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What is design thinking?

Is it a mindset? Or a process? Or just useless business speak?

Let's investigate the meaning of design thinking.

What is the definition of design thinking?

Well, it's not quite as simple as looking up the Wikipedia definition of design thinking, which begins with the rather unhelpful line: 'Design thinking refers to design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.'

Design thinking means different things to different people. As Nathan Sinsabaugh, writing for Wired, comments, 'design is more like anthropology than physics'.

Design thinking is nuanced, and differs in process and governance depending on the company in question.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia delivers a degree of clarity with the second line of its definition; 'design thinking is a methodology not exclusive for designers, that helps people understand and develop creative ways to solve a specific issue, generally business oriented.'

So, it's essentially creative or design-led ways of solving issues. Let's try to pin it down a bit better...


Aren't there more specific definitions?

Design Week's recent series of features on design thinking (titled Age of Design) includes a roundtable discussion with various industry figures attempting to define design-led businesses.

In that discussion, David Kester remarks, "When I was at the Design Council we had to provide [a definition of design] to the Treasury to identify the role of design in the economy. It’s pretty hard and the only one we could find works only for some businesses. 

"It is design as the connection between creativity and innovation."

This is perhaps the most succinct and elegant definition, without touching on process. We can go further by looking at companies employing design thinking.

Arguably the most well-known description of design thinking comes from IDEO.

IDEO's approach is broken down into five key areas; empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This is what it means to design. 

More specifically, Fjord, the design and innovation consultancy owned by Accenture, outlines its approach to service design, which applies design thinking across five dimensions.

  • People: What are the needs, hopes, fears and pain points for people? They may be customers, staff or third party partners and suppliers.
  • Products: What products, physical and digital are in place and are they fit for purpose?
  • Place: Where are the products or services delivered and what is that experience like? For example, in a retail environment, a call centre, in the field or on a digital channel?
  • Process: Where are the inefficiencies, forms and frictions in the process?
  • Performance: What is the performance of the whole, from a customer perspective and from the perspective of the business?

These bullet points don't describe design per se, rather a framework on to which creative problem-solving can be applied.

We've written about service design before on the Econsultancy blog, and it is probably the main application of design thinking as far as marketers are concerned, though certainly not the only one.

Fjord's 'hello' video

Let's add a final definition of design thinking, this time from Ashton McGill, a consultancy in Scotland, which sums up the core values of design-led innovation as follows: 

  • Have an outside-in mindset.
  • Use empathy for users and stakeholders.
  • Embrace diversity.
  • Think holistically.
  • Collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams.
  • Generate many new ideas.
  • Rapid prototyping.
  • Fail early and often.

So, as these different definitions prove, design thinking is a blend of mindset, ways of working, and applied creativity in the pursuit of improvement/innovation.

Design as more than just a final polish 

One of the fundamentals of design thinking is the understanding that it is not a magic wand to be waved over a product as a final flourish.

Design must permeate every part of a customer's experience.

Brunner and Emery are authors of a celebrated book on companies that take a design-led approach (they chiefly discuss Apple), and they define design as an infrastructural element that helps define every aspect of a company.

This is perfectly encapsulated in a quote from former CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, who said: “A brand is a living entity—and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.” 

These small gestures require a focus of purpose that many digital startups are perfectly attuned to, and that is one of the many ingredients for disruption.

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