UX Design

What exactly is Design Thinking, and why is it so popular?

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Credit to Anna Yashina


Design thinking is not limited to the world of design. In fact, it is employed in various fields such as science, engineering and even art. Schools such as Harvard and companies such as Apple and Google respectively teach and employ the principles of design thinking. In this article, we’ll tell you what exactly design thinking is and why it is so popular.

What on earth is design thinking?

Design thinking is an iterative process which seeks to understand the user, redefine problems and challenge assumptions to pinpoint solutions to problems which may not have been initially obvious. You can see design thinking as a way of working and thinking which involves hands-on methods.

The fulcrum of design thinking is developing a deep interest in the needs and wants of the target market we’re developing the products and services for.

Design thinking is useful and helpful in the following ways:

  • Helps us empathise with target users by developing an interest in their needs and wants.
  • Helps in the process of questioning:
  • Questioning assumptions, implications and problems.
  • Helps tackle ill-defined problems by:
  • Looking at the problem in a human-centred way
  • Using a hands-on approach in creating prototypes and testing these
  • Creating ideas via brainstorming.

The phases of design thinking:

There are many different forms of design thinking, but all of them embody five phases:

  • Empathy with users
  • Defining the user’s needs, problems and your understanding
  • Vision - use your creativity to come up with innovative solutions which challenge assumptions
  • Using prototypes to start creating solutions
  • Testing solutions

These phases do not have to be sequential, and can occur parallel to each other. These five phases should be seen as a contribution to an innovative project rather than steps.

The issue with the current way of thinking:

Our natural patterns of thinking are modelled on repetitive actions and commonly-accessible knowledge. While this can help us in solving problems in familiar situations, it may prevent us from adopting new ways of thinking and problem-solving.

Our natural patterns of thinking can be referred to as schemas, which is a cognitive framework which aids in organising and interpreting information. A single schema has a lot of information. For instance, the schema for cats encompasses the presence of fur, large, bulgy eyes, whiskers, and other noticeable characteristics. When environmental stimuli match the schema, even in a tenuous manner, the mind undergoes the same pattern of thinking. Thus, it is understandable how schemas are an obstruction to finding an innovative problem to a solution. Innovative problem solving requires thinking outside the box.

An example of problem-solving: the restricted vs. freed mind

Years ago an incident occurred where a truck got stuck while trying to pass under a low bridge. The driver could not reverse or accelerate. Emergency workers, firefighters, engineers and other emergency personnel were gathered and attempted to find various solutions to this problem.

The solutions offered were fitted with each individual’s respective expertise. However, a boy walking past the incident offered a solution leaving all specialists amazed: “Why not just let the air out of the tires.” This solution worked and there was no need to dismantle the truck nor chip off parts of the bridge.

This story is symbolic of how our self-imposed restraints can prevent the realisation of obvious solutions. It is difficult for humans to challenge assumptions and everyday information because we are tending to do things more unconsciously. We rely on these built patterns of thinking to make our lives easier, which can, unfortunately, hinder innovative problem-solving.

Image credit: Diana Parkhouse

‘Outside the box thinking’

Design thinking can be thought of as ‘outside the box thinking’ because designers use a different lens to view a problem and think of a different, viable solution.

Once the conditions of a problem have been questioned and investigated, the process of generating a solution can help produce ideas which reflect the genuine constraints of that problem. Design thinking helps us dig that bit deeper and do the correct type of research to develop prototypes and uncover new ways of solving a problem.

Design thinking being an essential tool and a third way:

The designing process involves different groups of people in different apartments, which means that the development, categorisation and organisation of ideas and problem solutions can be difficult. Design thinking is one way of keeping a design project on track and organising core ideas.

According to CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, Design Thinking is strongly based on developing an empathetic and holistic understanding of the user’s problems and involves subjective concepts such as motivations, emotions and needs. This juxtaposed to the scientific approach of understanding and testing the user’s needs and emotions, such as through quantitative research.

Brown concludes that design thinking is a third way: an approach which combines human elements with analytical research to get innovative solutions.

Rational and science in design thinking

Scientific elements of problem solving include looking at users’ interaction with products and investigating the conditions in which they operate. This approach involves testing the majority of known characteristics to arrive at a solution. Design thinking involves concentrating on more ambiguous elements to arrive at uncharted solutions.

With multiple solutions, the selection process is based on rationality. To get the best solution for each problem, designers are encouraged to falsify and analyse these solutions and always empathise with what the user is experiencing.


Design thinking is for everyone - for employees, leaders and freelancers, not only designers. Design thinking extends on the typical scientific and rational approaches to problem solving by incorporating a human-centered lens which will allow problem solvers to empathise with their users. In order to develop innovative solutions, problem solvers must think outside the box, which may mean straying away from normal thinking patterns and applying a different lens. Through design thinking, designers can uncover uncharted ways of thinking and develop unique and innovative solutions to their user’s problems.