Design Thinking is one of the more recent buzz words in the design community. In this introductory article, I will investigate what Design Thinking is, what its main characteristics are, and take a look at the process and the methods associated with it. I will also take a brief look at the history of Design Thinking.

What Is Design Thinking?

First, I will outline what Design Thinking is all about. There are various ways of teaching and practicing Design Thinking, and definitions and descriptions vary accordingly.

A Design Methodology

Basically, Design Thinking is a design methodology. It differs from traditional design approaches in specific ways described below. For example, some authors characterize Design Thinking as more creative and user-centered than traditional design approaches.

A Problem-Solving Approach or Process

Design Thinking can be regarded as a problem solving method or, by some definitions, a process for the resolution of problems (but see below for the differences between methods and process).

As a solution-based approach to solving problems, Design Thinking is particularly useful for addressing so-called “wicked” problems. Wicked means that they are ill-defined or tricky. For ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving process (as opposed to “tame” or “well-defined” problems, where the problem is evident and the solution is possible with some technical knowledge.) Even when the general direction of the problem may be clear, considerable time and effort is spent on clarifying the requirements. Thus, in Design Thinking, a large part of the problem-solving activity is comprised of defining and shaping the problem.

The resulting problem resolution is regarded as creative, fluid, and open, and also as the search for an improved future result (this is in line with Herbert A. Simon’s (1969) definition of design as the “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones.”)

A Creativity Approach

Unlike analytical thinking, which is associated with the “breaking down” of ideas, Design Thinking is a creative process based on the “building up” of ideas. As Baeck & Gremett (2011) put it, analytical approaches focus on narrowing the design choices, while Design Thinking focuses on going broad, at least during the early stages of the process.

In Design Thinking, designers do not make any early judgments about the quality of ideas. As a result, this minimizes the fear of failure and maximizes input and participation in the ideation (brainstorming) and prototype phases (see below). “Outside the box thinking” (“wild ideas”) is encouraged in the earlier process stages, since this style of thinking is believed to lead to creative solutions that would not have emerged otherwise. The motto here is “everyone is a designer.”

A User-Centered Approach That Brings Design into the Business World

According to Baeck & Gremett (2011), Design Thinking is a more creative and user-centered approach to problem solving than traditional design methods. They point out that “Design Thinking defies the obvious and instead embraces a more experimental approach.” The heart of the method is in understanding the customer: All ideas and subsequent work stem from knowing the customer.

The Design Thinking methodology is not just applied to design problems. Design Thinking is seen as a way to apply design methodologies to any of life’s situations. It is often used to explore and define business problems and to define products and services. In other words, Design Thinking brings the design approach into the business world. In this vein, Design Thinking has been characterized as a discipline in which the designer’s sensibility and methods match people’s needs, by applying what is technically feasible and by contemplating what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. As a methodology or style of thinking, it combines empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality and feedback to analyze and fit solutions to the context All this helps derive a solution that meets user needs and at the same time generates revenue, that is, drives business success.

Attributes of Design Thinking

In the course of defining Design Thinking, I have already mentioned a number of its characteristics or attributes. In Table 1 below, I list the Design Thinking core attributes, together with their descriptions, as summarized by Baeck & Gremett (2011). This provides a better overview of the attributes. I also added some comments based on the definitions above to explain how attributes and definitions fit together.

Attribute Description Comment
Ambiguity Being comfortable when things are unclear or when you don’t know the answer Design Thinking addresses wicked = ill-defined and tricky problems.
Collaborative Working together across disciplines People design in interdisciplinary teams.
Constructive Creating new ideas based on old ideas, which can also be the most successful ideas Design Thinking is a solution-based approach that looks for an improved future result.
Curiosity Being interested in things you don’t understand or perceiving things with fresh eyes Considerable time and effort is spent on clarifying the requirements. A large part of the problem solving activity, then, consists of problem definition and problem shaping.
Empathy Seeing and understanding things from your customers’ point of view The focus is on user needs (problem context).
Holistic Looking at the bigger context for the customer Design Thinking attempts to meet user needs and also drive business success.
Iterative A cyclical process where improvements are made to a solution or idea regardless of the phase The Design Thinking process is typically non-sequential and may include feedback loops and cycles (see below).
Nonjudgmental Creating ideas with no judgment toward the idea creator or the idea Particularly in the brainstorming phase, there are no early judgments.
Open mindset Embracing design thinking as an approach for any problem regardless of industry or scope The method encourages “outside the box thinking” (“wild ideas”); it defies the obvious and embraces a more experimental approach.

