Career Insight

What is Design Thinking?

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The best User Experience (UX) Designers are masters of design thinking. They know how to empathize with users and create websites, apps, and products that can meet their needs. But, did you know the concept can be impactful no matter what industry you’re in? That’s because design thinking is all about the ways people can innovate in a human-centered way. You’ll find this line of thinking in business, architecture, and a plethora of other fields. If you’re unsure about what design thinking even is, how it’s used in UX/UI Design as well as how other industries implement it, you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of design thinking. Here are some of the questions we’ll answer for you: 

  • What is design thinking? 
  • Why is design thinking important? 
  • How is this philosophy used in UX Design? 
  • What free resources are available to people interested in design thinking? 

What is Design Thinking 

To put it simply, design thinking is a creative problem-solving process that focuses on understanding and meeting people’s needs. It’s a solution-based process created with the intent to help and please the consumer. We use design thinking to create products and services to better meet core human needs According to IBM, the core elements of design thinking include understanding, exploring, prototyping, and evaluating. 

  • Understanding- deeply learning about your user’s needs and wants. 
  • Exploring- examining the ways your product can help meet user’s needs and wants.  
  • Prototyping- creating a model of the product or service.   
  • Evaluating- testing out the product or service on real-life consumers who can give feedback as you iterate (or repeat the process to improve the product). 

The process came to fruition in fields like technology, engineering, architecture, and business. Design thinking can be used anytime a company, team, or individual needs to solve a problem. It’s the process you’d use to get to the solution. While IBM’s core elements are incredibly helpful for getting a basic understanding of design thinking, you can glean further understanding from one of the most popular design thinking models, the 5-phase model created by Stanford University’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design (also known as Most people will follow this model in the design thinking process, so if you’re hoping to become an expert design thinker, consider this your starting point.

Design thinking 5 phase model illustrated

Here’s a summary of the process below: 

  • Empathize 

Good, quality design is founded on empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The design thinking process begins with observing users’ behavior and interviewing them to get a deeper understanding of who they are and why they do the things they do. During this phase, you’ll want to ask yourself, “Who am I designing for? What problem am I solving for them?” Beginning your thinking with empathy can help you discover people’s unspoken and unconscious needs as well as assist you in choosing the right users to design for. 

  • Define 

This segment of the design process is where you would analyze and synthesize your discoveries uncovered during the empathizing phase. The main questions you’ll focus on during the define stage are: “What are the needs, problems, and challenges I need to address? What insights did our design team gain from empathizing?” You’re extracting the valuable information you learned from the users so you can ensure success in the ideation phase. 

Once you’ve unpacked your findings, you’ll want to define your point of view or problem statement. Your point of view should be focused on specific users and the needs you discovered in the empathizing phase. This problem statement is important because it can serve as a point of motivation for your design team members and give you a clear idea of the problem you’re solving and who you’re solving it for. 

  • Ideate 

Ideation sessions are where design thinkers can really get creative. It’s a phase of open brainstorming and critical thinking with the goal of coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible. This is a turning point in the design thinking process as it’s where you move from naming problems to examining innovative solutions. 

Team members can conduct brainstorming sessions where they draft potential solutions on post-it notes or verbalize ideas as a group. The main purpose is to get as many ideas on paper and into the conversation as you can. This phase also forces you to get obvious solutions out of the way so you can begin to innovate. You’ll be more focused on the quantity of ideas churned out in this phase and will eventually strive for quality as a result. 

  • Prototype 

Prototyping is the physical manifestation of your ideas. Prototypes can take many forms and range from simple to complex. While typically used to test the functionality of a product, prototyping can also be used to test several ideas at a time for a low cost or to gain further insight into the relationship between user and product. 

In design thinking methodology, you’d narrow down the ideas you came up with in the ideation phase then create prototypes of a few of those ideas. It’s important to note that prototypes are not going to be fully developed models. They are merely a way to turn your best ideas into a physical form so you can test them with people. 

  • Test 

This is where you curiously examine whether your ideas can hold up in real life. You’ll use this phase to get feedback from users which you’ll then use to iterate. Testing can reveal a lot of interesting insight and information like whether you got the solution right, or whether you need to go back to the drawing board on your point of view. It’s also another way to observe and empathize with your users. 

Once you’ve gone through all 5 steps of the process, you’ll likely go back to the defining phase and go through the steps again. This is where designers will implement the knowledge they gained from testing their solutions to come up with new ideas and prototypes in an effort to create the best possible solutions for people. 

How does design thinking differ from other types of problem-solving methods? 

The main difference between design thinking and other types of creative problem solving is that design thinking puts a huge emphasis on human-centered design. In the design thinking process, you’ll be more focused on solving problems and finding innovative solutions for people to meet specific human needs. 

Design thinking can also be different from other forms of problem-solving or design methodologies because it doesn’t always follow a specific formula. You can use the 5 steps of the design thinking approach to guide you but there aren’t any set activities you’ll have to do within each step. You can think of it as more of a broad philosophy than a set of activities or rules. This leaves a lot of room for creativity. 

What’s the Purpose of Design Thinking?

The purpose of design thinking is to develop new things in an innovative, people-centered way. We can use design thinking in our day-to-day lives as we seek to create a world that’s accessible and good for everyone. This philosophy can make both people and companies more creative. It can also make us feel more in tune with ourselves and our abilities. 

Why is Design Thinking Important?

