Design thinking revised


Proposed basic research lens for the design thinking process. Building on the Stanford D.School ‘An introduction to Design Thinking’ exercise.

I recently came across the article ‘Is “Design Thinking” the new liberal arts?’ which analyses design thinking from the viewpoint of the at Stanford University (where design thinking started to be officially taught), and its application as a learning approach for education. The central idea of the article is How can design thinking be improved? How can we (students, designers and stakeholders) make the most of the approach?

Designers’ way of thinking

Before the ‘design thinking’ term became popular, these same words were used to refer to ‘design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing’ (Lawson, 2008). These words referred to the way designers think and deal with problems. Now ‘design thinking’ has a different connotation: it denotes the problem-solving approach which equips design and non-design students and professionals with ‘a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field’ (Miller, 2015). Designers’ skills, and ways of thinking and reasoning have been enlarged and adapted for solving problems beyond design, and are now applied in different contexts to address social, economic, health-related, and political complex problems, among others.

With design thinking, the traditional way designers think has been enriched with a user-centred and empathic focus, a collaborative way of working, and ‘self-conscious reflection on the design process’. These characteristics actually leveled off the thinking part of the process (conceptual design) and the way the solution itself is developed (prototype design) (Miller, 2015).

Looking at the past to understand the present and improve the future

The at Stanford University offers within its curricula a course named: ‘Research as Design: redesign your research process‘. The aim is to ‘make us more innovative scholars or scientists’ by approaching the research process with a ‘playful mindset’. For this, the course focuses on applied research rather than basic research, equipping students with a less rigorous way of discovery based on the ‘playful spirit of design’. Both approaches are equally valuable:

  • Basic research: This type of research is often described as theoretical research because it focuses on discovering the unknown and gaining understanding of fundamental components, principles and theories. Frequently, it doesn’t focus on a specific object of study, but on exploring the context in which that object is immersed. Basic research is essential to inform practical applications, in that findings are often used to answer practical problems. Don Norman (2010) refers to the basic research approach as ‘systems thinking: realizing that any problem is part of larger whole, and that the solution is likely to require understanding the entire system’.
  • Applied research: This type of research investigates a specific problem situation (e.g. specific set of circumstances, specific users), and relates collected data and findings to that particular problem situation. In other words, when conducting applied research the problem (to be investigated) is (pre)defined (e.g. a specific user, a specific set of possible solutions) and the aim is to seek data ‘meeting these conditions’. Data and findings are directly applied in response to a specific situation.

Because of the nature of design thinking, it strongly relies more on applied rather than on basic research. However, to obtain a complete picture of a situation (or of an entire system) and more richer results a combination of both types of approaches is necessary:

  1. Investigate and gain a deep understanding of the context and all components involved (e.g. the fundamental aspects, relationships, history, etc.) [basic research]
  2. Use those findings to guide further steps, and to continue exploring specific components [applied research].

Based on the design thinking process, a project starts with a problem or assumption, but this starting point is rarely questioned. Questioning the existence or assumption of a problem would mean to look into the past, the history of the potential problem, and explore what relevant and related events have occurred, and what has already been done. Miller (2015) stresses the need to become aware of ‘past achievements’ to add a rich ‘nuanced of appreciation [to] the complexity of [a potential or assumed problem existence]’. This means that before going down the path of simplifying problems and finding solutions, we first should seek understanding the problem itself.

5 tips to improve design thinking

Based on my teaching experience and previous classes, this is a summary of five key ways to improve the design thinking approach:

  1. Look at the past. One way to learn about past achievements is through basic research methods. The design thinking process can be expanded and enriched by adding insights obtained with this type of research. The above figure suggests where and how a basic research lens could benefit the process and provide a more complete picture of a problem. Exploratory research methods are used to look beyond the immediate context of your problem and learn what other people have done in the past, what other perspectives, theories, and ideas are out there that could inform and contribute to the situation.
    Key point: This connection may not be spotted at a glance, it requires thinking and analysis.
  2. Explore! Be creative!: Interviews and observation are great methods. But there are many more ethnographic methods that can be used. Furthermore, using a method that has been tailored or designed to the conditions and specifications of the particular problem will further engage participants, letting gather richer data and therefore reaching more innovative results. Cultural probes (Gaver et al., 1999), and design probes (Mattelmäki, 2008) are two possible methods.
    Key point: Methods need to be transparent, and address the key qualitative research standards: trustworthiness (validity), auditability, and credibility. Learn the basic principles that a research method should have to address these standards.
  3. Add rigour and precision to methods. Often rigour and precision are seen as serious and boring, and less creative or playful. A simple way to address both is by following a systematic process and documenting every step of it. Finding a creative way of doing this should be an interesting challenge.
    Key point: Another person should be able to replicate the methods you used (and how you used them).
  4. Support problems with evidence. Many great discoveries have started from a gut feeling or following instincts. But these were then complemented with hard evidence that support, change or disregard that initial feeling.
    Key point: Assumptions alone can lead to great results, but assumptions combine with facts can lead to life-changing results and discoveries.
  5. Work with information design mindset. Working with post-its has become intrinsic to design thinking, but in some cases their use can be arbitrary. Adding a more structured and logic approach to the organisation of ideas and thoughts will help see connections clearer and improve communication.
    Key point: Visual thinking principles and theories are another important area to learn from to master the use of post-its (which is actually a way of organising information).

– Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Design: cultural probes. Interactions, 6(1), 21-29.
– Lawson, B. (2008) How designers think? UK: Architectural Press.
– Mattelmäki, T. (2008) Design probes. University of Art and Design, Helsinki.
– Miller, P. (2015) Is ‘Design Thinking the New Liberal Arts? The chronicle of higher education
– Norman, D. (2010) Design Thinking: A Useful Myth



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