Design Thinking: What is it?

In the last decade, I have heard quite a bit about the concept of Design Thinking from friends, colleagues, twitter, linkedIn, and RSS feeds. I have also heard it defined it in different ways. It seems to me that people’s perception of its value relates to their definition, and therefore influences their expectations.

I feel that the true original concept of Design Thinking is the process of facilitating ideation, the cultivating of raw ideas. It is an exciting experience by which a group of individuals participate in a structured set of moderated and facilitated activities. These activities are thoughtfully coordinated by the moderator to drive creative thought and capture it.  The captured information result in a variety of actionable outcomes. Many innovative strategies  are the result of what is captured in Design Thinking sessions.

I have pondered over how the concept over time became, in my opinion, so misunderstood. I have heard a wide variety of comments like:

  • “Brainstorming then nothing happens”
  • “It is like a design session”
  • “It is like UX”
  • “It is the silver bullet. It solves everything.”

None of these comments resonate with my experience with Design Thinking. Maybe it is the two words, “Design” and “Thinking”? Both words are such broad terms. They are defined differently depending on the person and each word has many contextual uses.

I reviewed the dictionary; it confirmed my suspicion.


  1. to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for(a work to be executed), especially to plan the form and structure of:
  2. to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.
  3. to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan:
  4. to assign in thought or intention; purpose:
  5. to make drawings, preliminary sketches, or plans.


  1. an outline, sketch, or plan, as of the form and structure of a work of art, an edifice, or a machine to be executed or constructed.
  2. organization or structure of formal elements in a work of art; composition.
  3. the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.; the pattern or motif of artistic work:
  4. the art of designing:
  5. a plan or project:


  1. to have a conscious mind, to some extent of reasoning, remembering experiences, making rational decisions, etc.
  2. to employ one’s mind rationally and objectively in evaluating or dealing with a given situation:
  3. to call something to one’s conscious mind:
  4. to consider something as a possible action,choice, etc.:
  5. to invent or conceive of something:
  6. to have consideration or regard for someone:
  7. to have a belief or opinion as indicated:
  8. (of a device or machine, especially a computer)to use artificial intelligence to perform an activity analogous to human thought.
  9. to have or form in the mind as an idea,conception, etc.
  10. to consider for evaluation or for possible action upon:
  11. to analyze or evolve rationally:

All of these ways to interpret two words really leave people guessing. What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking implemented appropriately is a wonderful tool.

  1. excites and unites groups
  2. produces new ways to approach a challenge
  3. creates a shared vision
  4. promotes an innovative culture
  5. has tangible and actionable outcomes

Design thinking is NOT

  1. The design process
  2. A silver bullet
  3. The same as User Experience Design
  4. Done ad hoc
  5. Just brainstorming

Design Thinking can produce a wide variety of tangible outcomes. It could be something as tactical as an actionable roadmap for a design team to tackle. It could also be more strategic like a new approach toward compensation plans that better motivate your staff. The outcomes depend on the opportunities of the team participating. The way the session is structured should not be a cookie cutter approach.

One of the more exciting realizations of one workshop was an executive realizing how completely different his thought processes were that day compared to his “normal” day. It really helped him think about how he was going to collaborate with some of his more creative teams.

Another leadership group realized that they were asking the wrong questions. They were expending a lot of energy on answers and getting frustrated. They were focused on answering, “What needs to be changed about the product to get stronger retention?” When the new question became, “Are we targeting the right population for this product?”, the discussion became productive. Reframing the question changed everything for them, helping them see a new road ahead.

Are there a lot of good ideas that are staying in people’s head?
Does your team have lots of talent but not lots of time to nurture it?

If you have unmet opportunities on your team or in your company, consider a Design Thinking Workshop. New Notion can bring your ideas to life.

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Cynthia MorneweckPrincipal Design Strategist+
I'm drawn to the challenge and impact of computer-human system complexity. Whether in healthcare, education, or community service, I'm passiRead more
Lori Westphal PhDPrincipal Research Strategist+
I work with clients to identify their business needs and determine the appropriate analytical approach to solving their problems. Through myRead more

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