Design Thinking is a user-centric, human-focused approach to solving problems. Experts and scholars have long viewed it as a “solution-based approach” to problem-solving rather than a “problem-based” one, with participants focusing solely on coming up with constructive solutions rather than fixating on possible problems, concerns, or limitations. Based heavily on the methods actual designers use, this form of thinking has been extensively shaped by fields like architecture and engineering, though it can be applied to any field where problems occur and solutions to those problems are possible. 

To say that design thinking is simply focusing on the positive (solutions) rather than the negative (problems) is correct, then — but it’s also an oversimplification. There are several key aspects to the process, including four major principles that significantly shape this approach.

The Four Principles of Design Thinking

  1. The Human Rule — matter the topic or context, all design activity is social, and any viable solution or social innovation will return us to a “human-centric point of view.”
  2. The Ambiguity Rule — is inevitable, but designers must be willing to experiment at the limits of their knowledge to see things differently and come up with effective solutions.
  3. Design Is Redesign — has improved throughout time, but basic human needs remain the same; good design is essentially nothing more than smart re-design which fulfills those needs.
  4. The Tangibility Rule — prototypes allow designers to communicate about ideas and experiment with solutions more effectively than simply floating theories, sketches, or simulations. 

The Five Phases of the Design Thinking Process

Just as Design Thinking is broken down by those four key principles, the process by which designers can find solutions also relies on a straightforward five-step method: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. 

Created by the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford (known colloquially within the discipline as ‘d.school,’) these five phases — and the order in which they are employed — sit at the heart and soul of solutions-based thinking. 

  • Empathize

Empathy is an incredibly critical starting point within this discipline. Designers must first understand the user — their wants, needs, objectives, and more, both on a psychological and emotional level — before ever engaging with the problem or considering any solutions. A user-centric approach without first considering the user isn’t user-centric at all, is it? Empathy comes first here for a reason, as it may well be the most important part of the process. 

  • Define

As designers solely consider the user, so too must they briefly and specifically define the user’s problem into words. What patterns do they see? What is the big problem standing in the user’s way? The key at this phase is to define the problem in terms of the user, rather than the design team. “We need to…” may define the problem, but it doesn’t show empathy; “the user needs…” does, and that’s the right course of action. 

  • Ideate

This is where all the creativity happens! Designers must hold ideation sessions as judgment-free zones in which they can map, debate, brainstorm, and talk out solutions while constantly exploring new options and alternatives. You’ll know the ideation phase is ready to come to a close when the design group has narrowed things down to a few of the best collective ideas with which to move forward. 

  • Prototype

Talking about it is one thing, but creating tangible (often scaled-down) versions of the product makes for a far better method of fleshing out potential solutions with the real world in mind. Possible solutions tested out in prototype form allow designers to physically confirm whether or not users could experience a real solution for their quandary; there’s nothing hypothetical or metaphorical about the work being done here.

  • Test

Testing, which is exactly what it sounds like as far as figuring out which prototypes are viable, maybe phase five of this process, but it ought not to be seen as the final step. Testing often leads back to the ideate and prototype phases, and designers may go through multiple rounds of ideation, prototypes, and testing before figuring out the best solution. 

The Purpose of Design Thinking

Ultimately, design thinking fosters creativity and innovation while attempting to account for and dismantle biases and pre-conceived notions designers may otherwise have about an existing problem. Cited by some as “the healthy middle ground of problem-solving,” it is neither completely intuitive, nor solely fact-based, and the middle ground upon which it sits allows designers the freedom and flexibility to do what is right for the user, first and foremost. In turn, designers are more likely to hit the mark in creating solutions that work for users seeking help to a problem or issue.

Read more about Design Thinking in Digital Transformations here

The Four Principles of Design Thinking

The Human Rule — matter the topic or context, all design activity is social, and any viable solution or social innovation will return us to a “human-centric point of view.”

The Ambiguity Rule — is inevitable, but designers must be willing to experiment at the limits of their knowledge to see things differently and come up with effective solutions.

Design Is Redesign — has improved throughout time, but basic human needs remain the same; good design is essentially nothing more than smart re-design which fulfills those needs.

The Tangibility Rule — prototypes allow designers to communicate about ideas and experiment with solutions more effectively than simply floating theories, sketches, or simulations.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a user-centric, human-focused approach to solving problems. Experts and scholars have long viewed it as a “solution-based approach” to problem-solving rather than a “problem-based” one, with participants focusing solely on coming up with constructive solutions rather than fixating on possible problems, concerns, or limitations.