Whilst all design processes could rightly be described as a process of creative thinking, design thinking is a collaborative, problem-solving approach that prioritises the needs and perspectives of the end-users of a product, service, or system. It involves understanding the user’s needs, brainstorming creative solutions, prototyping and testing those solutions, and iterating on them based on feedback.
The process is typically non-linear, meaning that it doesn’t follow a strict sequence of steps. Instead, it’s iterative, with each stage building on the previous one and leading to new insights and ideas. Design thinking encourages collaboration and cross-functional teamwork, with individuals from different disciplines and perspectives coming together to share their knowledge and expertise in the fields of ‘blue sky thinking’ ideation and innovation.
The “blue sky thinking” aspect of design thinking refers to the exploration of imaginative and unconventional ideas, without being limited by practical considerations, existing constraints or preconceptions, generating ideas that are innovative, unconventional, and potentially beyond the parameters of current day capabilities.
Ideation refers to the process of generating and developing new ideas. It involves gathering insights, exploring possibilities, and generating solutions to a specific challenge or problem. Ideation can be undertaken through brainstorming sessions, research, surveys, or other methods of collecting feedback and insights.
Innovation is the process of bringing new ideas, products, or services to the market. It involves taking creative ideas and turning them into real-world solutions that solve problems or address needs in a unique and valuable way. Innovation requires a combination of creativity, strategic thinking, and execution skills to bring new ideas to life and make a positive impact in the world.
Cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate, Herbert A Simon, was the first to mention design thinking in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial. He then went on to contribute many ideas throughout the 1970s which are now regarded as the base principles for design thinking, helping organisations develop innovative and effective solutions to complex product and communication problems.
He also conceived the process of rapid prototyping and testing through observation, for example—concepts which form the core of many design and entrepreneurial processes today, including two of the major phases in the typical design thinking process.
A large proportion of his work was also focused on the development of artificial intelligence and whether human forms of thinking could be synthesized—a topic which is very prevalent in the design world today. However, it is fair to say that design thinking has faced some criticism and challenges in its application. Some of the reasons why it may have “gone wrong” in some cases include:
- Oversimplification: Design thinking is sometimes presented as a silver bullet that can solve any problem, which can lead to oversimplification and a lack of appreciation for the complexity and nuance of real-world problems.
- Misuse: Design thinking can be misused or applied superficially, as a way to give the appearance of innovation or to follow a trend, rather than as a genuine effort to solve a problem.
- Lack of diversity and inclusion: Design thinking is based on empathy and understanding the needs of users, but if the designers and problem-solvers themselves lack diversity and inclusion, they may not be able to fully understand the needs and perspectives of different groups.
- Power imbalances: Design thinking can reinforce power imbalances if it is used to impose solutions on communities or users without their input or participation, or if it ignores the systemic issues that underlie a problem.
- Overemphasis on creativity and ideation: While creativity and ideation are important components of design thinking, they are only one part of the process. Without proper implementation and evaluation, even the most creative and innovative solution will not lead to positive change.
It is important to recognise that to be successful, design thinking depends on its careful and thoughtful application. While it has its limitations and challenges, it can be a valuable tool for addressing complex problems and creating meaningful change when used with a range of approaches and perspectives, including social and political action, systems thinking, and collaboration across disciplines and communities.