Design Thinking
Article Index
Design Thinking
Expert Opinion
Survey and Research
Example Cases
Words of Wisdom
Measure and Evaluate
Summary of Best Practices

Expert Opinion

Design thinking involves both reason and imagination. Karen Gorsline, a commentator on strategic capability, writes that organisations aiming to be innovative often only make slight variations to existing business models. These changes are normally so limited they actually represent risk-averse behaviour. Actions of this type do not change the business environment at all; nor do they demonstrate the necessary toughness to accept the inevitable bumps in the road that will occur when making significant progress. In contrast, design thinking requires organisations to accept—without proof—decisions and actions that are intuitively known to be true. This, of course, means that decision makers have to accept a certain degree of risk. Successful organisations tap into “imagination for innovation,” and then codify the outcomes into cost-effective products and services. [1]

By working closely with consumers, design thinking can facilitate powerful solutions that “bubble up from below” rather than being imposed from the top down. Design thinking methodologies are able to tap into latent capacities that may be overlooked when using conventional problem-solving techniques. These capacities include the ability to be intuitive, recognize patterns, construct ideas with both emotional meaning and functionality, and create expression using media other than words or symbols. Design thinking may be thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. The three key spaces of the design thinking process have been described as inspiration, ideation, and implementation. These are outlined below:

  • Inspiration is the motivation to search for new solutions arising from a problem or need. Inspirational phases usually begin with a briefing document. The brief provides a framework for project teams to begin; milestones by which they can measure progress; and, a set of desired objectives such as a price point, available technology, and desired market segment. A well-constructed brief allows for serendipity, unpredictability, and creativity. This enables breakthrough ideas to emerge.
  • Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas. After spending time in the field observing and designing, research teams move on to a process of synthesis. The objective is to distil into insights everything that has been seen and heard; this can lead to solutions or opportunities for Practiceschange. Competing ideas can be compared against each other, which may lead to bolder, more compelling solutions. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling said “to have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas.” Diversity is important if you want to achieve divergent thinking; you also need people with the capacity and disposition to collaborate across disciplines. “Design thinkers” must possess empathy for people, and an understanding of disciplines other than their own. This ability tends to be expressed as openness, curiosity, optimism, a tendency toward learning through doing, and experimentation. Interdisciplinary teams typically employ structured brainstorming processes. Taking one provocative question at a time, they may generate hundreds of ideas, ranging from the absurd to the obvious. Each idea can be written on a Post-it note and shared with the team. Visual representations of concepts are encouraged, as these help others share and comprehend complex ideas.
  • Implementation is the path leading from a project into people’s lives. This third space of the design thinking process enables the best ideas to become fully conceived action plans. At the core of the implementation process is prototyping: this is the turning of ideas into actual products and services that are then tested, iterated, and refined. Through prototyping, the design thinking process seeks to uncover unforeseen challenges and unintended consequences, and bring about reliable long-term success. After the prototyping process is finished and the ultimate product or service has been created, the design team may then help create effective communication strategies. [2]

Antonia Ward and colleagues from the Design Council in the United Kingdom have identified the following key areas where design thinking can add value to organisations:

