What is Design Thinking

Design Thinking, as a concept, is rapidly being picked up today as a solution based technique to major problems – and at this rate, it might just be the next big business approach. In fact worldwide brands like Google, Apple and others, along with leading Universities have adopted it into their organisations and institutions. 

History of Design thinking

Design thinking essentially came into view between the 50s and 60s. While there is no particular event that can pinpoint the origins of this concept, both the industrial revolution and World War II pushed the boundaries of the emergence of Design thinking. Engineers, architects, industrial designers, and cognitive scientists, at the time, came together in understanding creative and collective problem solving – that was driven by the significant societal changes then.

The first authors that discussed the idea design thinking were John E. Arnold in Creative Engineering (1959) and L. Bruce Archer in Systematic Method for Designers (1965). However, a cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate, Herbert A. Simon was the first individual to mention design thinking as a ‘way of thinking’ and as an approach. This was seen in 1969, in his book, The Sciences of the Artificial. He continued to contribute many ideas throughout the 70s which are now regarded as principles of design thinking.

By the 1970s, design thinking combined human resources, technological and strategic needs of our times and progressively managed to develop over the decades. It has now become one of the leading innovative methodologies existing today.

What is Design Thinking?

As the name suggests, design thinking draws heavily from methods a designer would typically use to deliver more user-oriented results. However, that’s not to say that design thinking focuses only on ways to enhance product designs – it seeks to build an enhanced user experience through thoughtful design. Contrary to conventional methods, design thinking doesn’t depend much on historical data but instead encourages calculated assumptions.   
Tech giants and consumer brands have used and benefited from design thinking alike. Global companies like PepsiCo, Apple, SAP, ESPN, Nike and more have adopted it to predict and deliver futuristic resolutions for customers. Owing to its vast success, design thinking has compelled manufacturers and service providers to rethink their business strategies and embrace a more human-centric approach to problem solving.

Key Elements of Design Thinking:

Principles of Design Thinking

The idea that solutions can be tailored to fit user-needs attracts new and established businesses alike. Based on the nonlinear nature, design thinking can be broken down into these following elements. 

Learn how you can transition to a digital workplace with Design Thinking.

Phases of Design Thinking:

Stages of Design Thinking

With the aforementioned principles in mind, design thinking can be divided into five phases. Experts at Stanford Graduate School of Business recommend breaking down these five stages into further steps according to the core principles. This ensures that a detailed analogy is performed before concluding the results. The steps towards successful execution of design thinking are as follows:

EmpathiseDesign thinking begins with empathy – to gain an insight into the problem that it sets out to resolve. However, more than understanding the problem, this step is crucial to understand the requirements of the user, to deliver a more customised solution. This step involves observing and engaging with the user to understand their behaviour patterns, inclinations, preferences and likely reactions to situations. Only when businesses have fully grasped the user environment and behavioural patterns, will they be able to tailor solutions to fit user needs. 

Define:  The next step in the process is organising all the information collected during the previous phase. This will eventually help you to define the problem statement from a more human-centric perspective. Define stage not only helps in breaking down obscure ideas and issues, but also helps to form a structured approach towards solving it. This is when you lay down the plan and frame questions which need to be answered in order to resolve the issue at hand.

Ideate: This is probably the most crucial phase of all and interestingly, allows a lot of room for creativity. This is when you think radically and prepare for experimentation to champion the user-experience. It’s important to bring fresh perspectives to the table at this stage and think of new ways of resolving the issue. It’s also equally important to consider probable obstacles both from the user’s end and environmental while suggesting these solutions. 

Prototype: Prototyping involves curating your best ideas and putting them into shape. This stage allows designers to test the effectiveness of the solution internally in a small scale environment before presenting it for implementation. This could also mean executing all the probable solutions and checking for their effectiveness. An important part of this phase is eliminating all the failed/ less effective options and moving forward with the best ones. Prototyping allows designers to understand how users would typically behave or react to any particular solution, thereby helping them form a more realistic solution that can be adopted on a larger scale.

Testing: The final stage of design thinking involves testing the best solutions of the previous stage. Since this is an iterative methodology, the results of this stage are used to refine the end solution further. More often than not, the solutions identified in the prototyping phase undergoes major changes or are even discarded to fit the real environment user-needs. The end result of this phase is then a tried and tested solution which will endure the environmental hindrances and user expectations. 

Why Design Thinking Appeals to Top Businesses? 

An empathy-driven approach towards problem solving through experimentation and innovation makes design thinking a solution-oriented methodology, rather than that of problem identification. This particular ideology has made design thinking a favourite among business leaders since companies are always looking for ways to step into the future. See how PepsiCo reintroduced their brand and won back the market with design thinking

Recent times have thrown an increasing number of unprecedented problems at us, compelling us to consider human behaviour and reactions to change and solutions. Design thinking is a framework to do just that, in a structured manner. It is a nonlinear methodology that involves empathy, ideation, prototyping and implementation to tackle complex issues seamlessly. Qualities like empathy and curiosity is what makes design thinking a unique problem-solving methodology, but it is perhaps the emphasis on human behaviour that makes it the most effective. 

Applications of Design Thinking 

Design thinking has its applications in a range of professions.sports, education, study and research to business and management, design thinking is widely used by several organisations around the world.


Design thinking is most popular in businesses. It helps them in optimisation processes especially with respect to product creation, marketing, and contract renewal. Considering that  these processes require a good amount of focus on their customers, design thinking proves to be immensely useful in their assistance. In businesses, design thinking helps the design thinkers to not only develop deep empathy for their customers but also to create solutions that tend to their specific needs.

Information Technology

The IT industry makes a lot of products that require trials and proof of concepts. The industry needs to empathize with its users and not simply deploy technologies. IT is not only about technology or products, but also processes. The developers, analysts, consultants, and managers have to brainstorm on possible ideas for solving the problems of the clients. This is where design thinking helps a lot.