Table 1: Core Attributes of Design Thinking (from Baeck & Gremett, 2011) with descriptions and comments

The authors point out that Design Thinking is not only a combination of these attributes but also a cyclical progression of activities. I describe these in more detail below, when I turn to the Design Thinking process and to the methods that are applied during the different stages of the process.


Characteristics of Design Thinkers

There is a certain overlap between the attributes of Design Thinking and the characteristics of Design Thinkers, because the latter perform the former. Thus, the core attributes of Design Thinking from Baeck and Gremett can also be used to characterize how Design Thinkers behave (I selected only those attributes that describe designers). Moreover, in his seminal 2008 paper entitled, Design Thinking, Tim Brown from IDEO provides a “Design Thinker’s personality profile” and, as a starting point, lists some of the characteristics to look for in Design Thinkers. Finally, I found a “mindset for Design Thinkers” in a d.school Bootcamp Bootleg from 2009 and in an updated 2010 version, which was also used in 2011. I juxtaposed these characteristics and briefly commented on them in Table 2.

d.school Bootcamp Bootleg (2009) d.school Bootcamp Bootleg (2010) Tim Brown (2008) Baeck & Gremett (2011) Comment
Focus on human values Focus on human values Empathy Empathy “Focus on human values” includes empathy for users and feedback from them.
Create clarity from complexity Craft clarity Integrative thinking AmbiguityCuriosityHolisticOpen mindset All these items refer to styles of thinking. “Clarity” refers to producing a coherent vision out of messy problems. Baeck & Gremett focus on attitudes of the Design Thinker.
Optimism Only mentioned by Tim Brown, but seems to be regarded as a universal characteristic of Design Thinkers.
Get experimental and experiential Embrace experimentation Experimentalism CuriosityOpen mindset Experimentation is an integral part of the designer’s work.
Collaborate across boundaries Radical collaboration Collaboration Collaborative Refers to the collaboration between people from different disciplines (having different backgrounds and viewpoints).
Show, don’t tellBias toward action Show, don’t tellBias toward action Emphasizes action, for example, by creating meaningful prototypes and confronting potential users with them.
Be mindful of process Be mindful of process Emphasizes that Design Thinkers need to keep the overall process (which is regarded as a core element of Design Thinking, see below), in mind with respect to methods and goals.

Table 2: Characteristics of Design Thinkers (sources are provided in the text)

All in all, I would derive the following characteristics of Design Thinkers from the table above:

  • Focus on human values and needs. Have empathy for the people, solicit user feedback, and use it in their designs
  • Make experimentation an integral part of the design process, are active “doers”, communicate through meaningful artifacts
  • Collaborate with people from various backgrounds and respects their viewpoints; enable “breakthrough insights and solutions to emerge from the diversity”.
  • Can deal with wicked problems, are curious and optimistic, are integrative (holistic) thinkers who look at the bigger context for the customer.
  • Are mindful of the overall Design Thinking process with respect to goals and methods.


Methods and Process – Introduction

According to Wikipedia, the terms design methods and design process are often used interchangeably, but there is a significant difference between the two:

  • Design methods are all the techniques, rules, or ways of doing things that are employed by a design discipline. Some of the methods for Design Thinking include traditional HCI methods (or UCD methods), while others are more specific to designers, or borrowed from creativity training.
  • Design process is the way in which the methods come together through a series of actions, events, or steps. In this article, I usually refer to process stages or phases. As we will see below, there is no specific process that defines Design Thinking as such; instead, different protagonists describe the process in their own way.

In the following, I first try to distill a “prototypical” Design Thinking process, and then I list methods that can be used in the course of the Design Thinking process.



The Design Thinking process builds on earlier models that have been proposed for the design process. It consists of a number of stages, typically between three and seven, and can be linear or circular, that is, it may return to the starting point and begin a new iteration. It may also include various feedback loops between stages, and may even have several stages taking place in parallel. It is therefore more useful to view the process stages as “modes” instead of as sequential steps (see d.school Bootcamp Bootlegs from 2009 and 2010).

Process Stages

In his book The Science of the Artificial, Simon defined an early model of the design process , consisting of seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. This model more or less still describes the “prototypical” Design Thinking process. Within the model’s seven steps, designers can frame problems, ask – hopefully – right questions, create more ideas, and choose the best answers. As already mentioned, the steps are not necessarily run through in a linear fashion; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated (see Figure 1 for illustration).

Several different models of the Design Thinking process have been proposed (see Table 3 below for examples), including a three-step simplified triangular process by Tim Brown from IDEO (2008), and the chart shown in Figure 1 from the d.school/D-School (2009), consisting of six sequential stages which may include various feedback loops:


Figure 1: The d.school/D-School Design Thinking Process (from: www.designthinkingblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Design-thinking-process.png)

The schematic d.school/D-School process consists of the six stages, Understand, Observe, Point of View, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, but an actual process can be much more elaborate due to the many feedback loops that are involved. The d.school also published a model consisting of five stages (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test) in their d.school Bootcamp Bootleg papers (2009, 2010) and called them “modes” that designers are in.

