Design thinking stands for design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.1


Design thinking has come to be defined as combining empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context.2 According to Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, the goal of Design Thinking is "matching people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy" 3 The premise of teaching Design Thinking is that by knowing about how to successfully approach and solve difficult, multi-dimentional problems, more specifically; effective methods to ideate, select and execute solutions, individuals and businesses will be able to improve their own problem solving processes and skills. There is also significant academic interest in understanding how designers think and design cognition.4 The first formal academic research symposium on Design Thinking was organized at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, in 1991, and has developed into a regular series.5

Origins of the term

(For a detailed evolution, see History, below.)

The notion of design as a "way of thinking" in the sciences can be traced to Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial,6 and in design engineering to Robert McKim's 1973 book Experiences in Visual Thinking.7 Rolf Faste expanded on McKim's work at Stanford in the 80's and 90's,89 teaching "design thinking" as a method of creative action."10 Peter Rowe's 1987 book Design Thinking, which described methods and approaches used by architects and urban planners, was a significant early usage of the term in the design research literature.11 "Design Thinking" was adapted for business purposes by Faste's Stanford colleague David M. Kelley, who founded IDEO in 1991.12Richard Buchanan's 1992 article, entitled "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking",13 expressed a broader view of "design thinking" as addressing intractable human concerns through design.

Solution-based thinking

Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result. In this regard it is a form of solution-based, or solution-focused thinking; starting with a goal (a better future situation) instead of solving a specific problem. By considering both present and future conditions and parameters of the problem, alternative solutions may be explored simultaneously. Cross asserted that this type of thinking most often happens in the built, or artificial, environment (as in artifacts).14

This approach differs from the analytical scientific method, which begins with thoroughly defining all the parameters of the problem in order to create a solution. Design Thinking identifies and investigates with both known and ambiguous aspects of the current situation in order to discover hidden parameters and open alternative paths which may lead to the goal. Because Design Thinking is iterative, intermediate "solutions" are also potential starting points of alternative paths, including redefining of the initial problem.

Bryan Lawson - Architects vs. Scientists

In 1972 psychologist, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson conducted an empirical study to investigate the difference between problem-focused solvers and solution-focused solvers. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-layer structures from a set of colored blocks. The perimeter of the structure had to optimize either the red or the blue color; however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.

Lawson found that:

The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximise the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimise the required colour around the layout. [problem-focused] By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately coloured perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favourably coloured block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered. [solution-focused]15

Nigel Cross concluded that Lawson's studies suggested that scientists problem solve by analysis, while designers problem solve by synthesis.14 Kelley and Brown argue that Design Thinking utilizes both analysis and synthesis.

Analysis versus synthesis

The terms analysis and synthesis come from (classical) Greek and mean literally "to loosen up" and "to put together" respectively. In general, analysis is defined as the procedure by which we break down an intellectual or substantial whole into parts or components. Synthesis is defined as the opposite procedure: to combine separate elements or components in order to form a coherent whole. However, analysis and synthesis, as scientific methods, always go hand in hand; they complement one another. Every synthesis is built upon the results of a preceding analysis, and every analysis requires a subsequent synthesis in order to verify and correct its results.16

Divergent thinking versus convergent thinking

Design Thinkers also use divergent thinking and convergent thinking to explore many possible solutions. Divergent thinking is the ability to offer different, unique or variant ideas adherent to one theme while convergent thinking is the ability to find the "correct" solution to the given problem. Design thinking encourages divergent thinking to ideate many solutions (possible or impossible) and then uses convergent thinking to prefer and realize the best resolution.

Design thinking as a process for problem-solving

Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a process which includes the "building up" of ideas, with few, or no, limits on breadth during a "brainstorming" phase. This helps reduce fear of failure in the participant(s) and encourages input and participation from a wide variety of sources in the ideation phases. The phrase Outside the box thinking has been coined to describe one goal of the brainstorming phase and is encouraged, since this can aid in the discovery of hidden elements and ambiguities in the situation and discovering potentially faulty assumptions.

