Design thinking

An overview of the process, origins, present, and future of design thinking, with links to additional resources and templates for use with your teams.

Jump to:

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a creative problem-solving strategy that focuses on empathy to drive innovation and lead to better outcomes.

An illustration of icons related to design thinking

At its core, design thinking is tied to human-centered design, which looks at the way people engage and interact with the world, the possibilities that technology presents, and the marketplace for solutions. As design thinking is inextricably tied to empathy and understanding, it has often been used as a model to tackle what are referred to as ‘wicked problems’ (as defined by design theorist (Horst Rittel) — that is, problems that are highly complex, multi-faceted, and even ill-defined. By using design thinking to approach these problems, we can avoid pitfalls tied to surface-level understanding and the unintended consequences that follow solutions too basic to serve the real need.

No items found.

Steps of the design thinking process

Design thinking typically follows 5 primary phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These steps are not always linear, and designers often cycle through them multiple times to arrive at the best solution. The design thinking process is an iterative and human-centered approach to problem-solving that encourages experimentation, creativity, and collaboration.


The empathy step is critical because it helps designers understand the users and their needs, motivations, and pain points. This deep understanding of the users enables designers to create solutions that are more effective and user-friendly.


This step involves synthesizing the insights from the empathy phase and defining the problem to be solved.


The ideate step is about generating as many ideas as possible, without judging or evaluating them. This step encourages designers to think creatively and push the boundaries of what's possible.


The prototype step involves creating physical, digital, or graphical representations of the ideas generated in the ideation phase. Prototyping allows designers to test their ideas, gather feedback, and refine their solutions.


The test step is about evaluating the prototypes and gathering feedback from the users and stakeholders. This step helps designers identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments to the design.

No items found.

History of design thinking

While the concepts that come together in design thinking have existed forever, the modern strategy has its roots in the study of creative techniques from the first half of the 20th century. In the 1970s, works like The Universal Traveler, by Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall, as well as Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, by the aforementioned Rittel and Melvin Webber, helped to further define a discipline of design that applied to broad and multi-disciplinary problems.

Then, in the 1980s and 90s, human-centered design came to the fore, punctuated by the first symposium on Research in Design Thinking, held at Delft University, Netherlands, as well as by the formation of IDEO — the organization that is today closely associated with the codified discipline of Design Thinking, since popularized as a generalizable approach to problem solving by Stanford University’s, starting in 2005.

In 2010, the LUMA Institute was founded based on the idea of teaching human-centered design to organizations around the world, with the development of the LUMA System of Innovation.

This system and approach is now part of Mural, where we are continuing to drive the evolution of visual collaboration and design thinking practices through collaborative intelligence.

Collaboration design

As these frameworks became more formalized, the emergent field of collaboration design arose. Collaboration design brings focus and intentionality to the process of collaboration — in the words of Mural CEO, Mariano Suarez-Battan, “collaboration designers are the people who told us years ago we should come to meetings with agendas.” It is a field that has existed as long as there have been meetings, but it had never been formalized into a concrete set of practices until recently, with the launch of Mural’s Collaboration Intelligence System™

With collaboration design, facilitators learn and leverage a proven set of methods to make meetings more effective and engaging by fostering stronger connection, leading to more concrete takeaways and better business outcomes. 

No items found.

Design thinking exercises and examples

While it may seem complex or abstract when described in general terms, there are many easy-to-understand examples of design thinking in action.

The LUMA Institute broke the process down into three key categories: Looking, understanding, and making. From there, LUMA refined its practices into 36 core methods, which are instilled in a broad variety of established design thinking frameworks.

Design thinking exercise: Retrospectives

One of the most intuitive and basic uses of design thinking is retrospective analysis. The feedback categories for investigation can be broken down neatly into things that worked well, any struggles or issues, and any ideas to address those struggles.

Rose, Thorn, Bud Template

This framework helps build understanding and empathy by asking participants to identify things that are working well (roses), things that are negatively affecting the situation (thorns), and things that could blossom into solutions (buds). Next, cluster ideas that are similar to find common threads or themes.

Retrospective Radar Template

With this template, you can quickly evaluate a project or initiative in terms of successes, failures, and possibilities for improvements — and instantly start translating that feedback into actionable next steps.

Feedback Grid Template

Here, a simple grid allows you to collect and pre-organize feedback, making it easy to analyze and identify possible next steps.

There are also much more complex examples of design thinking strategies, involving identifying practices and mechanisms to drive desired outcomes.

Leveraging co-design to build a shared understanding with stakeholders

Co-design is a key component of design thinking, as it involves involving the end-users and stakeholders in the design process to ensure that the solution being created meets their needs and expectations.

This approach encourages collaboration and empathy, and it can lead to new insights, perspectives and ideas that would not have been uncovered through a traditional design process.

The Divergent and Convergent thinking method

Divergence and convergence is a problem-solving method that emphasizes empathy, experimentation, and iteration. It is a human-centered design approach that focuses on understanding people's needs, behaviors, and motivations to design creative solutions that meet those needs effectively.

Leveraging divergent and convergent thinking can have a number of benefits:

  • Increased creativity and innovation
  • Better decision-making
  • Human-centered design
  • Enhanced problem-solving
  • Improved collaboration

Use these pre-built templates to improve your post-mortem analysis and retrospectives with your team.

Design thinking in action

Scaling design thinking across a global organization at IBM

Leveraging design practices across various company-wide teams was difficult but not entirely impossible. Mural enabled IBM to successfully shift toward effective and efficient collaboration. Through Mural, IBM was able to help both designers and non-designers learn how to utilize digital co-creation tools and propagate design values with ease.

Asynchronous digital collaboration at Pearson 

Without the luxury of meeting regularly in person, Jen Moher Sepulveda and her distributed team at Pearson worked together digitally and asynchronously, whenever each individual could find time. Mural canvases, which they first began using in their journey mapping workshop, served as their digital workspaces. They were able to create their deliverables in a matter of weeks, a process that would have otherwise taken them months.

Ultimately, regardless of the individual situation or specific framework, applying design thinking always comes back to the same key practices: Looking carefully at the situation, developing a deep understanding, and building iterative solutions based on continual testing and analysis.

No items found.

Unlock the genius in your team

Anyone can visualize diagrams, flows, processes, and more in Mural to generate great ideas and solve complex problems. Work at the speed of thought alongside teammates, clients, or customers.

Get started with design thinking in Mural.