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Design thinking is creative way to solve problems in our modern world, complex problems that involve a lot of uncertainty and that need to be tackled in a human centered way. The process itself is deeply human, and it is used for designing products, services and ecosystems that align with the users' needs. There are many ways of defining it, but central elements are empathizing with people, working in iterations, and experimenting and co-creating with users. The good news is that you don’t need to be a designer to use design thinking. The approach can be used by anyone who deals with a complex problem and need to move forward in a collaborative way. In the case of innovation (original combinations that result in extraordinary improvements), where uncertainty and complexity are unavoidable ingredients, design thinking is a great approach. Let us have a look at why.

Why design thinking is a great approach to innovation

Professor Jeanne Liedka from University of Virginia performed a study published in the Harvard Business review, with the objective of exploring human tendencies that got in the way of innovation. The study involved more than 50 complex projects from a broad range of sectors over 7 years. The team found that design thinking was a great approach for these innovative projects because:

  • It provides a clear and simple process, which curbs the tendency to spend too long exploring a problem, or to impatiently skip ahead and help the team to agree on what is essential to the outcome at every phase.

  • It helped the team to discover more original ideas. Defining problems in obvious, conventional ways leads to obvious, conventional solutions, while asking a more interesting question helps to discover more-original ideas. The ideation techniques tools support you in asking more interesting questions.

  • The final solution was relevant to its users. Neuroscience research indicates that helping people “pre-experience” something novel results in more-accurate assessments of the novelty’s value. That’s why design thinking calls for the creation of basic, low-cost artifacts or "trigger material" that will capture the essential features of the proposed user experience. These are not literal prototypes—and they are often much rougher than the “minimum viable products” that lean start-ups test with customers. But they are flexible and invite interaction. By empathizing with users and stakeholders and involving them throughout the process, the solution is more likely to be relevant and purposeful to them.

  • It instills confidence. Psychological safety is essential for the ability to innovate. Most humans are driven by a fear of mistakes, and this makes us focus on preventing errors rather than seizing opportunities. By using the design thinking tools you will move assuredly through the natural flow from research to rollout. Empathizing with the users produces data, which is transformed into insights, and the team uses these insights as a launchpad for brainstorming solutions. Those solutions are examined with rough prototypes that help teams further develop innovations and prepare them for real-world experiments.

A historical overview

The origins of this approach goes back to the 1960’s when researchers started to get interested in how designers work and think, and whether the design process could be applicable to other areas as well. The term was established in1991, when the design thinking consultancy IDEO started to use the design process for solving complex problems areas far from "traditional design". IDEO is still today one of our most influential design thinking consulting firms.

In Europe, the term Service Design is widely used when a design thinking approach is applied to designing services. The term emerged in the beginning of the 21st century and the public sector in many European countries were early adopters in using service design. It was recognized as a great approach for design public services that the citizens values and trust. Today we can see that the trust for the government and the public sector is very high in the Scandinavian countries comparing to for example the US.

A human centered innovation approach

The design thinking approach is now used across industries around the world to drive innovation, creativity and customer experience. Many of our most well-known brands as Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Starbucks, AirBnB, etc. use this approach to create an innovation culture where their clients' needs are in the center of their creative process. These organizations have realized that by empathizing with their users and by creating a superior customer experience they minimize the risk of launching products and services that people won’t buy, and they create a loyal customer base.

Organizations in the impact sector with the purpose to achieve a positive impact on many people’s life through services in social and environmental sectors, are however unfortunately far behind in adopting this approach. Despite the fact that they often create new markets or disrupt a status quo, their organizations lack an innovation culture. In a study performed by The Bridgespan Group, published in Stanford Social Innovation Review, 80% of the leaders in the impact sector consider innovation capacity to be crucial for them in order to reach their goal , but only 40% believe that their organizations were set up for it . This is worrying news as it prevents these organizations from achieving the large-scale impact they seek.

Design thinking vs market research

It is widely accepted that solutions are much better when they incorporate a user-driven criteria. Making decisions based on what the users need increases the chances that the solution is relevant and purposeful to the users. Market research can help companies understand the users, but it is hard for them to express their need for something that doesn’t yet exist.

The design thinking process however involves the users to co-create the solution. It helps to understand the "why" behind what the users say and do. "Trigger material", simple visual artifacts that are commonly used in the design thinking and service design process, help users to put words on abstract thoughts and needs. These needs are analyzed and the solutions are created based on these needs. The solutions are again presented to the users and who are invited to co-create the solution. This way of intertwining user research and development has proven to be very successful for creating innovative, relevant and purposeful products and services.

"Innovation is not simply to make new, improved products and services. It is to make things that are meaningful to the people to use" - Bernadette Jiwa, Meaningful: The Story of Ideas that Fly

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