One version of the design thinking process has seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.6 Within these seven steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren't linear; can occur simultaneously and be repeated. A more simplified expression of the process is Robert McKim's phrase; "Express-Test-Cycle".

  • Decide what issue you are trying to resolve.
  • Agree on who the audience is.
  • Prioritize this project in terms of urgency.
  • Determine what will make this project successful.
  • Establish a glossary of terms.
  • Review the history of the issue; remember any existing obstacles.
  • Collect examples of other attempts to solve the same issue.
  • Note the project supporters, investors, and critics.
  • Talk to your end-users, that brings you the most fruitful ideas for later design.
  • Take into account thought leaders' opinions.
  • Identify the needs and motivations of your end-users.
  • Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs.
  • Log your brainstorming session.
  • Do not judge or debate ideas.
  • During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time.
  • Combine, expand, and refine ideas.
  • Create multiple drafts.
  • Seek feedback from a diverse group of people, include your end users.
  • Present a selection of ideas to the client.
  • Reserve judgement and maintain neutrality.
  • Create and present actual working prototype(s)
  • Review the objective.
  • Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas.
  • Avoid consensus thinking.
  • Remember: the most practical solution isn't always the best.
  • Select the powerful ideas.
  • Make task descriptions.
  • Plan tasks.
  • Determine resources.
  • Assign tasks.
  • Execute.
  • Deliver to client.
  • Gather feedback from the consumer.
  • Determine if the solution met its goals.
  • Discuss what could be improved.
  • Measure success; collect data.
  • Document.

Although design is always influenced by individual preferences, the design thinking method shares a common set of traits, mainly; Creativity, Ambidextrous thinking,9 Teamwork, User-Centerdness (Empathy), Curiosity and Optimism.

An alternative, five phase, description of the process, as described by Hasso Plattner, is;

  • (re)Define the Problem - Design Never Ends
  • Needfinding and Benchmarking - Understand the users, design space
  • Bodystorm - Ideate
  • Prototype - Build
  • Test - Learn

The path through these process steps is not strictly circular. Plattner states; "While the stages are simple enough, the adaptive expertise required to chose the right inflection points and appropriate next stage is a high order intellectual activity that requires practice and is learnable."17

Attributes of design thinking


Plattner asserts that there are four rules to Design Thinking;18

  • The Human Rule: All Design Activity Is Ultimately Social in Nature
  • The Ambiguity Rule: Design Thinkers Must Preserve Ambiguity
  • The Re-design Rule: All Design Is Re-design
  • The Tangibility Rule: Making Ideas Tangible Always Facilitates Communication

Wicked problems

Design Thinking is especially useful when addressing what Buchanan referred to as "wicked problems". Wicked problems which are ill-defined or tricky, as opposed to wicked in the sense of malicious.19 With ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving exercise. This is as opposed to "tame" or "well-defined" problems where the problem is clear, and the solution is available through some technical knowledge.20

For wicked problems, the general thrust of the problem may be clear, however considerable time and effort is spent in order to clarify the requirements. A large part of the problem solving activity, then, consists of problem definition and problem shaping.11

The A-Ha moment

The "A-Ha Moment" is the moment where there is suddenly a clear forward path.21 It is the point in the cycle where synthesis and divergent thinking, analysis and convergent thinking, and the nature of the problem all come together and an appropriate resolution has been captured. Prior to this point, the process may seem nebulous, hazy and inexact. At this point, the path forward is so obvious that in retrospect it seems odd that it took so long to recognize it. After this point, the focus becomes more and more clear as the final product is constructed.22

Resistance, fear and the devil's advocate

There are factors which can slow or halt the Design Thinking process; Fear, Resistance and Playing the Devil's Advocate. These attitudes introduce destructive negativity.

