Design Thinking- 3 Insights

Design Thinking is one of the key methodologies being used by cutting edge companies to deal with digital disruption. Today we will explore three insights for a better understanding of Design Thinking, its founding principles, and how to begin to integrate Design Thinking .

  1. Not Just One Methodology

Design Thinking (DT) is not a new methodology. It arose in the 1950s and 1960s. The first writers and proponents of DT were John E. Arnold (‘Creative Engineering’, 1959), and L. Bruce Archer (‘Systematic Method for Designers’, 1965). DT is a process of creative problem solving and innovation. It is usually human centric, and seeks to balance elegance with functionality in the creation of products or services.

Today it is being re-discovered by companies as they struggle with digital disruption. Some are even applying it to management principles and business models. I believe it can also be applied more widely to the personal or social context. Here it can be embraced in everyday life for better decision-making, or balanced living, and what I like to call, ‘creative seeing’.

In innovation or startup circles, DT is usually considered alongside two other similar methodologies: the Lean Methodology, and the Agile Methodology. I do not have space to explore these other frameworks, suffice to say, like most things, managers should not have a one size fits all approach.

There are many definitions of DT. Personally I do not like definitions. I believe they are restrictive, and are inherently at odds with creative concepts. Foundational or first principles are better. They can ‘breathe’, and so fit better with creative ideas. Some key foundational principles of DT are-

  1. Solve Problems. Design is used to solve specific problems, not just to find difference or a niche.
  2. Human Focus. Design is used with human needs and wants in mind.
  3. Broader Focus. Design should also have broader issues in mind, including social and environmental factors. Modern problems are inter-connected and complex.
  4. Clear and Flexible Framework. Design is best used through a clear and flexible framework. This process should have specific steps. For instance, moving from Hypothesis through to Ideation and finally to Delivery.
  5. Kaizen. Apply constant improvement (Kaizen) to any outcome designed. This gives us a dynamic process.
  6. Applicable to Personal and Social Contexts. DT is applicable to personal and social contexts or problems. In fact, any problem needing divergent and convergent thinking to be working together can benefit from DT.
  7. Ethos of Creativity & Cultural Change. DT works best when it is instilled, part of an ethos of creativity or innovation in an organisation. It should not just live in the four walls of an innovation department. Design should flow through the entire company from board level to all employees. The corollary is clear- healthy design means cultural change.
  8. Applicable to Any Organisation. Creativity and DT are applicable to any business or organisation. All organisations are currently facing fast changing markets and increasingly complex global problems. Design and creativity can give birth to a unique culture, powerful systems, and like the natural world, an organisation can become adaptable. Adaptability and sustainability will become the hallmarks of long term success. This means DT is something for start ups, small to medium organisations, as well as large corporations or government departments.

We do not have the space to go through all of these key principles, so I will focus on the last two.

  1. Ethos of Creativity & Cultural Change

Many companies are dealing with digital disruption or innovation in a formal sense for the first time. The Uber experience has now become a clear watershed. The important issue for management is not just to set up an innovation department or get the appropriate consultant. The challenge is to embrace DT and creativity throughout the organisation.

Creativity and design need to become an ethos and become part of the inherent culture of the organisation. If we think of companies like Apple- the insights are clear. Design starts at the top and needs to flow through all of what the company does and stands for. From product to brand, to strategy, and to mission- even beyond just material objectives. Apple has some of the most loyal customers in the world. Why? Because creative, beautiful products led to a movement.

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Steve Jobs.

  1. Applicable to Any Organisation

Do not think DT is something reserved for large companies and other organisations. Some of the best companies employing a culture of creativity and design are startups, and even small to medium enterprises (SME). An app startup looking for a Breakthrough Strategy can benefit from DT. A family restaurant seeking to attract a new demographic, can benefit from DT. A multinational bank looking to build long term, trust based relationships, can benefit from DT.

“Good design makes a product understandable.”- Dieter Rams.

We should also not limit DT or creative problem solving methods to any industry sector. A quick list of companies using DT makes this clear: AirBnB, Braun, IBM, Marriott, GE, Phillips, Capital One, Lowes Hardware, BMW, Deutsche Bank and Lego.

Inclusion and Diversity

Where there are problems to solve, the creative mind has served us well for hundreds of years. The ancients, the enlightened thinkers of the Renaissance, and modern thinkers or innovators all knew this. It would be contradictory to put the power of the creative mind in a box. We are perhaps only still learning how to use it well. The creative mind is best used when entwined with analytical and other thinking styles. What is becoming clear, like the Renaissance, technology is ushering in a new, a broader, dynamic and inclusive set of styles and principles. Inclusion and diversity will continue to act as a timeless guiding light.

“The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.”- Leonardo da Vinci


Lee Spano, Creatness International,

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