The education sector in our economy demands the most when it comes to creative solutions. It essentially can make the best use of design thinking through student feedback. Feedbacks from students on their requirements, goals and challenges in the classroom can prove to be useful in easy problem solving. That is, by working on their feedback, the design thinks can come up with relevant and creative solutions to address their issues. 

For instance, Michael Schurr, a 2nd grade teacher in New York realized that his students would be more comfortable with lowered bulletin boards. He also came up with the idea of creating a comfortable semi-private lounge for working students as a space to study. As a result, his students not only became more engaged with each other but also had a good amount of space to store books and study.  


Design thinking plays a vital role in the healthcare industry as well. The expenditure in this sector is healthcare is continuing to increase by the day. A major concern of the experts worldwide is about bringing quality healthcare to people at lower costs.

The Venice Family Clinic in Venice, California has managed to come up with innovative solutions in opening a low-cost children’s clinic that serves low-income families. A major challenge included the problems of finance and language barriers at lower costs for underprivileged children. Fostering good health along with profits did not entirely sound sustainable. However, using design thinking, the inefficiencies in the system and the perennial challenges were addressed and solved.

Industries in design thinking

Design thinking has become a pet phrase for many successful businesses today but its impacts are very circumstantial and differ for each industry. It helps brands stay ahead of the curve by driving innovation in a business environment. A human-centric approach towards problem-solving makes it an effective bridge between brands and customers. 

Experts use it for enhancing both physical and digital experiences of products and services. Companies resorting to design thinking consider design much more than a phase or a department –  in fact, it shapes the entire thought behind business goals. Building a design-optimised company culture will certainly drive more innovation and customer satisfaction. The five most prominent industries that were revolutionised by design thinking are:

  • Entertainment
  • Consumables 
  • Banking
  • Travel and lodging
  • Technology and communication

If you are wondering how different industries benefit from design thinking, read in-depth on the prominent industries of design thinking.

Advantages of Design thinking

  1. It gives you the opportunity to view problems from different perspectives.
  2. It allows you to delve into a problem in determining its root cause.
  3. It encourages innovative thinking and creative problem solving.
  4. It ensures that the final outcome meets objectives of client requirements.
  5. It results in an experience that is more effective and informative for learners.
  6. It enables you to expand your knowledge continually. 

Disadvantages of Design thinking

  1. It lacks long term solutions.

Learning Design Thinking

How to start

Before you dive into the deep ends of design thinking, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Here’s how you can get started.

1. Gather insights and have a keen observation

One of the first steps to start design thinking would be to gather insights by practicing Empathy, Observation, and/or Interviewing your customers. Knowing what your customers want is the first step towards creating products or services for them. We must never assume how they think or feel, instead we should gather insights about their requirements. Keen observation and gaining insights is thus a critical part of the design thinking approach.

2. Build and plan a framework to learn about unmet needs

An essential step in the beginning is to build and plan a framework of ideas to understand the required needs. This can either be through a prototype, or just a simple blueprint even. Resources such as pen and paper or a slide deck are easily accessible and can be used to create a mock-up of ideas and get feedback. This will help better understand the needs of your customers before investing in production. Companies can get a better understanding and gain insights which would in-turn help them frame a better design thinking structure.

3. Turning our problems into questions

Our first response when presented with a problem is to try and find a solution right away. If we learn how to shift our mind-set and try asking questions, this might lead us closer to the root of the challenge and provide incremental improvement. If we take the example of a company struggling with retention rates. They can ask “How can we improve our employee experience?”. This would uncover insights which focus on real human needs and thus drive us to a better solution.

4. Use reach to understand past, present and future

A lot of different research techniques are used to generate insights about the needs of people. Observation, interviewing and empathy are few among these research techniques. Types of research can be classified into mainly three groups. Generative research, which helps in identifying new opportunities. Evaluative research, which focuses on gathering feedback on experiments and helps in moving forward. And lastly, traditional market research or validating research, which is intended to understand what is currently happening. Ensuring that we maintain a balance between the different research types would help us focus on the present and look forward to the future. 

Skills and Concepts

There are a couple of skills and concepts which are necessary for you to learn in order to become successful in this field. Multiple resources are available through which you could learn the following skills in order to better yourself. A few of the skills and concepts are as follows-

  • Human-centered Design
  • Finding what your needs are
  • Interviewing and Empathy-Building Techniques
  • Making sense of Observations and Insights
  • Defining a Point of View
  • Ideation
  • Developing and Testing Prototypes
  • Minimal Viable Products
  • Defining and Testing Business Models and Business Cases

Importance of Design thinking

In recent decades, it has become beyond vital to develop and refine skills to not only understand but also act upon the constant changes in this dynamic economy. Considering the rapid developments in technology today, the world has become increasingly interconnected and complex, and design thinking provides a means to cope in a widely human-centric manner. It allows us to think outside the box and understand problem solving on a slightly deeper level. 

Design thinking has proven to improve the world around. Considering its ability to generate ground-breaking solutions in a less disruptive, yet creative way, it is more than just a process – it is an innovation. 

While design thinking has been around for a while now, many businesses are yet to adopt it. As an increasing number of brands keep looking for ways to weave design thinking into their business strategies, marketers, product engineers and business leaders keep looking for ways to master this methodology. Fortunately, for those interested, top international business schools are offering courses that aim at equipping future business strategists with knowledge that help brands prioritise user experience. SGSB (Stanford Graduate School of Business) is among the best to offer courses on Design thinking. You can even enrol for these courses through Great Learning – India’s premier institute of e-learning. Check out the Design Thinking course syllabus for a better understanding of the course formats.



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