Fear of failure or criticism may prevent someone from even beginning apply methods and processes to achieve their goals. Both have psychological effects which divert someone from focusing on solutions and shifting their focus to doubts of self-worth, anxieties of "will it be good enough," or procrastination..."23

Resistance can inhibit Design Thinking by reprioritizing the main goal and shifting efforts to other tasks which may need to be done. 24 Donald Schön talks about the resistance of students towards their professors and the resistance of professors towards students in the learning process.25

Playing the "Devil's Advocate" is constant nay-saying; making authoritative assertions as to why every proposed solution will not work. It is an embodiment of negative criticism. Devil's Advicates kill projects by shifting the focus from potential solutions to hypercritical issues with ambiguous effects. The goal is to stop further ideation towards a solution, which, according to Tom and Dave Kelley, ought to be "banned from the room".26

Methods and process

Design methods and design process are often used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two.

Design methods are techniques, rules, or ways of doing things which are employed within a design discipline. The methods for Design Thinking include interviewing, creating user profiles, looking at other existing solutions, creating prototypes, mind-mapping, asking questions like the "Five-Whys" and situational analysis.

Because of Design Thinking's parallel nature, there are many different paths through the phases. This is part of the reason Design Thinking may seem to be "fuzzy" or "ambiguous" when compared to more analytical, Cartesian methods of science and engineering.

Some early Design Processes stemmed from Soft Systems Methodology in the 1960s. Koberg and Bagnall's wrote The All New Universal Traveller in 1972 and presented a circular, seven-step process to problem-solving. These seven steps could be done lineally or in feed-back loops.27 Stanford's developed an updated seven step process in 2007.28 Other expressions of design processes have been proposed, including a three-step simplified triangular process (or the six-part, less simplified pyramid) by Bryan Lawson15 and Hugh Dubberly's e-book How Do You Design: A compendium of models.29

The use of visual analogy in design thinking and learning

Ill-defined problems often contain higher-order and obscure relationships. Design Thinking can address these through the use of analogies. An understanding of the expected results, or lack of domain-related knowledge for the task, may be developed by correlating different internal representations, such as images, to develop an understanding of the obscure or ill-defined elements of the situation. The process involves several complex cognitive mechanisms, as the design task often has elements in multiple cognitive domains—visual, mathematical, auditory or tactile—requiring the usage of multiple "languages", like visual thinking.

Differences from science and humanities

Although many design fields have been categorized as lying between Science and the Arts and Humanities, design may be seen as its own distinct way of understanding the world, based on solution-based problem solving, problem shaping, synthesis, and appropriateness in the built environment.

One of the first Design Science theorists, John Chris Jones, postulated that design was different than the arts, sciences and mathematics in the 1970s. In response to the question 'is designing an art, a science or a form of mathematics' Jones responded:

The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present (whether it is real or symbolic), while mathematicians operate on abstract relationships that are independent of historical time. Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.30

Design can be seen as its own culture in education, with its own methods and ways of thinking which can be systematically taught in both K-12 and higher education. Nigel Cross sets out to show the differences between the humanities, the sciences, and design in his paper "Designerly Ways of Knowing". He observed that:

The phenomenon of study in each culture is
  • in the sciences: the natural world
  • in the humanities: human experience
  • in design: the artificial world
The appropriate methods in each culture are
  • in the sciences: controlled experiment, classification, analysis
  • in the humanities: analogy, metaphor, evaluation
  • in design: modeling, pattern-forming, synthesis
The values of each culture are
  • in the sciences: objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for 'truth'
  • in the humanities: subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for 'justice'
  • in design: practicality, ingenuity, empathy , and a concern for 'appropriateness'14

The language of design

Designers communicate in a visual31 or an object language.14 Symbols, signs, and metaphors are used through the medium of sketching, diagrams and technical drawings to translate abstract requirements into concrete objects. The way designers communicate, then, is through understanding this way of coding design requirements in order to produce built products.32

Design thinking in business

Design thinking has two common interpretations in the business world:[citation needed]

  1. Designers bringing their methods into business - by either taking part themselves in business process, or training business people to use design methods.
  2. Designers achieving innovative outputs, for example: 'the iPod is a great example of design thinking.'

