What is Design Thinking?

August 2012, by So-Young Kang

“Design thinking” has become the new buzz word in many organizations and even governments as Singapore may well be on its way to becoming the first country to really adopt the principles of design thinking in the world. So what is the hype all about? What is design thinking?

Quick history lesson. The principles of design thinking really have emerged in the 1980’s based on ideas around human-centered design and really became popularized in the late 1980’s with Peter Rowe’s book Design Thinking and with the work of IDEO and Stanford. Simply put, it is a way of thinking that embraces empathy, creativity and rationality to solve problems. As many people practice design thinking, I believe each one has their own unique approach. Here is how we define and practice the 3 core principles.
Empathy is about the ability to see things from the users’ perspectives. Users can include many different stakeholders starting from of course, customers, but also employees, investors, partners and the general public. For every problem, it is critical to understand who your users are as a starting point for design. We utilize coaching methodology and various communication techniques to pull out what users really care about and what motivates them. We elicit stories, emotions, and memories to go beyond symptomatic needs. We observe, listen and care for those we interview to give them the space to share what they care about most.

is having the freedom to explore, dream and try new solutions to problems. It’s a journey that starts with a white sheet of paper and enables you to brainstorm, come up with wacky ideas and innovate. This can be a messy process as it requires you to take risks and step outside of the box. We encourage lots of mistakes in this part of the journey and it is often the most uncomfortable part of the journey for our clients whose ‘rational’ side will naturally come to bear. This requires divergent, not convergent, thinking. In business, we are often taught to think in very linear, logical, rational steps and in the process of creating, many answers do not come in a straight line. Most of the time, they come in circles with no clear pattern. This is where we challenge our clients to become 5-years old again to create and dream with us again.

is perhaps the one that resonates most with our clients who are used to applying logic and rationale to the solving of problems. This is where we take our crazy ideas and apply limitations, budget constraints and functional realities to ensure the solutions are feasible and executable. Don’t worry. We do get there. We just start with empathy and creativity to come up with the big ideas first. It’s much easier to whittle down big ideas than to create them.

We believe design thinking is a powerful tool when it is grounded in values, pointed towards a clear visionfor where you want to go so that ultimately you can drive business success and make a positive difference in the world. This is why we do it.  For us, it’s not just about solving a problem. It’s a way of making a positive difference in the world by caring for the various users involved. Ultimately, if we design for the various users with empathy and care, business success is a natural outcome.

Given the broad definition of design thinking and the way we apply this methodology, we have been able to apply it to many different situations:

– Designing new customer experiences

– Creating new businesses and business models

– Designing new cultures of innovation

– Crafting messages that are empathetic and inspiring

– Driving organizational culture change

– Service innovation in experiences

– Designing new environments and spaces that are more human

– Defining user-centric vision and strategy

– Creating new operating models, processes, and ways people work

– …

We are always exploring new ways of applying the methodology and principles to catalyze change for the better. Ultimately, we want to design transformative experiences from the inside out to bring joy and beauty to the world. This is our so-what and why. Design thinking is our how.

Are you ready to create with empathy and rationality?