A Quick Introduction To Design Thinking

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.

Origin of the term design thinking

While design thinking has historic roots that date back to the 1950s, 1960s, when design methods started to be applied to business, it gained momentum in the early 2000s when the consultancy firm IDEO popularized it further.

How design thinking has grown in popularity starting the 50s, 60s and it gained momentum throughout the 2000s according to Google Books Ngram.

Today Design thinking has become even more predominant and popular throughout the 2010s when thinkers like Tim Brown, Tom and David Kelley from IDEO highlighted how design could be used as the primary force to balance out human needs with technological feasibility and viability.

The spike and explosive growth in interest in design thinking throughout the 2010s, when the founders of IDEO popularized the term.

What is design thinking?

As highlighted on IDEO, by Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO

At the base of design thinking, there is creative confidence. Tom and David Kelley put it in Reclaim Your Creative Confidence, back in 2012:

…creative confidence—the natural ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out. We do this by giving them strategies to get past four fears that hold most of us back: fear of the messy unknown, fear of being judged, fear of the first step, and fear of losing control.

In an interview in 2012, on HBR about “The Four Fears Blocking You from Great Ideas” Tom and David Kelley explained what prevented people to unlock their creative power:

  • Fear of the messy unknown meant as fear of getting out from the office to gather firsthand observations that require the ability to deal with the uncertain.
  • Fear of being judged.
  • Fear of the first step.
  • Fear of letting go connected to the fear of losing control.

In his TED talk, How to build your creative confidence, David Kelley explained how to use a process which psychologist, Bandura called “guided mastery” that enabled people to get comfortable with the unknown or the featured step-by-step.

With confidence built up gradually and deliberately, a renewed self-reliance comes, that Bandura called “self-efficacy,” or “the sense that you can change the world and that you can attain what you set out to do.”

Integrative thinking: The foundation of design thinking

Tim Brown, in 2009 TED Talk entitled “Designers – Think Big!” highlighted:

Roger Martin, the business school professor at the University of Toronto, calls integrative thinking. And that’s the ability to exploit opposing ideas and opposing constraints to create new solutions. In the case of design, that means balancing desirability, what humans need, with technical feasibility, and economic viability.

Tim Brown, in 2009 TED Talk

In short, according to Tim Brown, design thinking is born by balancing:

  • Desirability: do people want it?
  • Technical feasibility: can we actually build it?
  • Economic viability: is it sustainable? Should we do it?

The key ingredients of design thinking and its five stages

Design thinking moves around a few key ingredients such as problem-solving, human-centric (as Tim Brown, in 2009 TED Talk that means “It may integrate technology and economics, but it starts with what humans need, understanding culture and context before we even know where to start to have ideas“). 

An effective design thinking process moves around five key stages:

  • Empathize: what do my users/customers need?
  • Define: what core problem do they have?
  • Ideate: craft and brainstorm creative ideas.
  • Prototype: craft a possible solution for each core problem.
  • Test: does the proposed solution fit and solve the problem?

Customer-centrism as North Star

Customer obsession goes beyond quantitative and qualitative data about customers, and it moves around customers’ feedback to gather valuable insights. Those insights start by the entrepreneur’s wandering process, driven by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and a builder mindset. The product discovery moves around a building, reworking, experimenting, and iterating loop.

Disciplines like design thinking have become critical in these times, as they flipped the old business logic and moved the moats (competitive advantages) to the bottom of the company, its customers.

Business designers become the architects of business modeling

Business design enables organizations to deliberately craft a business model to prove sustainability in the marketplace by validating the building blocks of a business model. The business designer can help an organization to build a viable business model by readily testing its riskiest assumptions against the marketplace.

In that respect, UX designers have become among the key people that helped companies build valuable products for customers. And in that, the business design is the evolution of this approach where the whole business is built by gathering as much feedback from customers, thus iterating it quickly, to evolve it fast.

What’s next? The rise of Business Engineering

I argue, that the next step to this evolution is that of the Business Engineer, usually intended as a person using technology to build technical processes within the organization.

However, in the FourWeekMBA view, the Business Engineer is a hybrid between an entrepreneur, customer-centered business designer, and a business analyst, able to prevent false patterns, thus growing the business with a mixture of intuition, business acumen, testing, and experimentation.

Related frameworks

Business Model Canvas

The business model canvas is a framework proposed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur in Busines Model Generation enabling the design of business models through nine building blocks comprising: key partners, key activities, value propositions, customer relationships, customer segments, critical resources, channels, cost structure, and revenue streams.

Lean Startup Canvas

The lean startup canvas is an adaptation by Ash Maurya of the business model canvas by Alexander Osterwalder, which adds a layer that focuses on problems, solutions, key metrics, unfair advantage based, and a unique value proposition. Thus, starting from mastering the problem rather than the solution.

Blitzscaling Business Model Innovation Canvas

The Blitzscaling business model canvas is a model based on the concept of Blitzscaling, which is a particular process of massive growth under uncertainty, and that prioritizes speed over efficiency and focuses on market domination to create a first-scaler advantage in a scenario of uncertainty.

Other business resources:

Published by

Gennaro Cuofano

Gennaro is the creator of FourWeekMBA which reached over a million business students, executives, and aspiring entrepreneurs in 2020 alone | He is also Head of Business Development for a high-tech startup, which he helped grow at double-digit rate | Gennaro earned an International MBA with emphasis on Corporate Finance and Business Strategy | Visit The FourWeekMBA BizSchool | Or Get The FourWeekMBA Flagship Book "100+ Business Models"