Design Thinking

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Design Thinking

What is Design Thinking? Meaning.

Design Thinking is a design-centered approach to business management opposite to analytical and left-brained thinking. When the methodology of Design Thinking is applied to business management, it is also known as Management by Design.

The concept of design thinking originates from cognitive psychology and has been used in the 60’s by scientist, economist and psychology Herbert Simon. Simon has been an active promoter of interdisciplinary research in the field of artificial intelligence, decision making econometrics, mathematics and statistics applied to business and management. In his 1969 book “The Sciences of the Artificial”, he wrote:

“Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent - not with how things are but with how they might be - in short, with design”.


In the original conception of Simon, Design Thinking was assimilated in the concept of Synthetic Thinking: a non-analytical thinking approach that would “randomly” combine single ideas into a more complex whole. The combination of ideas is a process of convergence rather than divergence and that is why this way of thinking is basically adopted by creative and design people who don’t like to rely exclusively on analysis or scientific approaches.

Different from Inductive and Deductive reasoning, Design Thinking can be considered an Abductive Reasoning methodology, and also resembles some features of De Bono’s Lateral Thinking and Gestalt Theory. In its original acceptation, the aim of Design Thinking was to integrate analytical scientific reasoning with a more intuitive and solution-oriented methodology to avoid occurring of Paralysis by Analysis and other typical pitfalls of rational decision making (Bounded Rationality). The methodology of Design Thinking was therefore not conceived as stand alone tool for problem solving but just a side methodology that would have integrated design and analytics, just like an integration of right and left brain thinking preferences in Herrmann's Whole Brain Model.

Profile of Design Thinkers

A design thinker’s personality profile should contain the following 5 characteristics:

  1. Empathy. Considering other people and relationships with them a major aspect of life allows to share their needs and visions and observe the world from multiple perspectives.
  2. Integrative Thinking.
  3. Optimism. Approach problem solving with the assumption that there is always a better solution than the already existing alternatives.
  4. Experimentalism. The capacity of creative questioning and exploring completely new directions.
  5. Collaborative Attitude. An ever increasing complexity of needs, products and services requires interdisciplinary collaboration among team members of a project. Assuming that one person alone is not anymore sufficient to solve some issues, multidisciplinary skills and experience are at least excellent features business leaders should have.

Steps in Design Thinking. Process

In its new acceptation design thinking literally means thinking like a designer would. The process of doing so requires a creative but thorough exploration of human activities and long cycles of prototyping, testing, sometimes rethinking, and refinement of ideas. It is fundamental that at any stage no member has the fear that is idea will not be valid or wrong, because any judgment is not tolerated. The process of Design Thinking involves 7 main steps:

  1. Define. Decide what issues have to be solved and their targets. If the problem is not really understood it will be hard to design a solution. Establish project prioritization. Determine project CSFs. Create a glossary of terms to avoid misunderstanding from the beginning (since often Cross Functional Teams, with members holding different backgrounds, work on the same project).
  2. Research. Explore the initial issue and its history. Collect analogue cases and consider how they have been solved. See: Analogical Strategic Reasoning. Get in touch with end-users to establish learning moments for later development. Take into consideration business thinkers’ and Opinion Leaders' opinions.
  3. Ideate. Track end-users specific needs and generate ideas that can help to satisfy identified needs. Brainstorm freely with project team members avoiding any early judgment of ideas. Keep ask why, why, why this is a problem, is a superior solution etc.
  4. Prototype. Start working on ideas presented: discuss, develop, merge and refine ideas in order to create multiple drafts. Make a selection of ideas, judgment free, and present few drafted plans to the client. Prototyping pay seem time-consuming and expensive, but a bad, premature solution is much worse.
  5. Choose. Being attained to the final project goal, select the most relevant ideas. Remember to disregard emotions and conflicts that could influence the decision, avoid easy and practical win, as they are often not the best solution, prevent occurring of Groupthink. Be neutral. To choose means to decide. Every decision is limited rationale. Restrictions define the solution space. Remember there is never a perfect solution. There are only worse and better ones. It is better to provide the best solution for a clearly defined audience, than a solution that tries to make everyone happy.
  6. Implement or Delivery. Define plans, resources, actions and tasks in a timeline. Assign tasks and monitor their correct execution during project delivery.
  7. Learn. Collect feedbacks internally and from end-users and relevant project data. Measure success obtained. Analyze eventual project gaps from the defined objectives and suggest improvement actions.

Design Thinking Special Interest Group

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Compare with: Stage-Gate  |  Mind Mapping  |  System Thinking  |  Soft Systems Methodology  |  Thinkers’ Keys  |  Lateral Thinking  |  Gestalt Theory  |  Pyramid Principle  |  Bounded Rationality  |  Integrative Thinking  |  Abductive Reasoning  |  Cross-Functional Team

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