What Is Design Thinking?

Elise recently led a large group through the design thinking process at RAIN Eugene.  Here is a little of what you missed learning if you did not attend.

So… what is design thinking?

Although “design thinking” has become more and more of a buzzword over the last few years, the question I still hear the most often is, “So what is it?” And that’s a great place to start. You might hear design thinking described as an approach, toolbox, methodology, strategy, framework. One time, I even heard someone refer to it as a “lifestyle.” Technically, all of those are correct.

At its core, design thinking is a process for solving problems. It’s best at solving problems that are sticky, complicated, and don’t have a clear solution. The word “design,” in this context, is not just talking about visual design, but the design of everything, from apps to shopping carts to communities. Design thinking might have roots in social sciences and product design, but it is now championed by companies like IBM, PepsiCo, Intuit, and Proctor & Gamble.

There are many different versions of the design thinking process, but they all share central tenets. These tenets are what make design thinking effective and unique.


Fail fast, fail often. Design thinking is biased toward action. This means that instead of thinking about your one great idea, spending weeks planning it, more weeks building it, and then finally shipping it off to user testing, you get your ideas out into the world as quickly as possible. And then you watch them fail. Rinse. Repeat. Iterate.

Many, many ideas are tested, in prototypes that might be so simple, they’re just sketches on paper. And then you move forward based on what you learned from the people you’re testing with. This type of iteration can be difficult, because it can mean throwing out your favorite idea, and then your next favorite. But it also prevents failure. Fail early and small now to find larger success later.


People have to be at the center of the process. More importantly, the people you are designing for, whether they are customers, users, community members, etc—they have to be at the center of the process. Design thinking builds this engagement in. You are reaching out to your stakeholders for data, for ideas, for feedback. The strength of the process comes from how it engages the world outside. When it fails, it’s losing touch with the people it is designing for.

Yes, this is scary. Yes, it involves listening to many people tell you, “No,” and “I would never use that.” But it also means that when someone asks you, “Why did you build it this way?” you can point to stacks of data and feedback that supports every decision you made.


When you google “design thinking,” the first images that pop up are of walls covered in Post-Its with smiling people slapping down hundreds of great ideas. What these images don’t show you is the less sexy, sometimes much longer, and definitely more critical component: defining the problem you are going to solve.

“Make people care more about classical music” is a terrible design thinking challenge. “Get younger people to the symphony’s classical music concerts through a digital product” is still pretty bad, but getting there. “Elicit continued engagement to the symphony through a digital experience that targets an audience new to the symphony, ages 18 to 44” is getting even closer. An example I always hear is that you can’t use “solve world hunger,” as your goal. It’s no coincidence that defining your problem statement is in the middle of the process, not the beginning. Those constraints are critical to success.

So… how do people use design thinking?

On a day-to-day basis, at DORIS Research, I use design thinking to solve challenges related to the physical workplace. How might we attract and retain top talent? How might we prepare for growth? How might we balance collaboration and privacy?

I’ve also used design thinking to build communities, create multiplatform experiences, design websites, and one time, even plan a family vacation. I truly believe it can be used to solve any challenge. So if you’re interested, drop me a line, let’s grab coffee. I’ll even provide the Post-Its.

Click the link below to become even further enlightened about design thinking!

Design Thinking 101