The name ‘design thinking’ may conjure up images of measuring tape, graph paper, and pencils, but put away the protractor. Design thinking is less about detailed schematics and more about social science. Nor is it deference to the adage, “form follows function.” Design thinking can be described as a problem resolution process, which gives it a broad scope and versatility. Every profession—regardless of the field—is ultimately about solving problems. The problems facing organizations vary (e.g., improving productivity or efficiency, better customer services, etc.), but the need for problem resolution is universal.

Fast Company explains design thinking as “a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities. Techniques and tools differ, and their effectiveness are arguable but the core of the process stays the same.” The process is easily replicable and effective and has been used in the public and private sectors successfully.

Take the Apple iMac G3, for example, it was incrementally better than its predecessors but was still less powerful than contemporary PCs. When it hit the marketplace in 1998, it was hailed as a failure of form over function (with its bizarre circular mouse), yet it was a commercial success and a turning point for Apple. The unique color scheme and shape were a welcome dose of personality in the marketplace (Chen, Benedicktus, Kim, & Shih, 2018).

Design thinking has been an effective way to address social problems as well. For example, let’s look at Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan India. It’s a community-based organization with the goal to develop skills of the rural poor and help the poor assume professional roles to address their own social problems (Kummitha, 2017).

“. . .they [design team] realized that relearning from the local knowledge by keeping the communities at the center of the solution is a viable option. Among several strategies, community integration and their participation at various levels in the organization offers the necessary fuel and energy to carry out the development interventions. The success of the initiatives is scaled to 80 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America” (Kummitha, 2017).

Tackle Those Wicked Problems

Design thinking at its best is an effective way to address ‘wicked problems.’

Wicked Problems—like the problem faced by Barefoot College—have innumerable causes and often don’t have a ‘right’ answer. Poverty and Terrorism are classic examples. Not every problem is a wicked problem. Wicked problems are characterized by confusion, discord and lack of progress. (Camillus, 2008).

A Holistic Solution Is a Remedy

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, defines design thinking as, “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. It is a discipline that 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” (Brown, 2008).

The concept behind design thinking is to involve designers from the beginning of a given project, rather than the last stop to add aesthetic appeal.

User-Centered Design may sound like a buzz word, but it is the reason why design thinking yields significant results. It is an “approach where designers get close to consumers to better understand their needs and wants. UCD considers consumers as a source of product innovation and involves thinking about the consumer during the design process” (Chen, Benedicktus, Kim, & Shih, 2018).

Basically, UCD requires a team to adopt an anthropological approach: ethnography. “…designers or researchers put themselves into the shoes of the subjects and see the world from the eyes of the subjects” (Kummitha, 2017).

The Design Thinking Process

Brown likens the design thinking process to a ‘system of spaces’ as opposed to sequential steps. “The spaces demarcate different sorts of related activities that together form the continuum of innovation” (Brown, 2008).

Brown defines the spaces as the following:

  • Inspiration for the motivation (e.g., a problem, opportunity, both)
  • Ideation for “generating, developing and testing ideas” or potential solutions
  • Implementation for charting a path to market

Brown says that projects will cycle through these steps (primarily Inspiration and Ideation) as ideas are refined.

The following are important attributes of design thinking:

  • Collaboration across disciplines for many points of views
  • Empathy for your subject or customer’s circumstance and views
  • Holistic – looking at the larger picture and meeting both consumer and business needs
  • Iterative –looping through the three stages as many times as necessary
  • Integrative thinking, not relying on analytics—having the ability to see all sides of a problem
  • Non-judgmental – no wrong ideas and rough sketches and prototypes have value

Design thinking is collaborative, comes with a dose of anthropology, is characterized by frequent and early prototyping and has an ultimate goal of participation—engagement between producers and consumers.

The next time your team is tasked with solving a daunting problem, why not channel your inner anthropologist and suggest that the issue be solved by adopting a design thinking approach.


Brown, T. (2008) Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, June 2008, 84-92.

Camillus, J. C. (2008) Strategy as a wicked problem. Harvard Business Review, May 2008 Retrieved from

Chen, S., Benedicktus, R., Kim, Y., & Shih, E. (2018). Teaching design thinking in marketing: Linking product design and marketing strategy in a product development class. Journal of Marketing Education, 40(3), 176-187. doi:10.1177/0273475317753678

Design thinking…what is that? (2006, March 20). Fast Company, Retrieved from

Introduction to design thinking. (September 12, 2012). Retrieved from

Kummitha, R. K. R. (2019). Design thinking in social organizations: Understanding the role of user engagement. Creativity and Innovation Management, 28(1), 101-112. doi:10.1111/caim.12300