Attempt at a Comparison of Process Stages

In Table 3, I juxtaposed the stages as defined by various Design Thinking protagonists and also gave the stages my own labels. I have sometimes extended stages as well. Note that the protagonists in some cases use different labels for identical stages.

Prototypical Stages Wikipedia /Herbert Simon IDEO Toolkit Tim Brown (IDEO) d.school/D-School (HPI) d.school Bootcamp Bootleg (HPI) – Modes Baeck & Gremett (2011) Mark Dziersk (Fast Company)
Understand the problem Define Discovery Inspiration Understand Empathize: Observe, engage, immerse Define the problem to solve (1) Define the problem
Observe users Research Observe Look for inspiration
Interpret the results Interpretation Point of View Define (Problem statement)
Generate ideas (Ideate) Ideation Ideation Ideation Ideate Ideate Ideate multiple ideas (2) Create and consider many options
Prototype, experiment Prototype Experimentation Implementation Prototype Prototype Generate prototypes (3) Refine selected directions(3.5) Repeat (optional; steps 2 and 3)
Test, implement, improve Objectives/ChooseImplementLearn Evolution Test Test (includes refine and improve solutions) Solicit user feedback (4) Pick the winner, execute

Table 3: Comparison of Several Design Thinking Process Models

Despite some differences, there seems to be a broad agreement between all the protagonists about the stages and what they entail. This allows me to describe the “prototypical” stages of the Design Thinking process as follows:

  • Understand the problem: Get an initial understanding of the problem
  • Observe users: Observe users, visit them in their (work) environment, observe physical spaces and places
  • Interpret the results: Interpret the empirical findings
  • Generate ideas (Ideate): Engage in brainstorming sessions to generate as many ideas as possible (expand the solution space)
  • Prototype, experiment: Build prototypes and share them with other people (narrow down the solution space again, experimental phase)
  • Test, implement, improve: Test, implement, and refine the design (narrow down the solution space again; solution-driven phase)



In the course of the Design Thinking process, a wide variety of methods can be employed There are no strict rules as to which method to choose. Some of the employed methods are typical of the way designers work; others are similar to the ones used in user-centered design, or have been borrowed from creativity training.

In Table 4, I listed methods that are used and promoted by the d.school (from d.school Bootcamp Bootleg, 2010) to illustrate the kinds of methods that can be used in the Design Thinking process; see the paper for descriptions of the methods. I also assigned the methods to process stages (called “modes” in the paper) and contrast them with exemplary traditional HCI/UCD methods.

Stage (Mode) Methods from d.school Bootcamp Bootleg (2010) Traditional HCI/UCD/Ethnography Methods (Examples)
Observe users (Empathy)
  • Assume a beginners mindset
  • What? How? Why?
  • User camera study
  • Interview (for empathy)
  • Extreme users
  • Analogous empathy
  • Story share-and-capture
  • Bodystorming
  • Define problem statement
  • Observe users (may include think aloud protocols)
  • Conduct site visits (contextual inquiry) (users doing their tasks at their work places)
  • Interview users, send questionnaires
Point-of-view (Synthesis, Interpret the results)
  • Space saturate and group
  • Empathy map
  • Journey map
  • Composite character profile
  • Powers of ten
  • 2×2 matrix
  • Why-how ladder
  • Point-of-view madlib
  • Point-of-view analogy
  • Point-of-view want-ad
  • Critical reading checklist
  • Design principles
  • “How might we” questions
  • Contextual inquiry models (including affinity diagrams, etc.)
  • Personas, roles
  • Use cases, scenarios, user stories, day-in-a-life scenarios, etc.
Ideate (Generate ideas)
  • Powers of ten
  • Stoke
  • Brainstorming (+ selection)
  • Bodystorming
  • Impose constraints
  • Brainstorming
  • User days, focus groups
Prototype (Experiment)
  • Bodystorming
  • Impose constraints
  • Prototype for empathy
  • Prototype to test
  • Prototyping
    • Low fidelity: Wireframes, paper prototypes, simple HTML prototypes
    • High fidelity: More or less functional prototypes
Test, improve
  • Testing with users
  • Prototype to decide
  • Identify a variable
  • User-driven prototyping
  • Wizard-of-Oz prototyping
  • Feedback capture grid
  • User tests in the lab (may include think aloud protocols)
  • Remote user tests
  • User tests in the field
  • Informal user tests (e.g. with colleagues, friends, etc.)
  • KPI studies
  • Storytelling
  • Shooting video (+ editing)
  • I wish, I like, what if
  • Storytelling
  • Card sorting