Design thinking is important because it encourages us to see our work through the lens of the greater good. In the design thinking approach which is generally thoughtful, we’re able to more clearly see each other as human beings and then design products and services with that in mind. Design thinking methodology goes beyond meeting “users’ needs” and takes us back to the basics as we seek to meet core human needs. 

In addition to helping us meet basic human needs, this way of seeking solutions allows us to become more innovative in the workplace. We’re not just solving problems, but we’re creating services and products that could change the way we live our lives. Think about the device you’re reading this article on. Think of the coffee mug you may be drinking out of. Once upon a time, these objects were just an idea. They then became prototypes and got user-tested and eventually, they made their way onto the market and into your possession. Design thinking is important because it challenges us to not accept the status quo and to always be improving our skills, our craftsmanship, and to never let go of our ability to dream big. 

How is Design Thinking Used in UX Design?

If you’re interested in UX Design, you may be wondering how design thinking plays into the field of UX. We liked what Just in Mind had to say about it over on their blog:

“Design thinking is a framework that UX Designers can use in order to tackle big, complicated, or even largely unknown problems in product development.” 

You may notice there are many similarities that already exist between UX work and the design thinking model we went over earlier. For example, User Experience Designers begin their process with user and market research, then go on to do some information architecture (organizing and structuring content). They’ll then create user flows, wireframes, and prototypes which they then take into user tests. 

You can read more about the UX Design process here. Because design thinking is more of a mindset than a set of activities, a good UX Designer will go into their work with a design thinking mindset. This helps them stay focused on people and engaging with them through the lens of empathy. 

Design Thinking Resources

Interested in getting up to speed on design thinking trends and methods? Check out these books, lectures, and podcasts to learn more about the philosophy. 


Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown is one of the most popular design thinking books on the market. He’s the Executive Chair and former CEO of IDEO, a global design firm that’s been shaping the industry (and winning the awards to prove it) since the late seventies. Change by Design was released in 2009 and shows the many ways design thinking can benefit organizations at every level of their businesses. It’s an accessible book both for people who are interested in working in UX Design and other creatives looking to transform the way they work through design thinking. 

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by David M. Kelley and Tom Kelley 

Do you remember in kindergarten when everyone was creative? David M. Kelley and his brother Tom do. David is the IDEO founder and creator of Stanford’s famous, while Tom is an author and IDEO partner. Together, these siblings wrote about how everyone has the potential to be creative (and participate in design thinking), even though many adults fail to see their ability to create. Once you gain some creative confidence, you can realize your skills as a thinker and UX Designer. The book was written to help organizations and individuals be more successful and productive in their work and lives.  

The Design of Business by Roger Martin

Curious about how design thinking actually works for businesses like Procter & Gamble, RIM, or Cirque du Soleil? Roger Martin will show you how in The Design of Business. Roger uses real-life examples to illustrate how the greatest innovations are created through design thinking methods as opposed to analytical thinking methods, which he says can only slightly improve the status quo. He’ll teach you how to become more innovative in business so you can create the next big, in-demand service or product. 

Lectures and Webinars

Design Thinking= Method, Not Magic

Get clued into design thinking from the masters themselves with this lecture from Stanford’s This video clocks in at just under 50 minutes and is hosted by Professor Bill Burnett. In the talk, he shares the ways that design thinking can sometimes fail. He also touches on how culture plays into the ways we implement this line of thinking into our workplaces. 

Design Your Life: Reframe Your Passion

What do you want to be when you “grow up?” If you haven’t yet found your life’s passion, that’s the question you might be able to answer more clearly after checking out this lecture. In another classic webinar from Stanford’s and Professor Bill Burnett, you’ll learn how you can use design thinking to figure out what you want to do with your career. This class clocks in at 45 minutes and can help you start learning how to apply this method of thinking to your everyday life. 

Lean vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking

If you’re in tech, you’ve likely encountered the methods of Lean Startup and Agile software development. These product development methods share similarities and differences with design thinking and can sometimes cause confusion within organizations. In this lecture from Coding Tech and Lean UX author Jeff Gothelf, you’ll learn about the common values that underpin all 3 methods and discover practical tools to implement in your office. You can also read a summary of the lecture on Medium


Design Thinking Masterclass with Mike Stevenson 

Mike Stevenson is the Managing Director of The Healthy Organisation, a management consulting firm based in Melbourne, Australia. On his recently debuted podcast, Mike interviews prominent design thinkers who share their practices for implementing design thinking across sectors. His guests also share tips with listeners on how to hone their own design thinking capabilities. 

Design Thinking 101

Dr. Dawan Stanford is the Design Studio Director and Design Professor at Georgetown University. He’s also the President of consulting firm Fluid Hive and has been hosting the Design Thinking 101 podcast since spring 2018. The show has an amazing backlog of episodes that cover topics like designing for good, how to lead a design team, and designing for health care. If you want to go beyond learning how to master design thinking, this is the podcast for you as you’ll get an inside scoop on topics currently being discussed in the field. 

Sprint to Success with Design Thinking

Sabba Quidwai is an Education Leadership Executive at Apple and the host of the Sprint to Success with Design Thinking podcast. On her show, Sabba interviews a wide variety of guests on topics ranging from designing our conversations to shaping our world through stories. The show serves to remind people that we are all design thinkers with the ability to positively impact the world around us through radical empathy and thoughtful work. 

Looking to learn more about UX Design? Check out the below resources to see if a career in UX could be right for you. Or, contact us! We’d love to chat more about this concept and user experience with you. 

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