What is Design thinking

Guide: Design Thinking

s Design Thinking, a user-centric problem-solving approach that encourages empathy, creative ideation, and iterative testing to innovate and address complex challenges effectively.
Author's Avatar

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

Design Thinking is a different approach to problem-solving. It’s about deeply understanding and empathizing with the people we create solutions for, spanning various sectors beyond just design. This method involves immersing ourselves in the users’ experiences, uncovering their true needs and desires, which might not be immediately evident. Design Thinking stands out from traditional methods by encouraging a rethink of conventional assumptions, paving the way for innovative, practical, and appealing solutions through a blend of clear thinking, creativity, and methodical planning. Its history, evolving from the 1960s in fields like architecture and engineering to its present application in a wide range of industries, underscores its adaptability and broad relevance.

Its structured yet flexible process involves five stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, each contributing uniquely to the development of user-centric solutions. Integrating Design Thinking within an organization requires embracing a culture of empathy, collaboration, and continuous learning, acknowledging its potential challenges, and using it to foster both incremental and radical innovation.

5 Steps of Design Thinking

Table of Contents

What is Design Thinking

Design Thinking is much more than a trendy concept; it’s a shift in how we solve problems, focusing on understanding and empathy. This approach, used not just by designers but by innovators in various fields, starts by really getting to know the people we’re creating solutions for. It’s about putting ourselves in their shoes to understand their needs and what they truly want, which might not be obvious at first. Unlike traditional methods that start with a problem and work towards a solution, Design Thinking encourages us to think differently, challenging usual assumptions and exploring various possibilities. This leads to creative solutions that meet real needs and are both practical and appealing, combining clear thinking, imagination, and careful planning.

The History of Design Thinking

Understanding the origins and evolution of Design Thinking provides insights into its versatility and applicability across various fields.

The 1960s: The Roots

The seeds of Design Thinking were planted in the 1960s. Initially, it was more about form and function in fields like architecture and engineering. Design was seen as a process of creating aesthetically pleasing and functional products. However, during this period, the emphasis began to shift towards how design could solve broader, more complex problems.

The 1980s and 1990s: Structuring the Process

A significant transformation occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. This period was marked by efforts to structure and formalize the design process. The role of IDEO, a global design and innovation company, and Stanford University’s d.school, was instrumental in this phase. They began to codify the process of Design Thinking, turning it into a repeatable process and set of techniques.

IDEO and d.school: Pioneering Influence

IDEO played a pivotal role in bringing Design Thinking to the forefront of business and innovation. They championed the idea that design could be used as a tool not just for creating products but for addressing a wide range of problems. Meanwhile, Stanford’s d.school helped in academically framing Design Thinking, making it more accessible to students and professionals beyond the traditional design disciplines.

Beyond Product Design

The most significant shift in Design Thinking was its application beyond product design. It began to be applied to services, processes, and even complex systemic problems in business and social contexts. This evolution marked the recognition that the principles of design could be used to solve problems that were not traditionally considered the domain of designers.

The Five Stages of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a dynamic and flexible process, typically encapsulated in five distinct stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. These stages are not strictly linear; they often overlap and may be revisited multiple times throughout the problem-solving journey.

Stage 1: Empathize

  • Objective: The first stage, Empathize, is the foundation of a human-centered design process. Here, the goal is to gain an empathic understanding of the people you are designing for and their needs.

  • Process: This involves engaging with and observing the target audience. It could include conducting interviews, shadowing, participating in their environment, and other forms of qualitative research. Empathy is crucial as it allows designers to set aside their own assumptions about the world and gain real insight into users and their needs.

Stage 2: Define

  • Objective: In the Define stage, the information gathered during the Empathize phase is synthesized. This is where designers clearly articulate the user’s needs and problems.

  • Process: This involves creating a user point of view (POV) that should be actionable and serve as a guiding statement that focuses on insights and findings. It’s about defining the problem in a human-centric manner. This stage sets the direction for the ideation phase.

Stage 3: Ideate

  • Objective: Once the problem is defined, the Ideate stage is about brainstorming a range of creative solutions to the problem statement.

  • Process: Techniques like mind-mapping, sketching, scenario building, or brainwriting are often used. The emphasis is on quantity over quality of ideas, encouraging free-thinking and creativity. It’s a judgment-free zone where crazy ideas are welcome as they can lead to innovative solutions.

Stage 4: Prototype

  • Objective: The Prototype stage is where ideas are transformed into tangible forms. This could range from paper models to digital or physical mock-ups.

  • Process: Prototyping is an experimental phase. The goal is to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. These prototypes are inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product or specific features found within the product, which can be quickly altered and iterated upon.

Stage 5: Test

  • Objective: The final stage, Testing, is where the prototype is tried out with real users. This is a critical phase of learning and understanding the user’s reactions and behaviors towards the prototype.

