Maybe you don’t need design thinking


Overview of the three key terms discussed in this post and core activities involved in each process.

Design thinking has become a buzz word. Everyone wants to learn it and use it. And if you Googled the term, you get more than 863,000,000 results in under 50 seconds! However, in some cases people don’t know what design thinking is and why they want to work with it. I witnessed this phenomenon first hand in a recent talk I gave at Princeton University to a group of college students from various backgrounds. These are some of the questions I was asked:

  • “What is design thinking?”
  • “What type of problems can I solve with design thinking?”
  • “Can I solve a math problem using design thinking?”
  • “I would like to think more visually, how can design thinking help me?”
  • “What is the difference between design thinking and design?”

My answers probably only provided some light to what to me was clearly great interest but also a big confusion about the subject and application of design thinking. Interestingly, from this same discussion, two other terms emerged that students either have never heard of before or were using them as synonyms of design thinking: creative thinking and visual thinking.

The goal of this post is to shed light on the above three terms, and indicate possible and common uses.

Design thinking

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that emerged at Stanford University in the 1950s to address the demand for a curriculum focused on “human centeredness and creative engineering”. John Arnold together with engineer Robert McKim and engineer and artist James Adams created the multidisciplinary “Joint Program in Design” (JPD) combining techniques from engineering, art, and creative problem solving. This was the origin of the design thinking process. Later, research techniques from anthropology and sociology were added to this process to better understand intended audiences and tackle a wider variety of problems. Today, the design thinking process includes a sequence of distinctive steps each focused on a specific set of methods from the above disciplines.

Design thinking was initially conceived to tackle engineering problems, but in the last decade, its application has broaden to help address problems and create solutions from an array of disciplines. In all cases, to work with design thinking, it is imperative to have both 1) a situation to fix or improve, or a problem to solve, and 2) an intended audience. Without these two ingredients, some design thinking steps become obsolete. In short, design thinking cannot be used to solve any type of problems.

Creative thinking

Creative thinking is the ability to think without constraints and see the world through a different lens. This way of thinking allows the possibility of seeing reality in a new light and helps generate a wider and more diverse range of ideas. This way of thinking is based on a dynamic balance between generating ideas (divergent thinking) and selecting ideas (convergent thinking); deferring judgement between these tasks is the essential component to achieve that balance. When creative thinking is used in a systematic way to solve problems, it is referred to as Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process. CPS was originated by Alex Osborn (1940s) and then developed further by Sidney Parnes (1950s).

In contrast to design thinking, CPS does not specify the use of ethnographic tools to gather human-centered data or the need to empathize with an audience. Furthermore, while some steps between these two processes are similar, CPS does not include a prototyping step and most of what is generated from this process are concept ideas, rather than physical models or design outputs.

Visual thinking

Visual thinking is the process used in problem solving to externalize the thought process, and represent what we see and imagine through various visual techniques such as drawing and collage. Thinking visually helps see problems from different angles, capture ideas, imagine possible solutions, identify connections, and encourage collaboration. For Robert McKim (1970s), thinking visually helps observe the way we make decisions, and allows flexibility of thought.

This way of thinking is intrinsic to design and art, but it can be also particularly useful where thinking is constrained by the limits of language, such as in law, psychology, business, and history, or by high levels of abstraction, such as mathematics and physics.

Making the most of design thinking


Common uses of design thinking, creative thinking and visual thinking to make the most of each process, and particularly to work with design thinking more effectively. 

Design thinking is the more encompassing process of the three. Some design thinking steps can lead to much more effective results when they are supported with key activities of creative thinking and visual thinking. But creative thinking and visual thinking can also be used in isolation without the presence of design thinking.

Deciding what you need

Next time you are working on a project, before start working with design thinking, first take a moment to think and understand what your goal is:

  • think about a situation to identify hidden connections?
  • solve a problem for a specific audience?
  • think through a complex situation?
  • understand people?
  • generate ideas?

And then decide: Do you need design thinking to achieve that goal? or do you need visual thinking? or do you need creative thinking?


One comment

  1. Pingback: Design Thinking isn’t for everyone | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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