Design Thinking is for Everyone

Photo by jplenio at

What do people need or want? 

Every day at work I ask this question at least once an hour. It’s second nature for me. Creating social media content means always being concerned with what people need and want to engage with. Success at my job requires a strategy that puts people at the center of the decision-making process. Will people read this story? Will people like this photo? What trend are people talking about today?


Design thinking has rapidly grown in popularity in recent years thanks to major proponents like Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. Brown defines design thinking as, “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos.”  

Design thinking puts the topics of emotion, intuition, and human behavior at the core of the problem-solving process. If you are more accustom to the analytical problem-solving approaches traditionally used in business, you may be uncomfortable at the prospect of focusing on these subjective areas. 

Not to worry. Focusing on people does not mean becoming a tortured artist freely going down creative rabbit holes at the expense of productivity or budget. One of the beauties of design thinking is that it balances what people desire with what is technologically feasible and what is viable for a business. It’s not a one or the other approach.  

Design thinking as described by Tim Brown and IDEO.

When faced with 2 opposing, unsatisfying options, a design thinker looks to create a new, better, and unthought-of third option that encompasses the best elements of the original 2. Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, calls this approach integrative thinking

Integrative thinking visualized by the Rotman School of Management.

Design thinking is thus more capable of increasing innovation and solving complex problems such as bringing sanitation systems to Cambodia, reinventing solar energy supply in rural Africa, or providing better, faster service to support people with developmental disabilities. Design thinking encourages and generates original thought and optimistically believes incremental improvement is always possible. 

Unfortunately, humans are naturally attracted to repeating patterns. As a result, traditional business thinking often relies on known information and ideas in order to solve a problem, which often results in essentially the same solutions branded as new. 

On the other hand, design thinking pushes to discover the unknown in order to reframe a problem and create better solutions. It does so through a prescribed process within which you can engage in brainstorming or out of the box thinking without fear of losing sight of a project’s goal, deadlines, or budget. 


Design thinking process visualized by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (
  1. Empathize: Learn everything about users’ needs through interviews, surveys, and observations without making assumptions or judgements. Design thinkers are as inclusive of as many perspectives as possible. The goal at this step is to collect honest and holistic data from which to gain insights 
  2.  Define: Use the insights from step 1 to find the problem that needs solving and create a human and user-centered problem statement. The problem believed to exist at the start of a project may not be the actual problem that needs to be addressed. Design thinkers are always open to changing or refining the problem throughout the process. 
  3. Ideate: Engage in brainstorming to define as many options for solving the problem as possible, including the craziest ideas. Design thinking uses this divergent approach because even if crazy ideas are not realistic, they can inspire and reveal new and valuable insights. 
  4. Prototype: Take ideas generated in step 3 and build experimental iterations of them to be shared with users. These prototypes can be simple and made of inexpensive materials.
  5. Test: Share your prototype with users to receive feedback in order to gain further insight and refine your idea. 


Business around the world are recognizing the value of the design thinking process to solve their problems. In the early 2000s, Proctor & Gamble (P&G) CEO A.G. Lafley made the important connection that whenever the company’s work didn’t align with their mantra of “consumer is boss” their success waned.  

He recognized that designers always put people first in their work, so he tasked the head of P&G’s design group, Claudia Kotchka, with teaching the company to think like a designer. Kotchka changed the narrow practice of just looking at how people use the company’s products to a practice of examining how people do daily activities overall. This wider focus allowed the company to see more opportunities for innovation. 

Oil of Olay’s use of design thinking as visualized by the Harvard Business Review.

For example, the video above outlines how P&G used the design thinking process to help their struggling Oil of Olay skincare line. Using the process, they discovered their products and marketing were built to appeal only to consumers over 50 who were worried about wrinkles.

Because of this knowledge, they created a new product formula to attract the market segments they had been missing and then ideated, prototyped and tested displays, advertising, and prices. The solution they created through the design thinking process was popular amongst a range of consumers and brought success to the brand. 

It’s important to note that, although design thinking is presented as a step-by-step- process here, it is actually a nonlinear process.  

The nonlinear nature of the design thinking process visualized by the Interaction Design Foundation.

With the goal of finding the root problem and the best possible solution, the design thinking process allows you to return to any previous step at any point in the process in order to deal with unexpected discoveries or problems as they occur.

This flexibility limits those “point of no return” situations and means you are less likely to force through a solution with a known flaw just because you have moved on to a different stage of the project. Circling back and exploring the flaw is framed as part of the progressive process in refining the solution rather than as a setback. In the video below, for example, the design thinker returns to ideating and prototyping his solution for elderly mobility because of the feedback he gained in testing. 

A visual journey through the design thinking process to solve the problem of elderly mobility and life quality from Sprouts.


Now is a better time than ever to consider learning design thinking, especially if feel you lack creative ability. With the world economy shifting from building widgets to building experiences, the complexity of business and societal problems are increasing. As a result, creativity has become one of the most valued skills by employers.

IDEO founder David Kelley says practicing design thinking can help build your creative confidence. The more you practice this process, the more your mindset will shift from insecurity about the ambiguousness of creativity to comfort with it.  This self-efficacy will enable you to better tackle intimidating, complex problems – exactly the kind design thinkers are called upon to solve.  

So, if you possess traits like empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism, or collaboration – or are willing to learn them, you might be a design thinker capable of taking on our future’s biggest challenges. 


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Dam, R.F. & Teo, Y. S. (2020, January 1). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

Dam, R.F. & Teo, Y. S. (2020, January 18). What is design thinking and why is it so popular? Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

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