Design Thinking, an introduction, or What is Design Thinking all about?

A guest post by Iliana Guzman, design champion and practitioner

Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach that focuses on people, and merges creativity with innovation. The concept was first published in the beginning of 1980s, and during the last decade it has become widely used. According to different sources (Brooks, 2010, Cross, 2006, Johansson-Sköldberg et al, 2013, Lawson, 2011, Martin 2009) Design Thinking has been used by a wide variety of disciplines including: Information Technology (IT), Philosophy, Psychology, Architecture, Design, Education, and more recently Management and Business.

A general misconception of the meaning of Design Thinking is to directly relate it to an early meaning of Design. Which was originated back in 1540 from the Latin words designatus and designare, to “designate” and “to mark out”. Copious research and published articles show that the concept and practices of Design continue to expand, and are more vast and pertinent than ever before.

Trying to provide a unique definition of Design Thinking is almost unattainable, giving its rich content and wide range of applications, consequently this task continues to raise controversy. Nevertheless this article introduces the reader to the subject, presenting expert views on Design Thinking.

Richard Buchanan (1992) refers to Design Thinking as a problem-solving activity. His article on “wicked problems” has become a key reference on the subject, and presents a creative way of thinking to deal with very open and complex problems. This “wicked problems” are a class of social problems that do not have a single solution, and states that much creativity is needed to find solutions, and were first used by Rittel and Webber in the late 1960s.

Diverse organisations have adopted Design Thinking as a tool that broadens its repertoire of strategies to address complex challenges (Stacey, Griffin & Shaw, 2000) and IBM is among those organisations.

For IBM, (IBM, 2014a) at its core Design Thinking focuses on understanding people’s needs and creatively discovering the best solutions to meet those needs. IBM has expanded upon the traditional Design Thinking approach, in order to build better products that meet user needs, and based on the experience of thousands of users. The company has a specialised department called IBM Design Thinking, aiming particularly at meeting the complex needs of large-scale enterprises without sacrificing the personal focus of Design Thinking.

In words of Doug Powell, Program Director for Education & Activation IBM Design (IBM, 2014b): “Design Thinking is rooted in three key thought models:

  1. Empathy for the user, the person who is using a product or service.
  2. Rapid Prototyping, the building of an idea.
  3. Radical Collaboration, where are different disciplines engaging in this Design -Thinking Approach to address this open problems.

And we focus on three core practices: Hills, Playbacks and Sponsor Users.

IBM is an organisation that delivers experiences to the market for people to use, and Design Thinking enables the company to deliver this experiences”.

Tim Brown, the president and CEO of IDEO, an innovation and design firm, considered one of the most relevant companies who both apply and champion Design Thinking states:
“Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.  It is best thought as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. And the three main spaces to keep in mind are inspiration, ideation, and implementation” (Brown, 2008).

Lawson (2011) and Cross (2006) conducted an extensive research on the practices of design thinking during more than three decades. They were both trained architects and acknowledged the “designerly ways of knowing” (Cross, 2006) which is closely related to the current practice of Design Thinking. Their work includes a series of articles on design strategy (2011) and two models of the design process, based on observation, and a deep ethnographic research that started with a set of design thinking workshops at Delft University of Technology in 1991.

Krippendorff (2006) provides a philosophical and semantic perspective on the work of designers and design meaning. For Krippendorff Design Thinking is articulated by designers and creates a text that becomes part of the discourse of the design community.

For Professor Jeanne Liedtka (2014), Design Thinking is about having a systematic approach to problem solving, its roots are away from the talents of designers, as it focuses on business growth. The systematic process of design thinking includes tools and techniques that can be certainly taught to managers.

Jeanne’s Liedtka is a member of the Strategy, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship area at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, formerly the executive director of the school’s Batter Institute and among her wide expertise on business she leads research on design thinking and organic growth.

Now that you know what Design Thinking is about, let me encourage you to discover more about it and try this approach in the future. There are a wide variety of resources on Design Thinking both printed and online. As disclosed on the paper article Design Thinking: Past, present and Possible Futures (Johansson-Sköldberg et al, 2013), the literature on Design Thinking includes books (31), academic and conference papers (55), magazines and newspaper articles (39), and web blogs, (15).  I suggest you to visit the IDEO official website, there you can find clear information on Design Thinking, study cases, articles and also download some free Design Thinking toolkits to use right away.

To conclude this article I would like to share a list of my top five books about Design Thinking, which I highly recommend and are widely reviewed.

  1. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown, published by Harper Business in 2009.
  2. Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience and Brand value, by Thomas Lockwood, published by Allworth Press in 2009.
  3. This is Service Design Thinking: Basics-tools by Mark Stickdorn and Marc Stickdorn, published by Bis Publishers in 2014.
  4. Design Th!nking, by Gaving Ambrose and Paul Harris, published in by AVA Publishing SA in 2010.
  5. Designing for Growth, a design thinking tool kit for managers, by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie, published in 2011. If you are a manager or are looking for practical ways to apply Design Thinking you may find this book very useful; it provides straightforward systems that you can apply immediately, it also includes simple project management aids and templates to start applying design thinking, highly recommended.

Let’s finish with one of Jeanne Liedtka’s insights:

“design thinking does not require supernatural powers, it is the kind of design that can be absolutely safe to try at home”.

As always, thanks for reading, I would like to know your views on this article and about Design Thinking, so please share your comments below this post. If you have a specific question or a burning comment that requires a quick answer, write directly to my twitter account @ilimx, I will be more than happy to receive your comments, and continue the conversation about Design Thinking.

Iliana Guzman
Design Manager, creative business coach, entrepreneur, and mostly Design Champion.

Twitter account: @ilimx




Brooks, F.P. (2010) The design of design: essays from a computer scientist. Addison-Wesley Professional, NJ.

Brown, T. (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, 84-92.

Buchanan, R. (1992) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 5-21.

Cross, N. (2006) Designerly Ways of Knowing. Springer Verlag, London.
Cross, N. (2011) Design Thinking. Berg, Oxford.

IBM (2014a). IBM Think Academy team on “How It Works: Design Thinking” [WWW video] URL [accessed on 08 March 2015]

IBM (2014b). IBM Think Academy team on “Why IBM Design Thinking” [WWW video] URL [accessed on 11 March 2015]

IDEO (2015) [WWW document] URL [accessed on 05 March 2015]

Johansson-Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J. and Çetinkaya, M. (2013) Design Thinking, Past, Present and Possible futures. Creativity and Innovation Management, 22:121-145. Doi: 10.1111/claim.12023

Krippendorff, K. (2006) The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Taylor and Francis, Boca Raton, FL.

Lawson, B. (2006 [1980]) How Designer Think: The Design Process Demystified, 4th Edition. Architectural Press, Oxford.

Liedtka, J. and Ogilvie, T. (2011) Design for Growth, a design thinking toolkit for managers. Columbia University Press, New York.

Martin, R. (2009) The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Press, Cambridge MA.

Rittel, H. and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 155-169.

Stacey, R., Griffin, D., Shaw, P., (2000) Complexity and management: Fad or radical challenge to systems thinking?. Routledge, London.