How you can start solving problems like a designer

Despite how it sounds, design thinking is not just for designers. In fact, the less you know about design thinking, the more you probably have to gain from this exciting new field. For those who know nothing about it (but wonder why you keep hearing about it), hear is the scoop on design thinking. 

Design thinking is essentially a method for creative problem solving. Drawing on human-centered design principles, it is an iterative process that focuses on the user to break down problems into repeatable phases. The process itself is well-designed into five stages that keep you from getting stuck on old ideas and assumptions. This translates to better results for both you, your team, and potential users. 

The Rise of Design Thinking 

Design Thinking got its start in the 1960s when an inventor at MIT, Buckminster Fuller, applied the scientific method to the design process with the hope of finding a repeatable way to solve complex social and scientific problems. Fuller pioneered systematic methods of “design science” in a way that echoes the design thinking movement today. 

Building on the work of Fuller, several writers and philosophers came along in the 1970s and 1980s to expand the field of design science and reimagine the way we solve problems. In his 1972 book Experiences in Visual Thinking, artist and engineer Robert H. McKim suggested that combining right and left-brain modes of thinking enables a more holistic approach to problem-solving. Other notable publications are Design Thinking by urban designer Peter Rowe and “Designerly Ways of Knowing” by Nigel Cross. Before getting into the field of design science, Cross worked in human-computer interaction and spearheaded many design thinking concepts by studying the ways in which humans build and respond to technology.

One thing all of these innovators had in common was the belief that design thinking is inherent to the way we all create and improve as humans. We look for better and easier processes, testing out different solutions before choosing the best one. Whether you are writing a book or doing your laundry, design thinking can improve your process by using the five phases of the design thinking process. 

The Five Phases of Design Thinking 

1. Empathy 

As one of the most crucial elements of Design Thinking, empathy is the art of connection. By building and practicing empathy, you can put aside your own perceptions and assumptions to reframe the problem you are trying to solve for the end user. This phase requires a great deal of emotional data collection. How do your users feel when interacting with your product? What are the pain and pleasure points of a problem you are trying to solve? The more you can engage in the actual experience of empathy, the better you will be able to provide a creative and useful solution. 

2. Definition 

When defining a problem, you use all the information you collected while empathizing to create a clear and concise problem you want to solve. People will jump to this phase before empathizing which can result in a preconceived problem—one that does not address the actual issues. For example, let’s say your team is not communicating well at your office. While this might seem like the problem at hand, you need to go deeper and empathize with your employees in order to really define what the problem is. Maybe you are using three management systems instead of one or maybe there is a problem with morale due to a lack of transparency between departments. These are problems that are much easier to solve. In any situation, the better your definition, the better your solution. 

3. Ideation 

This is where the fun happens in the design thinking process. During ideation, you generate as many ideas as possible to solve the problem you have defined. Ideation works best with a team to bring in a variety of perspectives and make sure you are thinking outside of the box. Post-it notes also help, and lots of them. Throw all your ideas against a wall and see what sticks.  

4. Prototyping 

During this phase, you select a few of the solutions to experiment with by creating prototypes. These are small-scale versions or samples of the new approach to your problem. The goal of prototyping is to identify potential issues you might run into during actual production, pinpoint negative or positive feedback, and gauge the general feasibility of your ideas. 

Prototyping can undergo multiple phases to test out different variables like user experience and user response. Though prototyping is already a common process in industries like app design and video game development, it can be applied to any problem, company, or field. 

5. Testing 

While testing can occur throughout the design thinking process, this phase will always come after you create a prototype. Testing is all about getting user feedback. When running a user test, it is best to present the product, system, or idea in a natural setting with real target users. Choosing people to test your prototypes who have not been actively part of the design thinking process will give you genuine results and accurate data.  

Remember that Design Thinking is an iterative process. While the five stages provide a solid framework, the real magic happens when you go off script to ideate in the middle of prototyping or slip back into definition while going through the testing phase. Once you learn the process you will be able to manipulate it according to the problem in front of you. 

The future of Design Thinking 

Because Design Thinking applies to any problem-solving process, the future is limitless! Companies like IBM and Fidelity have already taken advantage of the Design Thinking ideology to create innovation labs and host design thinking workshops that invest in the creativity and potential of their employees. But the power of design thinking is not reserved for wealthy corporations. Educators, nonprofits, coders, government workers, and artists can all benefit from Design Thinking. 

If you are interested in learning more about how you or your team can start applying the Design Thinking process to your problems, check out our 8-week online course, Design Thinking for Creative Problem Solving. Taught by designer and industry pioneer Kevin Henry, the course gives students the opportunity to bring their own problems to the course and work collaboratively to come up with the most innovative solutions.