What is design thinking?

Design thinking is the umberella term for creative approaches to problem-solving using techniques originating from design practice. 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.

Where did it come from?

As a term, design thinking was first referenced in research in the 1960s as a feature of product and industrial design practice. It 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. It is the de facto methodology behind the successful application of user experience, interaction and service design disciplines.

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. It can be used in conjunction with other established management practices too.

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 people, place, purpose and process.


Design people have to have the right mindset and a basic methods ‘toolkit’ at their fingertips in order to effectively apply design thinking.

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.

“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 support the approach.

Distributed teams means that 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.


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.


Your project needs to align your vision with your desired impact on customers and users, so an effective process connects the two. The Double Diamond is at the heart of the What Could Be Design Thinking Canvas.

Design thinking can be deployed at all levels and in any area of work, but it can also be used to solve any problem we experience in life. It supports and enhances our natural instinct as humans to solve problems. We need to reframe the right problem first.

© What Could Be 2018