Is it a mindset? Or a process? Or just useless business speak?

Let's investigate the meaning of design thinking.

What is the definition of design thinking?

Well, it's not quite as simple as looking up the Wikipedia definition of design thinking, which begins with the rather unhelpful line: 'Design thinking refers to design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.'

Design thinking means different things to different people. As Nathan Sinsabaugh, writing for Wired, comments, 'design is more like anthropology than physics'.

Design thinking is nuanced, and differs in process and governance depending on the company in question.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia delivers a degree of clarity with the second line of its definition; 'design thinking is a methodology not exclusive for designers, that helps people understand and develop creative ways to solve a specific issue, generally business oriented.'

So, it's essentially creative or design-led ways of solving issues. Let's try to pin it down a bit better...


Aren't there more specific definitions?

Design Week's recent series of features on design thinking (titled Age of Design) includes a roundtable discussion with various industry figures attempting to define design-led businesses.

In that discussion, David Kester remarks, "When I was at the Design Council we had to provide [a definition of design] to the Treasury to identify the role of design in the economy. It’s pretty hard and the only one we could find works only for some businesses. 

"It is design as the connection between creativity and innovation."

This is perhaps the most succinct and elegant definition, without touching on process. We can go further by looking at companies employing design thinking.

Arguably the most well-known description of design thinking comes from IDEO.

IDEO's approach is broken down into five key areas; empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This is what it means to design. 

More specifically, Fjord, the design and innovation consultancy owned by Accenture, outlines its approach to service design, which applies design thinking across five dimensions.

  • People: What are the needs, hopes, fears and pain points for people? They may be customers, staff or third party partners and suppliers.
  • Products: What products, physical and digital are in place and are they fit for purpose?
  • Place: Where are the products or services delivered and what is that experience like? For example, in a retail environment, a call centre, in the field or on a digital channel?
  • Process: Where are the inefficiencies, forms and frictions in the process?
  • Performance: What is the performance of the whole, from a customer perspective and from the perspective of the business?

These bullet points don't describe design per se, rather a framework on to which creative problem-solving can be applied.

We've written about service design before on the Econsultancy blog, and it is probably the main application of design thinking as far as marketers are concerned, though certainly not the only one.

Fjord's 'hello' video

Let's add a final definition of design thinking, this time from Ashton McGill, a consultancy in Scotland, which sums up the core values of design-led innovation as follows: 

  • Have an outside-in mindset.
  • Use empathy for users and stakeholders.
  • Embrace diversity.
  • Think holistically.
  • Collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams.
  • Generate many new ideas.
  • Rapid prototyping.
  • Fail early and often.

So, as these different definitions prove, design thinking is a blend of mindset, ways of working, and applied creativity in the pursuit of improvement/innovation.

Design as more than just a final polish 

One of the fundamentals of design thinking is the understanding that it is not a magic wand to be waved over a product as a final flourish.

Design must permeate every part of a customer's experience.

Brunner and Emery are authors of a celebrated book on companies that take a design-led approach (they chiefly discuss Apple), and they define design as an infrastructural element that helps define every aspect of a company.

This is perfectly encapsulated in a quote from former CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, who said: “A brand is a living entity—and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.” 

These small gestures require a focus of purpose that many digital startups are perfectly attuned to, and that is one of the many ingredients for disruption.

Ben Davis

Published 14 November, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (5)

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

I like the idea of design thinking. But perhaps the harder questions are - who 'owns' this internally at an organisation? And, what does this mean for the marketing function if design thinking is adopted? It's a bit like 'customer centricity'.... easy to agree with in principle but harder to execute in practice.

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Ashley - yes, I've got a few more posts ready that skirt handily around some of those issues, so watch this space. :)

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Jerome Doesn't it sort of work because thinking is a gerund? I'm not really very good at grammar., but the phrase seems to be a thing. What's your perspective as a product designer, rather than a grammarian?

over 1 year ago

Jerome Domurat

Jerome Domurat, Product Designer at greenGRIZZLY

As a Product Designer, my perspective is that editing and grammar are an important aspects of design. A large part of how a product communicates, is not just the visuals. Grammar is sometimes more important than the visuals in creating effective software interaction. I would like to see software designers expand the view that the visible language is an important aspect for effective design. Designers should be good at editing, grammar, and language.

The article is about language. Attempting to define an expanded term.

I’m saying, ‘Design thinking’ fails to communicate, because ‘Design’ already is ’Thinking.’ Repeating doesn’t make something clear unless it expands the meaning. I’ve seen this term being marketed in the industry, the reason I agree it is ‘useless business speak’ because the added term neglects what the definition of ‘design’ already is. It almost implies that there can be design without thinking.

Another way to examine this; strike out the term, ‘thinking’ from your article and read it out loud. Does the removal of the word, ‘thinking’ change the meaning of anything the article says about ‘design?’ If I read the entire article with the term, ‘thinking’ removed. The article becomes a thoughtful, well written article about, ‘Design.’

over 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Jerome Thanks. Cogent thoughts.

over 1 year ago

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