Principles of Design Thinking

Design innovation (Source: adapted from d.School Stanford 2012; IDEO 2012; Brown 2009)

Technology, Business and Human Values are the influencing fields of the design thinking approach. It is the design process that links these fields together and establishes a harmony between them. It is clear that in this case a lot of sub-disciplines need to be explored in order to fully embrace design innovation. Therefore the implementation of interdisciplinary teams within the right culture is vital to the this approach. You need a a group of T-shaped persons, a crew of design thinking Lieutenants that would moderate between the respective research fields and break down the boundaries of restrictive thinking. This of course requires time, practice and the right cultural setting and ultimately it is a continuous and iterative process. It therefore must not be understood as a tactical quick win. Design thinking is different from scientific thinking which is analytic, reductionist and aiming at explanation. It is different from engineering thinking that is aiming at efficient functionality and it is different from artistic thinking where the artist himself is the primary criterion. For all these reasons design thinking has to claim theoretical and methodological autonomy.

Hence it is not the alternative draft to analytical and facts based thinking. It rather balances the emotional and rational within the particular modes of analysis: forms, relationships, behaviors, emotions and real human interactions. This understanding is the basis for the operations of design thinking.

But what do you do if you are not a design company? How do you need to behave in order to apply this method to its full potential?

Well balancing out viability, usability, desirability, and feasibility is the key challenge for any company. You need to be able to face two or more opposing ideas instead of choosing one versus the other.

This balance of analytical and intuitive thinking requires a strong culture of debate and a flat hierarchy. The mental processes of creativity can and will only blossom among your crew when the setup is right and the problems are challenging as well.

In order to creatively solve your problems, you will need to apply a toolbox of methods and techniques that may seem childish or inappropriate at first. However, what matters most is that you rely on a process of integrative thinking.

In addition to integrative thinking there was also agreement that radical innovation took a lot of iterative work. There is no such thing as a eureka moment, no kiss of a muse and no magic formula and therefore any tool can do the job.

Instead the passion, the willingness and persistence to create great things, that is what is needed to be fostered in a company. An innovation is a learning process – the second component to design thinking.

You have to recognize its phases and usually start with analytical steps to define and understand a problem and end with a synthesis of experimentation and invention. It is therefore a process of knowledge development with analytical, theoretical and synthetic elements. Design thinking is a practice that will use your team’s sensibility and methods to meet your customers’ needs in a technologically feasible and commercially viable way. In other words, design thinking is customer-centered innovation process. It is also an operation that can convert customer value into a market opportunity.

You can check against these principles (or characteristics) in order to see if you have the right team and culture for this process:

Principles of Design Thinking 
  • action oriented: by preferring visuals and prototypes over the use of language and numbers design thinking immediately produces shareable items ready for decision and avoids long talks about concepts
  • disruptive and provocative: by challenging the status quo design thinking can help extracting and even creating tacit knowledge to create new perspectives on wicked problems
  • human-centered: by focusing on customers’ needs new value can be created and turned into demand never letting the people behind or a demand out of sight
  • empathic: by applying human-centered research techniques value can be created outside of clustered market segments and demographics that rather try to justify an incremental innovation instead of offering radical breakthroughs
  • explorative: by bringing forward-orientation and anticipatory imagination into the strategic planning process and deriving valid outcomes
  • continuous learning: by constantly applying iterative approaches which provide enough structure but do not restrict creativity it becomes a second-generation planning approach
  • reduced development risks: by encouraging early failure design thinking promotes experimentation and practical testing over theoretical analysis in order to notice anomalies to solve the mystery of tomorrow
  • creation of meaning: by discussing insights and proposing new meanings with the help of design tools in order to make new value negotiable
  • competitive: by complementing business practices that are not suitable for uncertain environments it can offer a competitive advantage
  • sustainable equilibrium: by coupling disciplines of technology, business and human values design thinking maximizes the value for a company, the customers and employees

Conclusively, design thinking can be determined as the actions of balancing analytical and intuitive creative thinking as an iterative practice.

Alright. But it is now necessary for you to explore the peculiarities of design thinking in contrast to linear strategic approaches. How is it – to think like a designer? I will cover this topic in one of my next posts, I guess. Or you can ask me directly via email:

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