Table 4: Overview of Selected Methods That Can Be Employed in the Course of the Design Thinking Process Contrasted with Examples of Traditional UCD Methods


Additional Components

Design Thinking schools and protagonists typically highlight certain characteristics, attributes, or rules of their Design Thinking variant as important for the success of Design Thinking projects. I might discuss this in a forthcoming article about real-world examples of Design Thinking. Here I present just an example for illustration. The HPI D-School in Potsdam, Germany, lists three important components of Design Thinking: process, (variable) space and multidisciplinary teams. I present the two not yet mentioned components below:

  • (Variable) Space: The “HPI D-School culture” is strongly reflected their team working environment. The HPI D-School focuses strongly on mobility and adaptability. Therefore, most things are on wheels and can be moved around. The D-School developed its own tables and whiteboards, which are commercially available. Walls and many other surfaces serve to capture and share ideas. Informal team meetings are held at spots located in and around the school building.
  • Multidisciplinarity: The HPI D-School leaders “believe that innovation happens when strong multidisciplinary groups come together and build a common collaborative culture to explore their different perspectives.” In their experience, “Design Thinking is the glue that holds different types of disciplines together and makes the projects successful.”


A Brief Look at the History of Design Thinking

In the 1960s, some designers were looking for a design methodology, also under the label of “design research”, that was comparable with the approach in the natural sciences and was aimed at understanding and improving design processes and practices in a broader sense. For example, artificial intelligence and cognitive science researcher Simon tried to establish a “Science of Design.” As he wrote in The Science of the Artificial, this would be “a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process.” There, he also defined a seven-step model of the design process, which still influences models of the Design Thinking process. According to Wikipedia, many designers quite interestingly rejected the notion of a design methodology in the 1970s, including some of the early pioneers such as Christopher Alexander, who is also known in the UI design field for architectural patterns.

In the early 1990s, Terry Winograd, who together with David Kelley of IDEO and Larry Leifer has been counted among the creators and proponents of Design Thinking, became widely known for his attempts at “bringing design to software”. In 1992 he edited a book bearing exactly this title (read the review). Winograd also took part in many discussions about design; in 1997, I attended such a discussion myself at the CHI 1997 conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Kelley contributed to the book the article The Designer’s Stance through an interview by Bradley Hartfield, and made a number of statements that more or less foresaw Design Thinking (taken from my review of Winograd’s book):

  • “It might help to pose two caricatures – two hypothetical extremes. One is engineering as problem solving; the other is design as creating. … The designer has a dream that goes beyond what exists, rather than fixing what exists.”
  • ” … the designer wants to create a solution that fits in a deeper situational or social sense.”
  • ” … design is messy. Engineering … is not supposed to be messy. … The designer can handle the messiness and ambiguity and is willing to trust intuition.”
  • ” Successful design is done in teams.”

The design agency IDEO has been supporting and marketing the Design Thinking approach since the early 1990s, and has been hosting the “Design Thinking Research Symposia” since 1991. IDEO was also involved when the d.school (School of Design) was founded at Stanford University in 2005, among others by Kelley, Leifer, Bernard Roth, and George Kembel, who now leads of the school. In 2005, SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner made a personal donation of U.S. $35 million to fund the d.school, which is officially named “Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.” Two years later, in October 2007, the D-School at the HPI in Potsdam, Germany, was founded and took up operation. Both of the school’s programs are characterized by “the collaboration of students from a variety of faculties, emphasizing mutual respect and linguistic communication that is not weighed down by business and technical jargon.” The D-School in Potsdam, Germany, is led by Ulrich Weinberg. In November 2008, the HPI at Potsdam and Stanford University launched a joint research program on innovation, which is jointly led by Leifer and Christoph Meinel.

According to Wikipedia, the new millennium has seen a boom in Design Thinking, as the term has become a buzzword in business. Moreover, the shift of Design Thinking away from the design fields and into the business sector sparked a debate about the hijacking and exploitation of Design Thinking. A number of books have been published this century on the topic of Design Thinking, including, among others, Design Thinking (2009) by Plattner, Meinel, and Weinberg (see my book review).

Final Word

I have accumulated my knowledge of Design Thinking from presentations at SAP and conferences, and by reading books and articles about the topic. I wrote this article to help readers gain a general understanding of the concepts of Design Thinking across different proponents of the approach. Since I do not have any practical experiences with this approach, I will refrain from evaluating it, which was not the purpose of my article.

Note: In a related post, I discuss the relationship between Design Thinking, other design directions, and UX/UI/UCD design.

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