The first has been described by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, at a TED lecture,33 though his blog34 also considers an element of the second.

The limits of the first kind of design thinking in business are also being explored. Not all problems yield to design thinking alone, where it may be a 'temporary fix'.35 Design thinking companies including IDEO and Sense Worldwide are responding to this by building business thinking capabilities.36

In organization and management theory, design thinking forms part of the Architecture/Design/Anthropology (A/D/A) paradigm, which characterizes innovative, human-centered enterprises. This paradigm also focuses on a collaborative and iterative style of work and an abductive mode of thinking, compared to practices associated with the more traditional Mathematics/Economics/Psychology (M/E/P) management paradigm.37

Companies that integrate the principles of design thinking in their innovation processes often share a certain mindset or are striving to cultivate a more creative and human-centred company culture.


pre-1960 The origins of new design methods in the 1960s lay further back in the application of novel, 'scientific' methods to the pressing problems of the 2nd World War from which came operational research methods and management decision-making techniques, and in the development of creativity techniques in the 1950s. Harold van Doren published "Industrial Design - A Practical Guide to Product Design and Development", which includes discussions of design methods and practices, in 1940.
1960s The beginnings of computer programs for problem solving, the so-called soft-systems approach.

The 1960s marked a desire to "scientize" design through use of the computer science soft-systems approach.38

1962 The First 'Conference on Design Methods,' London, UK.

Books on methods and theories of design in different fields being to be published: Asimow (1962) (Engineering),39 Alexander (1964) (Patterns),40 L. Bruce Archer (1965) (Industrial Design),41 Jones (1970) (Architecture).42

The first books on methods of creativity are published; Gordon (1961),43 Osborn (1963).44

1965 L. Bruce Archer, professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art argues that design was "not merely a craft-based skill but should be considered a knowledge-based discipline in its own right, with rigorous methodology and research principles incorporated into the design process" and states; – "The most fundamental challenge to conventional ideas on design has been the growing advocacy of systematic methods of problem solving, borrowed from computer techniques and management theory, for the assessment of design problems and the development of design solutions."4145
1969 Herbert A. Simon notable for his research in artificial intelligence and cognitive sciences establishes a "Science of Design" which would be "a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process."46

Visual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim publishes his book "Visual Thinking," which inspires the teaching of ME101: Visual Thinking, by Robert McKim, in the School of Engineering at Stanford University.

1970s Notable for the rejection of design methodology by many, including some of the early pioneers.

Christopher Alexander, architect and theorist wrote – "I've disassociated myself from the field. There is so little in what is called 'design methods' that has anything useful to say about how to design buildings that I never even read the literature anymore. I would say forget it, forget the whole thing."47

John Chris Jones, designer and design thinking theorist stated - "In the 1970s I reacted against design methods. I dislike the machine language, the behaviourism, the continual attempt to fix the whole of life into a logical framework."48

1973 Robert McKim publishes Experiences in Visual Thinking.7 which includes "Express, Test, Cycle" (ETC) as an iterative backbone for design processes.

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber write Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning showing that design and planning problems are Wicked Problems as opposed to "tame", single disciplinary, problems of science.

Horst Rittel also proposes that the developments of the 1960s had been only 'first generation' methods (which naturally, with hindsight, seemed a bit simplistic, but nonetheless had been a necessary beginning) and that a new second generation was beginning to emerge."49 This suggestion was clever, because it let the methodologists escape from their commitment to inadequate 'first generation' methods, and it opened a vista of an endless future of generation upon generation of new methods.50

1979 L. Bruce Archer starts off the next decade's inquiry into designerly ways of knowing stating – "There exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating, and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry when applied to its own kinds of problems."51
1980s Systemic engineering design methods are developed, particularly in Germany and Japan. The International Conferences on Engineering Design (ICED) is formed.

