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.

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.

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Steps of the design thinking process

  • Identifying a problem that is affecting people: Are there particular obstacles or workarounds that you have observed? Are there data that you can reference to give more context to the problem?
  • Developing a deep understanding of the user perspective: Formulating questions, conducting interviews, and gathering feedback are key components of empathic design
  • Identifying patterns or commonalities: Once you’ve gathered feedback, it’s time to analyze the results and group similar ideas together, which will naturally suggest possible solutions
  • Ideating and building creative solutions: You have a strong grasp of the problem, and you’ve collected and analyzed the suggestions from your interviews — now, it’s time to brainstorm 
  • Challenging your assumptions: Once you’ve outlined your potential solutions, conduct tests to challenge your ideas and discover any unidentified weaknesses or alternatives
  • Iterating on your designs: Design, software, and science are all constantly evolving based on feedback loops — continue to track the successes and failures of your solutions to tweak them and make improvements over time
Illustrated icons symbolizing the six steps of design thinking
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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. 

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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.

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.

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Unlock the genius in your team

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More Design Thinking

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