  • Process: Feedback is collected, which may lead back to any of the previous stages. Testing is iterative: a prototype is adjusted based on users’ experiences, and this cycle is repeated until the team feels it has achieved the best possible solution for the problem.

Implementing Design Thinking in Your Organization

Introducing Design Thinking into an organization involves a paradigm shift in the way problems are approached and solutions are developed. It’s a holistic change that impacts not just processes but also the mindset of every individual involved.

Cultivating a User-Centric Culture

  • Empathy: The cornerstone of Design Thinking is empathy for the user. Organizations must encourage teams to immerse themselves in the user’s experience, understanding their needs and challenges deeply. This might involve direct interaction with users, or using tools and techniques to simulate the user experience.

  • Collaboration: Design Thinking thrives in a collaborative environment. Cross-functional teams bring diverse perspectives and expertise, which is crucial for innovative solutions. Encouraging open communication and collaboration across departments is key.

  • Space for Experimentation: Creating an environment where experimentation is encouraged is essential. This means providing the necessary tools and resources, as well as an organizational culture that views failures and mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.

Embracing Failure as a Learning Tool

  • Mindset Shift: Failure needs to be redefined in the context of Design Thinking. It is not the opposite of success, but a stepping stone towards it. Encouraging teams to take risks and learn from failures is crucial.

  • Iterative Process: Organizations should adopt an iterative approach where ideas are rapidly prototyped, tested, and refined based on feedback. This reduces the fear of failure as the focus is on continuous improvement.

Challenges and Criticisms of Design Thinking

Despite its popularity and success, Design Thinking is not without its criticisms and challenges, which organizations need to be aware of and address.

Oversimplification of Complex Problems

  • Critique: One criticism of Design Thinking is that it can sometimes oversimplify complex problems. The structured stages of Design Thinking might not always capture the nuances of deeply complex, systemic issues.

  • Mitigation: To address this, organizations should ensure that the empathy phase is thoroughly conducted, and diverse perspectives are considered. Combining Design Thinking with other methodologies can also provide a more holistic approach.

Focus on Incremental Innovation

  • Critique: Another critique is that Design Thinking often leads to incremental rather than radical innovation. It can focus on improving existing solutions rather than creating groundbreaking new ones.

  • Mitigation: Encouraging disruptive thinking and challenging existing assumptions can help overcome this. Organizations should set aside specific resources and time for blue-sky thinking and radical innovation projects.


Design Thinking, with its roots in the 1960s and evolution through the decades, has emerged as a key strategy in tackling complex problems by understanding and empathizing with users. It’s not just a process but a mindset shift, requiring a deep dive into user experiences, challenging existing notions, and exploring diverse possibilities for innovative solutions.

The journey of Design Thinking from a focus on product aesthetics to solving wide-ranging problems in various fields highlights its versatility and effectiveness. The five-stage process encourages a systematic yet creative exploration of solutions, making it a potent tool in any organization’s arsenal. However, to truly leverage its benefits, organizations must foster a culture that embraces empathy, collaboration, and an iterative approach to problem-solving, while being mindful of its limitations and the need for a balanced application.


A: Design Thinking differs from traditional methods primarily in its focus on the user. Traditional methods often prioritize business needs or technical feasibility, whereas Design Thinking starts with and revolves around a deep understanding of the user’s needs and experiences. It’s more iterative, collaborative, and experimental, encouraging creative thinking and rapid prototyping to explore a wide range of solutions.

A: Yes, Design Thinking is versatile and can be applied to virtually any industry or field. It’s not limited to product design or technology; it’s equally effective in sectors like healthcare, education, government, and non-profits. The core principles of empathizing with users, defining problems, ideating solutions, prototyping, and testing are universal and can be adapted to specific industry needs.

A: No, Design Thinking is not just for new product development. It can be used for improving existing products, designing services, enhancing processes, and even for addressing complex organizational or social issues. Its emphasis on understanding user needs and iterative testing makes it a valuable tool for a wide range of applications beyond just product design.

A: The time taken for a Design Thinking process can vary greatly depending on the complexity of the problem, the scope of the project, and the team’s experience with the process. It can range from a few days in a rapid workshop format to several months for more complex challenges. The key is the iterative nature of the process, which can continue until a satisfactory solution is found.

A: Yes, Design Thinking can be integrated into organizations with traditional structures, but it requires a shift in mindset at all levels. Leadership needs to endorse a culture of empathy, collaboration, and experimentation. This might involve training, restructuring teams for better cross-functionality, and encouraging an environment where ideas are openly shared and tested. It’s a gradual process but can lead to significant benefits in terms of innovation and problem-solving.


Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

All Posts

Free Lean Six Sigma Templates

Improve your Lean Six Sigma projects with our free templates. They're designed to make implementation and management easier, helping you achieve better results.

Other Guides