Viraj Almeida

5:43 PM, 17th Mar 2018

What is Design Thinking?

What is Design Thinking? I came across this question a couple of months ago, and a few times since then! It was not always asked of me, but it kept coming back - in my profession, with my colleagues and clients. I managed to give a familiar 'yes of course' look, trying to appear intelligent and relevant though didn't really have a clue! Have you come across such conversations too? And felt a sense of 'falling behind'! As if there are already not enough new trends and buzzwords to catch-up on!

From my own learning, I have come to understand that

Design Thinking is, in essence, Creative Problem Solving.

And this is not an 'over-simplification'. Surely, Design Thinking differs from (rather 'builds on') classical problem solving, in a way we shall shortly see. However, an easy handle is to look at it as Creative Problem Solving!

The Design Thinking methodology was used in the field of Design by designers, architects, and decorators, hence the word 'Design' in the name! It is now being increasingly used in other fields to resolve issues - such as new user experience for an online store, designing of customer loyalty program, or even to diagnose a social challenge of arresting growing junk food consumption among urban kids.

Probing a little deeper - One comes across a variety of Design Thinking approaches! Just try to look around online...! (hard to tell, nowadays, if information overload is serving clarity or confusion). To keep things simple, I have provided below one rather commonly used model.

Design Thinking Model (This has 8 Steps): Just a quick trip of 8 titles could do.

(Credit :

Now let's see the Classical Problem Solving model, as we all know...

Classical Problem Solving Model:

  1. Understand Root Cause
  2. List Potential Solution Options (Alternatives)
  3. Evaluate and Finalize Best Option
  4. Implement

and now putting together the 2 models in a single frame...

What is Common? :

  1. Design Thinking like Problem Solving is a methodology to move from 'Things as they are' to 'Things as they ought to be'. Or the way consultants speak to move from 'As-Is' situation to 'To-Be' scenario.
  2. Again, Design thinking also relies on combination of analytical (Convergent) and creative (Divergent) thinking

What is different or new? (Rather, how Design Thinking takes problem solving to next level)

  1. Design Thinking is not linear in approach. There is nothing strict or rigid about Sequence of steps to be followed. You could jump across or give & take inputs across different steps - from 'Idea generation' you could go back to 'Discovery' phase to validate understanding of the problem or the business scenario. So the approach is kind of Spiral than Linear as you can see in the Model 1 Picture.
  2. Design Thinking puts equal emphasis on showing ideas light of the day. It is about going ahead with execution and quick prototyping than being prisoner of over analysis. In Classical Problem solving the process is perceived as more 'cerebral' - a thinking activity that exclusively takes place inside the head- and so typically disconnected from the action and the business floor.

Design Thinking suggests putting promising ideas into working items as quickly as possible. And this emphasis on prototyping means increased involvement of people (users/customers/employees) across the process. People involvement is crucial, not only to finalise a best-fit solution but importantly, to pinpoint accurately, root cause or business challenge in the first place!

So, you see, it is not just thinking, it is

Thinking - Executing - Improvising!

I hope this write-up succeeds to an extent in de-mystifying 'Design Thinking'. Hopefully, it also makes you comfortable talking about and trying this approach wherever you are! If you are a Design Thinking practitioner/expert, please look upon this attempt with generosity...:-). And definitely, leave your valuable insights below.

P.S. (about the title picture): The boy in the picture is Richard Turere. He is a 13-year old boy from Kenya, who in my view embodies the spirit of Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking.I often share his story in my workshops! With a little formal education he went on to solve an issue that threatened his family and community near Nairobi - his story is a great case of design thinking at work! You will get to see and hear it from Richard himself, in his TED appearance, here!

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