What is Design Thinking?

As with design, there’s probably no one definition of design thinking everyone will agree on. The word design can refer to nouns such as designers, physical products, and style. The word can be a verb, as in process, create, and make. For example, Charles Burnette in his IDeSiGN curriculum calls it, “…a process of creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained.

Lately many more people are talking and writing about the application of design thinking to intangible problems, design not only as a verb but as a way of — as Herbert Simon wrote — improving situations. I felt a need to review what has been said and define the term for myself before I could put it into use. Ways of thinking are always difficult to define, but I’m reminded of how Lao Tzu said “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao” yet he still managed to write a book about it.

Based on a review of writing on the topic, I have synthesized for myself what I understand design thinking to be…

  • Collaborative, especially with others having different and complimentary experience, to generate better work and form agreement
  • Abductive, inventing new options to find new and better solutions to new problems
  • Experimental, building prototypes and posing hypotheses, testing them, and iterating this activity to find what works and what doesn’t work to manage risk
  • Personal, considering the unique context of each problem and the people involved
  • Integrative, perceiving an entire system and its linkages
  • Interpretive, devising how to frame the problem and judge the possible solutions

I’m sure one could play with the language and categorization to find more or less characteristics, but I’m happy with just those six.