  1. Vision and strategy – designing the business as well as the product: Organisations should be able to say where they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there. They should have a clear vision of their reason for being, their offer, their market, and their competitors; they should also have a clear idea of what they want to become in the next three to five years. Design thinking can help organisations add a visual component to their strategy. Complex ideas and relationships can be depicted using sketches, drawings and maps; these are invaluable for communicating an organisation’s ambitions via action plans and roadmaps.
  2. Products and services – employing a holistic design philosophy: Introducing design understanding and experience at the beginning of product development processes assists organisations to manufacture products in better ways, e.g. through cheaper and faster manufacturing processes, by adding value through new material choices, and via environmental benefits derived from more efficient systems.
  3. Brand and identity – matching the customer’s needs: Organisations should undertake a wholesale reassessment of their brand and corporate identity. Identifying the core components of brands can help an organisation to articulate its “big idea,” its values, vision, and personality. This then enables an organisation to develop a designed expression of its brand, which matches customer needs more closely.
  4. User experience – putting people first: A user-centred design approach considers every problem from the viewpoint of the end-user, and then repeatedly tests assumptions using real users in practical situations. This type of design approach leads to products that are comfortable and intuitive to use.
  5. Innovative culture – moving creativity to centre stage: Design thinking should be placed strategically at the heart of an organisation, and used to create an enduring culture of innovation. [3]
Mel Schiavelli, president and CEO of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in the United States, believes we are living in an era of unprecedented creativity. For this reason, universities should be teaching design brilliance and creativity alongside the more traditional subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In this “age of the idea,” new graduates must be able to think critically, solve complex problems, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively. Similarly, the Pew Charitable Trusts have reported that creative jobs—those that drive innovation—are the highest value-added jobs in the world, and that they are the real creators of wealth. For example, Procter & Gamble doubled sales and quintupled profits from 2001 to 2009 by hiring design staff to inject new life into product lines; this resulted in an increase in product sales from $300 million to $2 billion. Excellent design has also driven sales of the groundbreaking iPhone, iPod, and iPad; in addition to being functional products, these are also viewed as status symbols. [4]

According to Eoin Whelan and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, many organisations struggle to ensure that great new ideas actually reach the people best ways. One way of achieving this connection is to use an “idea scout” to identify promising ideas. The idea scout then funnels the ideas through an “idea connector” who champions the ideas and passes them on to parties best equipped to convert the ideas into innovative outcomes. Figure 1, see below, depicts the pathway from idea discovery through to implementation. The text outlines the various stages associated with this pathway.

  • Ideation: Idea scouts can be specifically set apart by an organisation to scan the outside world for new developments and knowledge.
  • Idea Selection: Interaction between the idea scout and idea connectors is crucial to ensuring the most promising ideas are selected for further consideration. This interaction also forms a crucial role in verifying the reliability of data and information. In effect, idea scouts provide the fuel for innovation; the idea connector represents the engine that converts this fuel into useful outputs. Google, for example, has excelled at turning
    nascent ideas into innovative products by using the scout-connector arrangement. Central to Google’s success has been the role of Marissa Mayer, a company vice-president, who has acted as an idea connector and ensured that promising ideas are fast-tracked for investment.
  • Idea Diffusion: Once an idea connector recognises the potential of a new concept, it must then be diffused to those with the ability to exploit it. For example, on hearing the initial idea for Google Desktop, Mayer used her knowledge of the organisation’s internal network to bring the concept to the attention of a skilled programmer, who formed a team to develop what ultimately turned out to be one of Google’s most successful products.
  • Exploitation: Promising ideas can only mature into innovative outcomes by being fed into an employee—or contacted—network with the expertise and authority to exploit the ideas. [5]

Human-Centred Design Toolkit for Design Thinking

In 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asked IDEO, an international design and innovation consultancy based in California, to codify the process of design thinking so that it could be easily used by non-governmental organizations working with small farmers in the developing world. A team of IDEO designers spent three months working with Heifer International, the International Center for Research on Women, and International Development Enterprises to understand their processes for designing new products, services, and programs, and to integrate them with IDEO’s own processes. This resulted in the Human-Centred Design Toolkit, [6] which is a methodology that organizations can use to undertake design thinking processes. This toolkit is available as a free download at

Design Thinking: a Pathway for Innovation, a short video clip, is available on the website. It provides an excellent overview of the concepts behind design thinking.


You are reading a Best Practice Report in html-format. Become a member of the BPIR to receive a new report in PDF-format every month (see examples: Benchmarking & Business Excellence). PDF-format can be saved on your hard drive, emailed to work colleagues, and are much easier to read and print out!.. For BPIR updates and best practices sign up to our FREE newsletter. 

< Prev   Next >