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Design thinking

Design thinking

by Евгений Волков -
Number of replies: 1

4.1 Design thinking

The collapse of analytical thinking


In Western societies, problem solving has been traditionally influenced by the sciences, which support an analytical way of thinking. Over the centuries, this linear way of finding solutions has been widely accepted and adopted in our educational systems, organisations and businesses (Cassim, 2013). Henri Bergson, a prominent French philosopher, claimed that humans have a natural tendency to simplify information and when faced with new knowledge, try to associate it with similar situations by applying the principle that 'like produces like' (Bergson, 1944 cited in Teal, 2010). In his essay, Teal (2010) illustrates linear thinking by comparing it to a tree which, with its colossal trunk and branches, represents an inflexible way of finding solutions: if one starts solving a problem at the bottom of the tree and fails to resolve it by the time they reach the tip of a branch, the thinking process must start over again.

As an alternative, he sustains the idea of thinking 'rhizomatically'. The roots and shoots of a rhizome plant represent a complex network, comparable to the intricate web of systems and relations that make up our current society.


By solving problems in an analogous non-linear fashion, one can
experiment and fail in the process but also move on with the learnings
that have been acquired up to that point.

Likewise, design thinking offers a dynamic and non-linear method for reaching innovative solutions.

What is design thinking?

The term design thinking appeared in 1987 when Peter Rowe, an urban designer and Harvard professor, published his book Design Thinking (Dorst, 2011; Kimbell, 2011). According to Rowe, designers rely on assumptions and facts when solving problems, and the solutions they create are shaped by their process (Kimbell, 2011).

Design thinking is a an elaborate concept that is still under development and is consequently described in many ways. To this day it lacks a universally accepted definition and requires further studying (Stewart, 2011). The design community has been criticised for failing to provide "clear and definite knowledge about design thinking (including a definition and a toolbox)” (Dorst, 2011).

Others maintain that it would be unrealistic to suggest a single definition since those who practice it have different approaches to design thinking; doing so would be "counterproductive for the academic development of the area” although it would be appreciated by many (Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla, Çetinkaya, 2013). This view lacks an explanation and contradicts the general notion that design thinking would benefit from further exploration, particularly in its terminology (Dorst, 2011). In her investigation on the topic, Kimbell (2011) indicates that the uncertainty around the term is shared not only by the public, but also by those who claim to use it.

Some definitions for design thinking are widely observed although not always acknowledged. Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO -- today's most influential design firm in design thinking (Cassim, 2013; Kimbell, 2011) -- defines it as:

"a human-centered 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.” (IDEO, 2015)

Design as an enabler for change

Ever since digital technologies, communication and information networks have become intertwined with our social identity, culture and activities, there has been a need for individuals and organisations to become aware of the complex problems influencing these systems in order to cope with the changes that they involve (Stewart, 2011).

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, design traditionally included architecture, engineering, urban design, industrial design, and graphic design, which were born out of the technological transformations of the industrial revolution. Historically, designers were working to create images, objects and products and make ideas more attractive (Brown, 2008). Yet with the developments of information and technology, new fields of design have emerged in the form of interaction design, service design, and experience design which attempt to understand the relationships between systems and users and engage with different spheres of influence to bring about social change (Stewart, 2011). While the earlier design disciplines focused on material environments, designers gradually moved from designing objects to anticipating the future needs of stakeholders (Bjögvinsson, Hillgren, 2012). The more recent disciplines transformed design into an agent of change directed at solving intangible problems that involve systems, processes, organisations, interfaces, experiences and relationships (Stewart, 2011).

One of the main changes brought about was that designers had to learn how to collaborate with non-designers to solve problems. Design thinking is closely related to participatory design, a practice put forward in Scandinavia in the 1970s which introduced the idea that those who were affected by the design should be involved in the design process (Bjögvinsson, Hillgren, 2012). It therefore invited designers to collaborate with its end-users (Beacham, Shambaugh, 2011). In order to understand a user's needs, designers had to rely on observing user's behaviours by integrating ethnographic research in their design process. As a result, designers were able to generate insights which gave a more complete overview of the user experience and allowed them to imagine better future scenarios that challenged the status quo (Stewart, 2011). This human-centred approach to problem-solving, combined with a non-linear and iterative process, is at the core of design thinking (Brown, 2009) and is a key factor for enabling change and social innovation.

Design thinking has risen to prominence over the past decade after the publication of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown (Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla, Çetinkaya, 2013). However, despite being considered the dominant leader in design thinking, IDEO's publications have been criticised for their lack of theoretical research to support their views (Cassim, 2013; Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla, Çetinkaya, 2013; Kimbell, 2011).

Design thinking in organisations

Today, design thinking has become a buzzword and is used not only by design firms but also in management and entrepreneurial businesses (Kimbell, 2011; Stewart, 2011). Some authors claim there are few academic articles associating design thinking in management and design and the existing literature has "no sustained development of the concept” (Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla, Çetinkaya, 2013). Paradoxically, the same authors compare several articles on the topic to explain how the concept developed in two very different fields.

Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and author of the book The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage (2009), is a main figure in bringing design thinking into the management sector to help organisations generate new concepts. In his view, design thinking turns problems into opportunities, hence giving businesses who use the process a competitive advantage. Yet he too, like Tim Brown, has been criticised for failing to justify his work on theoretical research (Kimbell, 2011).

The past years also witnessed a growth in the rise of schools and postgraduate courses that offer design thinking courses (Kimbell, 2011; Stewart, 2011). The most popular examples include the d.school in Stanford, California; its partner institution, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design in Potsdam, Germany; Hyper Island with 6 schools and programmes worldwide; and IDEO U, IDEO's online school. These educational institutions aim to transmit the mindset and methods of design thinking, empowering its students to create innovative ideas.

Design thinking advocates for multidisciplinary teams, encouraging people
with different skills and backgrounds to collaborate.

By working together, participants can share tasks, resources and information to prioritise their work efficiently. Collaborative design improves the process by multiplying the alternative solutions since the problem will be tacked from different angles. Common knowledge and skills ensure that there is a shared understanding amongst team members, leading to design solutions of higher quality (Junpeng, Jing, Liu, 2012). Knowing how to represent one's ideas by means of sketches and diagrams is an essential skill for teams to have during the design process (Cassim, 2013).

The design thinking process

Design thinking can be applied in many ways but all variations follow a similar structure of between three to six phases. Generally, the process begins when a brief is received from a client. The brief will contain a problem that is open to interpretation (Cassim, 2013).


  1. The first step is to frame the problem by understanding the context, identifying the stakeholders and defining the objective that needs to be achieved (Cassim, 2013). At this stage, the questioning remains internal to the team and does not involve the users.
  2. This is followed by the research phase in which the designers must dig deeper by investigating the context of the problem (analogous situations, current trends, environments) and the people that are affected by the issue, using ethnographic observation and user interviews. Brown (2009) explains the importance of empathy and intuition that is involved in this phase, which relies on the designers' ability to recognise patterns in people's testimonials and actions which will reveal new associations and ideas. Such insights lead to viable paths in the process by helping "people to articulate latent needs they may not even know they have” (Brown, 2009).
  3. Then the designers are ready to generate ideas and build onto each other's concepts. Referred to as a 'creative leap' (Cross, 2006 cited in Cassim, 2013), this is intended to be the most creative part of the process because it encourages designers to open their minds to all possible solutions. It represents the first divergent phase of the Double Diamond Model used to illustrate the different stages of defining a problem and executing a solution. The four phases -- Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver -- represent a problem-solving cycle in which broad ideas are generated (divergent thinking) then developed in more detail (convergent thinking). The process is repeated twice, first to define the problem and then to find a solution (Design Council, 2015).
  4. Once many ideas have been generated, the designers will begin theconverging phase, in which they will evaluate and choose a few ideas to focus on and explore further (Cassim, 2013). This decision-making process is also carried out collaboratively (Junpeng, Jing, Liu, 2012).
  5. The chosen ideas will go through prototyping and testing with users to obtain feedback and will be iterated on repeatedly until the optimum solution is reached. Prototypes should be made as simple and swiftly as possible in order to give people the basic idea of a concept. Brown (2009) suggests that "a successful prototype is not one that works flawlessly; it is one that teaches us something -- about our objectives, our process, and ourselves.”
  6. Designers must keep in mind that learnings are gained by making mistakes, which explains why iterative cycles are crucial in order toreflect on the consequences of the changes made (Junpeng, Jing, Liu, 2012). The act of reflecting during the process (reflection-in-action) and at the end of the process (reflection-on-action) invites the team to evaluate the outcome of the final design and compare it to the initial expectations of the client and the designers. It also helps designers to readjust their focus during the process, judge the success of their solution and take responsibility for their actions (Cassim, 2013).


Double Diamond Model (Source adapted from: Design Council, 2015)

Will design thinking survive?

Due to its popularity and application across different industries, some authors have expressed their concern over whether design thinking is a momentary trend (Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla, Çetinkaya, 2013; Stewart, 2011). The concept has been discarded by some of the lead figures in design who describe it as a "failed experiment” (Nussbaum, 2011). Johansson et al. (2011) also express that creativity alone is not enough for managers and designers to apply design thinking because "a designer must also have the ability to know how to use the tools of design thinking.” While researching this subject, I realised academic articles rarely describe which tools to use and how to use them, and few efforts have been made to close this gap. One example is the Hyper Island Toolbox which provides design thinking methods and collaboration tools (Hyper Island, 2015).

Designers and managers have also been criticised for assuming a position of power, since their decision-making will determine the future lives of many people (Marolin, 2007). The same author declares that a designer's mission is to predict the future needs of society and fulfil these needs but that designers are currently not prepared for this role. However, if designers are considered to be the interpreters of cultural change there is perhaps a need for the design community to agree on a common definition and a toolkit which will enable designers to democratise design thinking and continue developing it as an approach to problem-solving.

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In reply to Евгений Волков

Re: Design thinking

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Вариант представления процесса, показывающий что из любой фазы можно вернуться на несколько шагов назад

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