind-set is not problem-focused, it's solution-focused, and action-oriented.

What is the key in any design thinking process? ›

The Design Thinking process can be divided into five key steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. When considering the five steps of Design Thinking, it's important to remember that it's not a linear process.

Why is design so important? ›

The process of design is useful not only for building great products, services, or solutions, but also for pursuing a more creative and open-minded approach to life.

What benefits can design thinking provide? ›

Here are just some of the most notable benefits you can expect to receive when adopting a design thinking approach:
  • Gives you the opportunity to view a problem from a different perspective. ...
  • Allows you to delve into a problem to determine its root cause. ...
  • Encourages innovative thinking and creative problem solving.
9 Apr 2015

Why is design thinking successful? ›

The Solution

Design thinking provides a structured process that helps innovators break free of counterproductive tendencies that thwart innovation.

Why design thinking is important in the future? ›

Design Thinking helped developers reframe issues from the perspective of the end user, using an experimental, iterative approach to generate original and creative points of view. It successfully helped prevent biases that stunt imagination, moving beyond to fresh ideas and perspectives.

What is design thinking and why is it important PDF? ›

Design thinking is generally defined as an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign.

Why design is important in life? ›

Design helps us get involved, keeps us connected to the world, helps us navigate our way through physical and digital spaces. It has the power to persuade and strengthen the decision-making process. Wherever we encounter the language in written form, we see the work of font designers and typographers.

What is the main purpose of design? ›

A design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or for the implementation of an activity or process or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a prototype, product, or process. The verb to design expresses the process of developing a design.

What is the importance of design thinking for students? ›

Teaching young students design thinking helps them develop a growth mindset and important problem solving, analytical and spatial thinking skills.

What is design thinking process? ›

Design thinking is an iterative, non-linear process which focuses on a collaboration between designers and users. It brings innovative solutions to life based on how real users think, feel and behave. This human-centered design process consists of five core stages Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

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