What is Design Thinking?


Design thinking has become the popular term for creative approaches to framing and solving problems using techniques originating from design practice (although many definitions tend to only mention problem solving - something we’d take issue with).

It is being applied in many contexts to frame and solve problems, and to stimulate innovation, across a broad range of business and social environments.

We’d say that design has shifted from being about the output of a process (product, graphic, interior, interaction etc.) to also consider the process itself and why it’s being used. Design is not the tactical noun that some see it as but also a strategic verb. What’s the ultimate goal the organisation has? Design thinking can help you design not just the business card but the business itself. While it may be new to some, the underlying approach, and even the name, has been around for decades.

Where did it come from?

Design Thinking was popularised as a specialism in the 1990s, promoted best by design consultancy IDEO who also worked alongside Stanford University to create the d.school design thinking institute. Tim Brown really brought it to the attention of the global business community in his 2008 Harvard Business Review article and perhaps because of this, for many people, design thinking is only ten years old (and might also be a bit of a fad). However, as a term, design thinking was first referenced in research in the 1960s as a feature of product and industrial design practice The underlying approach and it’s organisational value have been steadily gaining recognition since.

Today, we have organisations such as IDEO, Design Council, Maya and LUMA Institute leading the field, but design thinking is fast becoming the ‘go to’ methodology that any informed person or organisation can use to help solve strategic and complex challenges, be they social or economic.

It’s a people-centric approach, so human-centred design (HCD) is a key part of design thinking, even though it isn’t always the starting point.

Design thinking is instrumental in supporting an innovation culture within an organisation.

Who can use it?

With practice, anyone can contribute to designing and innovating solutions using design thinking techniques. Properly taught, design thinking helps those without a background in design appreciate the value it can offer to the wider aims of the organisation. Design thinking won’t (shouldn’t try to) turn people in to design specialists - you can’t become a product, graphic or interaction designer as a result of doing a design thinking master class - but you can become more specialist in better understanding why and how to use such design disciplines. It can be used in conjunction with other established management practices too, increasingly being seen as a compliment to agile development processes for example.

It is relevant across sectors and spectrums: from aiding product development to providing business support; informing public sector practices to shaping governmental policy; assisting social enterprises to accelerating the commercialisation of science.

Design thinking is instrumental in supporting an innovation culture within an organisation. People aware of its elements are better able to brief, commission and manage design projects, so that they can work hand in hand with design specialists more efficiently and effectively.


How do we use it?

Design thinking is the foundation of how we work at What Could Be. Based on many years of collective experience, we apply the approach using four core elements as our guide – an understanding of purpose, process, participants and place.


The first step in any project is to establish what you need to do and why you need to do it. The Design Thinking Canvas is designed to support exploring the context for the project, to determine what it is that will make a difference, perhaps make the world a better place, and so initiate the process by which you’ll make it happen.

We ask anyone we’re working with, “What’s your ambition? What are you trying to achieve?”. From that starting point we’ll quickly be exploring the vision they have, the impact they want to make, who the stakeholders are that will be affected by, or have an influence upon, the work we do and what challenges must be tackled. We’ll use design methods to explore all four areas to give us a good grounding for the process that then follows.


Your project, whatever you wish to develop, needs to align your vision and desired impact in the future with what you know (or need to know) about your stakeholders and the challenges you face today. You’ll need an effective process to map your way from your current situation to your preferred one. The Double Diamond is our preferred way of doing this and is at the heart of the What Could Be Design Thinking Canvas. It is a model of the design process that works well to help explore not only the solutions that might help solve the problem, but also help you explore the problem itself.

Sometimes you know the problem, and you may even have the solution in mind. If it’s a ‘straight line’ project then go for it, but it there’s any opportunity to explore the way in which you might solve the problem or what the problem itself should be, then the double diamond will help.

We have watched with interest over recent years to see the Double Diamond referenced in many places, along with an explanation of how it works. However, there are some key nuances that are always missed in some of these descriptions and some that misinterpret it all together. With one of our team (Jonathan) having been part of the original team who developed it, we’d encourage you to read our other pieces on the double diamond.


“Things don’t happen if people don’t do them” someone once said. Your organisation needs design thinking participants and those people need to have the right mindset and a basic methods ‘toolkit’ at their fingertips.

A design thinking mindset is embodied in five key design principles, or behaviours. They are:

  1. Questioning – Framing and reframing the problem you want to solve helps you to stay on track.

  2. People-Centred – Understand what people have to gain from solving this problem.

  3. Communication – The story shifts throughout the design process; keep it clear, strategic and relevant; communicating visually will help.

  4. Collaboration and co-creation – Good, inclusive teamwork, with all of your stakeholders, enhances your outputs.

  5. Iteration – ‘Make, test and learn’ loops are cycles of improvement central to the design process; they happen throughout the process.

Draw from a methods toolkit to structure an approach to managing and delivering a project with the best possible outcome. All of the main design thinking organisations have their own versions of these methods and techniques.

Over time you will develop an appreciation of the best ways you can use different methods, in different combinations. We like the LUMA term ‘recipes’ to describe methods-based planning. It’s something we’ve done a lot of and, with the correct support and practice, you can learn too.

The environment where Design Thinking takes place makes a big difference to how well it works.


The environment where design thinking takes place makes a big difference to how well it works. A part of the approach will be face-to-face; in a workshop, in the office, lab or studio and in the field. These spaces need designing, or the experience needs curating, to best support the approach. Thinking through the places in which your project activities happen really can make all the difference as to how effective you are going to be.

With distributed teams becoming more common, design thinking has to also take place in the digital world. Developments in services that support design thinking practice online will make a fundamental difference to how we collaborate and co-create in the future. Tools such as Mural are starting to demonstrate the potential of what remote design thinking can look and feel like.

If you want to experience what a good design thinking place - whether that’s in the analogue or digital world - should feel like, come and talk to us (or come to an event).

Pulling it all together

Design thinking can be deployed at all levels and in any area of work, but it can also be used to tackle any organisational challenge we experience in life where we’re not certain about what to do. It supports and enhances our natural instinct as humans to explore and to solve problems.

This can sound a little overwhelming but considering the above elements (Purpose/Process/Participants/Place) should help you begin to plan how you can take advantage of design thinking. We’ve also developed the Design Thinking Canvas to support our approach. Have a look at it and see how it might help you - or speak with us - we’d welcome your thoughts.

It’s no silver bullet and it takes effort and commitment over time - it’s a discipline - but we know from our experience that any organisation wishing to make impact in the world and do so from a human-centred perspective, will benefit from design thinking.

Links referenced above:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking#History_time_line – Design thinking origins from the 1950s and 60s



https://www.luma-institute.com/ OR https://www.lumaworkplace.com/





Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Darren Evans