A series of books on engineering design are published: Hubka (1982),52 Pahl and Beitz (1984),53 French (1985),54 Cross (1989),55 and Pugh (1991).56

A series of Design Journals begin to be published: Design Studies in 1979, Design Issues appeared in 1984, and Research in Engineering Design in 1989.

Other important developments: Publications of the Design Methods Group and the conferences of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). The National Science Foundation initiative on design theory and methods led to substantial growth in engineering design methods in the late-1980s. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) launched its series of conferences on Design Theory and Methodology.

The 1980s also sees the rise of human-centered design and the rise of design-centered business management.

1980 Bryan Lawson, professor of architecture at University of Sheffield, publishes How Designers Think57 about design cognition in the context of Architecture and Urban Planning.
1982 Nigel Cross, Professor of Design Studies and Editor of Design Studies Journal writes Designerly Ways of Knowing showing Design as its own culture to be taught in schools by contrasting it with Science culture and Arts and Humanities culture. This is based on the idea that "There are things to know, ways of knowing them and ways of finding out about them that are specific to the design area."14
1983 Donald Schön, professor and theorist in organizational learning, pens his seminal text Educating the Reflective Practitioner in which he sought to establish "an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which [design and other] practitioners bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict."58
1986 The business management strategy Six Sigma emerges as a way to streamline the design process for quality control and profit.
1987 Peter Rowe, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, publishes Design Thinking.11
1988 Rolf Faste, director of the design program at Stanford, creates "Ambidextrous Thinking," a required class for graduate product design majors that extends McKim's process of visual thinking to design as a "whole-body way of doing."9
1990s Ideas of organizational learning and creating nimble businesses come to the forefront.
1991 IDEO combines from three industrial design companies. They are one of the first design companies to showcase their design process, which draws heavily on the Stanford curriculum.
1992 Richard Buchanan's article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking"13 is published.

Ikujiro Nonaka writes The Knowledge-Creating Company59 on how to transfer knowledge from expert to novice within a business based on the work of Michael Polanyi's tacit versus explicit knowledge.

2000s The 2000s brought a significant increase in interest in design thinking as the term becomes popularized in the business press. Books written for the business sector about how to create a more design-focused workplace where innovation can thrive: Florida (2002),60 Pink (2006),61 Martin (2007),62 Gladwell (2008),63 Brown (2009),64 Lockwood (2010).65

This shift of design thinking away from the product fields and into the business sector sparks a debate about the hijacking and exploitation of design thinking. According to Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO, in the end of 2000, Lavrans Løvlie, Ben Reason and Chris Downs, joined forces to found live|work, an UK based design consultancy firm which opens up for business on the basis that the design approach should be extended and adapted to tackle the design of services.66 This marks the beginning of the service design consultancy firms movement worldwide.

2005 Stanford University begins to teach engineering students "Design Thinking" as a formal method. Known as the "".67
2007 Hasso- Plattner-Institute for IT Systems Engineering in Potsdam, Germany establishes a Design Thinking program.67
2008 Hasso- Plattner-Institute Design Thinking Research Program started at Stanford.68
2013 Radford University begins offering an online Master of Fine Arts in Design Thinking


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Further reading

  • Cross, Nigel. "Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work." Oxford UK and New York: Berg, 2011.
  • Cross, Nigel. "Designerly Ways of Knowing." London UK and Boston MA: Birkhauser Verlag AG, 2007.
  • Gänshirt, Christian: Tools for Ideas. An Introduction to Architectural Design. Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhäuser Verlag AG, 2007, ISBN 978-3-7643-7577-5.
  • Faste, Rolf. "The Human Challenge in Engineering Design." International Journal of Engineering Education, vol 17, 2001.
  • Kelly, Tom. "Ten Faces of Innovation." London: Profile, 2006.
  • Lawson, Bryan. "How Designers Think." Oxford UK: Architectural Press/Elsevier, 2006.
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