Introduction to Design Thinking

Design thinking was previously limited to product design and website creation. However, it is now a full-fledged discipline that is used not just to enhance the look and feel of an end product but also to bolster creativity in various fields, from mobile applications to construction, from healthcare to project management, and so on.    

[Source Credit:]

The Design Management Institute and Motiv Strategies developed some criteria derived from values, structures, and actions commonly followed by corporate design exemplars. Sixteen US companies were included, like Apple, IBM, The Coca-Cola Company, etc. In 2014, after a 10-year study, these design-driven companies showed a 219% hike in returns on the Design Value Index (DVI) as opposed to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (S&P 500).

What is Design Thinking?

Peter Rowe’s Design Thinking (1987), which described methods and approaches utilized by architects and urban planners during the designing process, initiated the usage of this term.

Design thinking now stands for:


A discipline or a methodology that uses the designer’s perspective for creative and practical resolutions and solutions to reach a better and improved result. These solutions are attained after careful considerations of current and future conditions along with parameters.

The main point of difference between design thinking and problem-solving is, the former does not limit itself to solving the problems at hand whereas the latter method employs brainstorming sessions with the sole ambition of solving the problems only.

During cognitive activities, designers see a problem as a means to open a dialogue and can completely do away with those to come up with a wholly new idea from a totally different perspective. The discipline is more solution-based as it uses divergent thinking to explore, dissect, and analyze all kinds of possible results. It then uses convergent thinking to synthesize all the probable solutions and come up with the best result. Since there is no limit to exploring options during the ideation phase, assumptions from all participants are taken under consideration without a screening process in place to let hidden gems or contingencies surface objectively.

From a business perspective, design thinking means:

  1. Utilizing a designer’s ideas in business either by making the designer be involved in the business or let businessmen earn a first-hand training from the designer
  2. Designers create new ideas or products

“Design Thinking is the creative and systematic approach to problem-solving by placing the user at the center of the experience.” – Prof. Anthony Mayo, Harvard Business School 

Design Thinking Principles & Approach

There are four principles of design thinking:

  1. People-centric – Rather than service or product-specific, it is an activity that is social in nature
  2. Optional – Having options allows room for more ideas to emerge
  3. Re-designable – Any design can be redesigned. There is no rule other than to reach the goal with a better result
  4. Tangible – Ideas must be substantial


Design Thinking – The Stanford Model

The Times Makeover

David M. Kelley made design thinking a primary strategy when he found IDEO, a design firm, in 1991. The firm has helped various organizations, both in public and private sectors, to come up with people-centric, design-based approaches. On the official website, IDEO claims “Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach, which IDEO calls design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.”

“Put simply, design thinking uses a designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” - Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO 

Value Addition of Design Thinking to Project Management

There are six areas where design thinking adds real value to project management:

  1. Increase in Confidence – Since the project team is working closely with the client, both parties end up reaching the goal by imbibing a better form of communication, common understanding, and confidence. As soon as both start trusting each other’s opinions, the project team and the client open up to new ideas and come up with better solutions.


  1. Defining the Problem – Different individuals may site different problems to achieve a desired goal. If a meeting occurs, all the parties can put forward their problems and a common understanding can be reached about the key problem areas. Recognizing the problems make the problem-solving easier as solutions start pouring in from all involved. Abductive thinking creates a mindset where the people are focused on defining the problem first before plunging into the solution, unlike traditional project management


  1. Bigshot Involvement – To keep the project heading forward, the bigshots in the project need to be present during every phase. This will enable the Design Thinking team to have a hands-on experience of the customer needs and they will strive to incorporate those needs in the creative process. Since all realize the big picture, everyone knows the role they need to play to achieve the goals.
  2. Risk Management – Where there are projects, there are risks. Risks never appear early and it becomes hard for a project manager to control the project when they pop up. The framework of design thinking allows both the team and the customer to locate risks early in the process and mitigate those upon receiving feedback from end-users and stakeholders.
  3. Collaborative Success or Failure - Solutions are always a collaborative effort in design thinking. This makes all involved equally responsible for the project’s success or failure. Nobody wants to get the blame for project failure, so shouldering the responsibility of failure becomes easier as a group and all try not to do the same mistakes again.
  4. Support of the Management - A project can never be successful without the support of the management. The management is present during the research phase where problems are identified. They are called upon to receive feedback for the ongoing progress at a later stage as well. This involvement allows the management to be aware of the efforts put in. Having a vision of the true picture, management support becomes easier to achieve.
  5. Failure is the Key to Success – Unlike other methodologies, design thinking is not focused on success. It collects all the ideas and tries them out by creating a prototype of the final product. This enables a real-time user experience from which the team can learn about the areas that need improvement. If one idea fails, there are dozens of others in the queue. In a traditional project management model, ideas pour in, the best is chosen, and the product creation phase is initiated with the notion that the ideal solution or vision for the product has been selected. The success of the vision is not known until the final delivery. If the product is not as per the client’s expectation, very few alternatives are left for revision phase.

Challenges While Applying Design Thinking

  1. Executive management needs to participate in the project, which is not possible all the time.
  2. People do not like change. If design thinking is introduced for the first time, people would hesitate to ideate initially.
  3. Even though IDEO has elaborated on design thinking, the discipline does not have a fixed definition or process to follow. Its flexibility to adapt to any situation is a hindrance to companies that are used to standards in methodologies.
  4. Design thinking lacks a KPI-driven framework. This becomes harder for the project manager to deduce if the direction taken will give positive returns.



Design thinking is a tried-and-tested method of problem-solving which any business or profession can use. It brings together critical as well as creative thinking processes to help in better decision-making. It creates a mindset which is freed from the shackles of failure, hierarchy, and traditional thinking.

To encourage a project team in imbibing design thinking faster, a leader needs to see himself as a product that can go through several iterations before the final product is created. He has to act as a catalyst to instill empathy, positive attitude, curiosity, and a collaborative mindset among his teammates.

Usually, a project team is focused more on solving a problem than thinking of the problem. This does not allow the team to ideate further or find another alternative. If design thinking is to be taken into consideration when a new strategy is being developed or the company is going through change management, it will form an organizational culture that is inclined more towards solution-based thinking. Although shifting the outlook can be a bit difficult for larger companies, Apple and Google have imbibed it successfully. As design thinking can be used for products, processes, services, and lots of other fields, the benefits overwhelm the initial creep.