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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.

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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does Design Thinking Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

The discourse around 21st century problem solving is gradually shifting from design thinking to systems thinking. At Foresight, we leverage approaches from both fields of practice. But let’s start by unpacking: What does design thinking even mean?

The notion of design as a "way of thinking" dates back, at least, to the late 1960s and early 1970s with the writings of Herbert A. Simon (one of the grandfathers of artificial intelligence) and Robert McKim (a design engineer). In 1980, Bryan Lawson published How Designers Think, an empirical investigation into the different problem-solving approaches of designers and scientists, which really began to spell out the design process. And since the mid-1980s, Standford University professors have been training students in "design thinking as a method of creative action." Design thinking was originally applied to the business context by David Kelley, who founded the design and innovation company IDEO in 1991.

In an attempt to define it, design thinking is an innovation (or problem solving) methodology that employs the creative strategies used within professional design practice to address a broader set of problems, including business and social issues. 

The cyclical process of design thinking typically involves at least three major steps:

1. Define: Creating a clear problem statement or question is arguably the most important step of the process. The problem statement strives to capture the “user’s” perspective, and is typically informed by observing their experiences within the current conditions. 

2. Ideate: This phase is about generating as many options for solving the problem as possible. If the solution seems obvious, that is all the more reason to throw more ideas up for consideration. It is easy to fall into the trap of addressing a problem the same way every time, without any real impact. So the more people and perspectives at the ideation table, the better. There are a number of ways to select a few directions from the pile, but eventually you end up with a handful of promising ideas.

3. Prototype: Take the promising ideas and test them by creating rough prototypical products or experiences. Get feedback from real potential users and refine them. Not all the initial ideas will make it through this phase, and those that do will look very different than when they started. But prototyping is a low cost, low risk testing and development process to identify the ideas that are worth investing in. 

Now decades old, this methodology has proven its value in thinking anew about problems across a wide range of sectors and industries. However, it does have its shortcomings, especially when tackling more complex challenges that require systems thinking. More on that next week.