What is Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the first in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

It’s actually really hard to find the ‘sound bite’ answer to this question. This is probably the most succinct response I’ve come across:

“Design Thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving…” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4)

Which is all well and good, but what does this actually mean?

It is loosely possible to trace the origins of the phrase ‘design thinking’. In fact, Jean-Pierre Protzen (2010) has had a go at that exact task. He focuses on where ‘design thinking’ has come from, from a strictly design perspective, and ultimately chooses to discuss ‘thinking about design’ which is, naturally, subtly different. By tracing the various definitions, theories and philosophies about design over the 20th century, and comparing and contrasting various definitions of design, Protzen posits the following:

“Design is not a thing but an activity.

Design is purposeful.

Design in creative, searching for something new.

Design is meeting expectations,

Design involves uncertainty and risk,

Design involves simulation.” (pp. 3-4)

Which brings us rather nicely to the folks most design thinkers recognise: the Kelley brothers. David Kelley formed IDEO in 1991. With his company he designed products, such as the Oral-B toothbrushes, but found that he was increasingly asked to work in non-traditional design fields, for example health care and education. This prompted a change to “design with a small d” which ultimately led to the formation of the d. school Stanford.

As the CEO and President of IDEO, Tim Brown, tells us:

“The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.” (2010, p. 5)


For me, these ‘3 Is’ are central. If you Google ‘design thinking’ you will find various representations of models: d.school, NoTosh, Frog, Design Thinking for Educators. Rather than get worried about which one is the ‘right’ one, focus on what’s similar. I like to think of these as ‘iCubed’:

  • a period of Immersion (Research, surveys, interviews. Sitting deeply with the problem and looking to understand it from a multitude of perspectives.)
  • a period of Ideation (Synthesising the data collated, re-phrasing the problem for a particular user, then going wild with intense bursts of rapid, creative idea generation.)
  • a period of Implementation (Filtering ideas to create a prototyping which goes through various iterative feedback and refinement loops until a working solution is arrived at.)

And overlapping the design thinking framework, is a series of design thinking mindsets. In brief: design thinking is a human-centred process that has a bias towards action. It draws on practices of radical collaboration and a culture of prototyping in order to show, rather than tell, possible solutions to problems while always being mindful of process.

Image Credit: https://dschool.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/6c04c/Visual_Resources.html

Of these, human-centredness is key. Empathy is the core tenet of design thinking. As Tim Brown puts it, “Not only does [design thinking] focus on creating products and services that are human centred, but the process itself is also deeply human.” (2010, p. 5). In education terms, empathy and human-centredness is the key distinction that differentiates design thinking from other inquiry processes such as problem or project-based learning (Kwek, 2011). You are formulating a problem in order to solve it for a real person or group of people. It is authentic, immediate and altruistic. And that is what design thinking is.


Brown, T. & Wyatt, J. (2010). “Design Thinking for Social Innovation”, Retrieved from https://www.ideo.com/images/uploads/thoughts/2010_SSIR_DesignThinking.pdf

Kwek, Swee Hong. (2011). “Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning”, (Master’s thesis) Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/group/redlab/cgi-bin/materials/Kwek-Innovation%20In%20The%20Classroom.pdf

Protzen, Jean-Pierre. (2010). “Design Thinking: What is That?”, Retrieved from http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/downloads/pubs/faculty/protzen_2010_design-thinking-what-is-that.pdf

6 thoughts on “What is Design Thinking?

  1. kinho Silete Messan May 14, 2016 / 7:46 am


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