Introduction to Design Thinking

Introduction to Design Thinking

by Kavya Krishna, November 4, 2017


Even though the term ‘design thinking’ seems new, this concept has been there since ages. Throughout the history, designers have used this human-centric approach to find feasible solutions. Some historical structures, bridges, subway systems, automobiles are all the products of design thinking. Peter Rowe’s 1987 book Design Thinking was a significant early usage of the term in the design research literature.

Design thinking in business uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Scientific thinking starts by forming a hypothesis, working iteratively via feedback mechanism until a model or theory is formed. Unlike this, design thinking takes into account, the sensibilities of the people involved. While feedback in the scientific method is obtained by facts, feedback of design considers the emotional content of the relevant group, as well as their stated and latent needs.

Some say that scientific thinking is all about analysis (breaking down a substantial whole into components), and design thinking is about synthesis (combining individual components into a coherent whole). But analysis and synthesis always go hand in hand. Synthesis always needs a preceding analysis; analysis needs succeeding synthesis to verify the results.

In 1979 Bryan Lawson published results from an empirical study to investigate the different problem-solving approaches of designers and scientists. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-layer structures from a set of coloured blocks. The perimeter of the structure had to optimize either the red or the blue colour; however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.

Lawson found that:

The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximise the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimise the required colour around the layout. [problem-focused]

By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately coloured perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favourably coloured block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered. [solution-focused]

— Bryan Lawson, How Designers Think

Design thinking uses both divergent and convergent ways of thinking. As divergent thinking is useful in thinking in many ways, have different perspectives to ideate many solutions, convergent thinking is useful to narrow down the right solution. Design thinking is iterative, due to which the first formed solutions can lead to many more ideas.

Design thinking is also an approach that can be used to consider issues, with a means to help resolve these issues, more broadly than within professional design practice and has been applied in business as well as social issues.


The process of design thinking, as briefed by Nielsen Norman Group, is consists of Six steps – Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Implement. It is a non-linear process, which means the steps are not sequential. Each problem can follow its own order. These steps are different modes that contribute to the project.

‘Design thinking seems simple – thinking like designers’, I thought when I first heard the term. But out of curiosity, I googled it. As I got to know what it really meant, I was in awe of how interesting this concept is. So, design thinking is actually a unique solution-based problem solving approach that is centred around empathy and creativity.

Empathize consists of doing the required research to understand the users’ needs and problems.

Define includes segregating that research to clearly define where the issues lie in.

Ideate means thinking in many different ways to produce a range of creative ideas.

Prototype involves building up a real model that represents the garnered ideas.

Test the built prototype by giving it to the users, and receive the feedback given by them.

Implement the most plausible idea/prototype to make the vision of solving the given problem, a reality.

Design is the action of bringing something new and desired into existence — a proactive stance that resolves or dissolves problematic situations by design. It is a compound of routine, adaptive and design expertise brought to bear on complex dynamic situations.

—Harold Nelson

Design thinking is not limited to design itself. As it leads to innovation, there is a growing interest for it in all fields, including software engineering and healthcare. In scientific methods with emphasis on math and physics, emotional elements generally tend to get ignored. Design thinking identifies and explores both known and ambiguous aspects of the current situation in order to discover parameters which may lead to one or more satisfactory goals.

Design thinking is about simplicity in the middle of chaos. It’s about creating as much value as possible for your customers. It’s about serving your users in an intelligent and empathetic method. Most importantly, it’s the idea that innovation has a structure and a rhythm to it, a discipline that can be managed to deliver great results for everyone involved.

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