The Tenets of Design Thinking

by Dave Anderson

Recently I attended a meetup that brought together about 30 ‘outside-the-box’ thinkers to focus on a set problems facing several nonprofits in Cincinnati.

This ideation session was a good one, and a lot of the attendees were there for the first time. Starting with an icebreaking exercise, we then listened to a short presentation on each of the five problems that were to be addressed during the evening, and then broke into small groups. Each group worked on one of the problems for about 30 minutes, presented their results, and then rotated to the next problem and presented again after 15 minutes.

Ideation was confined mostly to divergent thinking, coming up with many, many ideas that could potentially help solve the nonprofits issues. But there was no part of the evening that reigned the ideas back in. Some groups started the process through some ad hoc categorization, but this was more for organizing the presentations than setting things up for next steps.

It was a friendly meeting, and the resulting ideas were useful to the nonprofits. However, it was clear that despite the advertising, there was little emphasis on ‘Design Thinking’ as an approach. In a group with so many new to the idea, it seemed that some time should have been spent on framing the technique before jumping right in. As a service to the meetup, I thought a little context would be useful.

Just What Is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a formal technique that using an iterative express-test approach to find solutions. The process proceeds in phases, each separating the analytic (left-brain attributed) and free-wheeling (right-brain attributed) influences . Note that this is a different perspective than developing a solution through problem solving - in Design Thinking the focus is on synthesizing a solution by imagining a world in which the problem is solved.

Design Thinking embodies solution development in five phases:

  • Definition in which context is established and boundaries are set: what question will be considered, who will be using the solution, and how will quality be measured?

  • Research in which any findings generated previously are examined: what has been done before, how has it worked, what were their shortcomings?

  • Ideation in which new ideas are generated: generally it’s anything goes, from simple extensions, to logical progressions, to crazy-ass brainstorming.

  • Prototyping in which new ideas are implemented, tried and tested.

  • Learning in which the measured qualities of the prototypes are examined: how well did the implementation of the solution answer the question, and what could be improved?

Some formalizations may be expressed in less than five phases, others more, but these essentially capture the spirit of iterative express-test. At the end of this effort, the process can repeat itself, either focused on the same question or on a related one to target specific learning.

The attraction of iterating and testing is one that is near and dear to many of software developers who practice agile and lean methodologies in their daily work. This group works hard to embrace paradigms that show promise to creating software. For instance, it’s easy to see the value that the transformation away from the well-meaning-but-psychotic waterfall approach has brought, despite years fighting for change in jut this process. Many have spent considerable time evangelizing the benefits of the newer approaches.

The current two top contenders Programming paradigms have a lot in common with the tenets of Design Thinking:

  • Agile emphasizes test-driven iteration, keeping aware that we cannot know what to do next until we’ve successfully completed what we’re doing now.

  • Lean emphasizes measurement, keeping aware that we cannot know if what we are doing is any good unless we can know how well it’s working.

Design Thinking is a team practice, and includes both divergent and convergent thinking by the group in each phase: divergence to initially generate alternatives and convergence to choose from among them. The process is also considered to be preemptive, that is: during the execution of a phase, the result of a prior phase can be challenged and, if found lacking, be revisited.

How Is Design Thinking Special?

Design Thinking gets its name from Design Science, which as a discipline targets imagined appropriate future rather than one that can necessarily be intuited scientifically or mathematically. The nature of Design is that a designer imagines what could be, visualizing futures in which a design has taken shape and is in place.

Throughout the Design Thinking process, optimistic teamwork is highly valued. In this sense, the most practical or pragmatic solutions are not necessarily the ‘best’ - instead the team may decide (optimistically) that a different approach warrants attention. The focus of Design Thinking is determining whatever is ‘best’ for the user, and that sometimes is at odds with what is ‘best’ for those providing a service or building a product - unless the providers or builders are the users. There’s nothing that limits Design Thinking to just the end-users. Design Thinking is useful in creatively finding solutions in any situation to any ends.

This ability to focus on any particular question is what makes Design Thinking formidable. Starting with context and using past experiences, ideas can be formed and tested, results can be measured and learned from, and the process can be iterated until a satisfactory solution emerges.

The principal constant of the Design Thinking process is re-questioning. Since the process can loop back into itself at any point - adjusting context, reconsidering research, generating ideas, reorienting prototypes, reinterpreting learning - it is valuable in its openness. However this may have problems. When time and money are limited, Design Thinking is may be warped and the results might be limited. Hard constraints are a fact of life and can sometimes be at odds with the creative process.

Solutions in Search of a Reality?

While it’s fine to disregard pragmatism and practicality, it’s kind of a stretch. The solutions found may not be realistic.

By it’s nature, Design Thinking tends to disregard the current reality in favor of a better imagined reality - with no apparent consideration on how the latter can come from the former. This does not mean the solutions being developed aren’t any good, but they may be ideals that are unobtainable in the real world. It all depends on how divergent the thinking in the phase is allowed to be, and how the team manages converging to a smaller set.

In practice, these solutions are inappropriate if they aren’t something that could actually be realized. But they are not necessarily bad - they may be ideal solutions to aspire to. They can uncover possibilities that might not have been noticed otherwise. Further iterations can consider these possibilities as the questions - in the context of the current reality - to build a bridge closer to the ideal.

Design Thinking has been likened to trying to see through haze. It’s not clear what the path to the solution is - or even necessarily that one exists - but until it is found, the landscape and direction is obscured. That is part of its power: the way it disregards ambiguity until the obscuring fog lifts. (If it ever does lift, that is. That uncertainty is part of its weakness. But optimism forces us to look away from that possibility.)

Just Another Tool in the Arsenal

The best way I’ve found to characterize Design Thinking is to consider it a means to an end. Design Thinking is a powerful way to visualize possibilities, and help focus on some of the details through iteration. But it is not the only tool we have.

Consider the Divide-and-Conquer approach to problem solving, in which a hard problem is iteratively subdivided into simpler and simpler problems until the problems are so small and simple they can each be solved trivially. At this point the hard problem is solved through joining the subdivided parts back together. Or perhaps the abstraction approach, in which a problem is too complex to solve directly, so simpler models of the problem are developed and solved instead. Then features are iteratively added back into the models until the full complexity is re-established.

There are many others, of course. But they all labor under the same shortcoming: there may not be a way to develop an actual solution using them. In the same way a path to an ideal solution might not be found using Design Thinking, neither might a problem be amenable to division using Divide-and-Conquer, or a feature might not be able to be added back into a model using Abstraction. Design Thinking is no more of a panacea than any other technique for synthesizing a product or process.

However, it is a technique that does have power - as do the other techniques - and it merits inclusion in the arsenal. And as with the others, techniques can sometimes be combined, and together can be used to overcome the failings of the individuals.


  • Design Thinking is powerful and viable, and should be used appropriately: to help generate creative solutions, possibly identifying unforeseen issues or fortuitous opportunities.

  • Design Thinking is a formal team process whose phases feature a period of divergent and then convergent activity. In the process the results of prior phases may be called into question, possibly causing the process to recycle.

  • Design Thinking is one of many techniques to determine the what and how of a product, not necessarily more or less useful than other techniques, and perhaps more powerful when used together with them.

  • Always make sure that a group understands why they’re doing what they’re doing from a big-picture perspective. Talking about Design Thinking ‘the process’ is critically important to give folks the context they need to understand the purpose of what they’re doing, and how they might question the questions being considered themselves.

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