Design Thinking is not about Design, it's about Thinking

Design Thinking is not about Design, it's about Thinking

Dr. Pavan Soni 26/10/2018 5

Design thinking, a term first referred to by famous Nobel Laureate - Herbert Simon, and popularised by David Kelley, the founder of Ideo, has gained a significant currency in corporate and academic worlds alike. Having taken courses on design thinking at campuses like ISB Hyderabad, IIM Bangalore and a couple others, and with over 30 corporate workshops later, I am increasingly getting convinced that design thinking is not (at all) about design.

Deep down, design thinking is nothing but a systematic approach to problem solving. What really distinguishes this one approach from the others, such as TRIZ, lateral thinking, blue ocean strategy, six thinking hats, theory of constraints, lean, six sigma et al, is that design thinking starts with and remains loyal to the customer. It's human centric rather than being product or technology centric. To paraphrase,

Design thinking is a human-centric, systematic approach of problem solving.

While design might have had its genesis in the world of architecture, engineering, and industrial design, certainly what we are talking of today is experience. The product has been reduced to a via media between the producer and the user. Hence, a focus on product may be a rather narrow view of innovation, and delivering a superior customer experience would be the calling.

For starters, here's a incisive talk by Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, where he urges designers to think big.

Design 1.png

In this TED Talk, Tim brings home the importance of systems thinking, starting with the insights, working with the customers in their context, and solving important problems. He also opines that design is now too important to be left to designer, and that the approach needs to be democratic, or so to say: Thinking takes precedence over designing.

Since design thinking is about thinking (read approach) than design (read outcome), the question then is -- what are the key tenets of thinking. I reckon, there are five tenets of thinking that would help one solve a complex problem in a human centered way.

The key thinking tenets of design thinking are:

  1. Holistic
  2. Uninhibited
  3. Collaborative
  4. Iterative
  5. Visual

A very neat encapsulation of these thinking tenets is in another incisive talk by David Kelley, the co-founder of Ideo.

Design 2

While taking of building creative confidence, David impresses upon the importance of being a big-picture thinker (holistic), deferring your judgments (uninhibited), working with diverse teams and with the end-users (collaborative), performing cheap and dirty experiments (iterative), and creating mockups, sketches, storyboards, and visual artifacts to express and visualize ideas better (visual).

Particularly on the benefits of visualization and being iterative, the value of prototyping can't be overstated.

A very useful discourse on prototyping is available here from David and Tom Kelley.

Design 3.png

To sum up, design thinking is a human-centered, systematic approach of problem solving where thinking takes precedence over the elegant design or the outcome, and with the key thinking paradigms of being holistic, uninhibited, collaborative, iterative, and visual, you could possible be a better innovator.

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  • Chris Massey

    Google call it "design sprint". Nonetheless, it's the same process.

  • Muhammed Alpnar

    Thanks for the info!

  • Rachael Jacklin

    Very interesting !

  • Daniel Estrada

    Great piece of work Dr. Pavan

  • Lauren Hamilton

    Wonderfully explained.

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Dr. Pavan Soni

Innovation Expert

Dr. Pavan is an Innovation Evangelist by profession and a teacher by passion. He is the founder of Inflexion Point, a strategy and innovation consulting. Apart from being an Adjunct Faculty at IIM Bangalore, Pavan has consulted with leading organizations on innovation and creativity, including 3M, Amazon, BCG, Deloitte, Flipkart, Honeywell, and Samsung, amongst others. Pavan was the only Indian to be shortlisted for the prestigious 'FT & McKinsey Bracken Bower Award for the Best Business Book of the Year 2016'. He has also been invited four times to speak at the TEDx. For his work on innovation, Pavan bagged the prestigious ‘On the Job Achiever’ Award at Lakshya in 2007 at NITIE Mumbai. Pavan works closely with CII, Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce, European Business Group, FICCI, Karnataka Knowledge Commission, NHRD, and World Trade Centre, towards shaping their innovation activities. Pavan is a mentor for NSRCEL at IIM Bangalore, Founder Institute, Institute of Product Leadership, Brainstars, Budli, HackerEarth, and UpGrad, and is on advisory board for VC firm- Utilis Capital. Pavan is also a columnist at YourStory, Entrepreneur India, Inc 42, and People Matters. He is a Gold Medalist from MBM Engineering College Jodhpur, and did his PGDIE from NITIE Mumbai. Pavan finished his Doctoral Studies from IIM Bangalore in the domain of innovation management. More on his work is available at

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