The Design Thinker Blog

Theory, practice, and stories from the field. 


Design Thinking vs Design Thinkers: What is the difference?

Jan 24, 2018

Over the past decade or so, the concept of Design Thinking has become a popular approach to problem solving. In some circles, Design Thinking is viewed as a methodology with several different process models (see IDEO, Hasso Plattner Institut, as examples) that provide guidance on how to engage in this process. In other circles, Design Thinking is viewed as a philosophy or a mindset that guides problem solving. In both cases, the purpose of Design Thinking is to create solutions to the types of challenges that do not have an easy, out of the box answer. The kinds of problems that are interconnected, with multiple causes that span across boundaries. Rittel and Webber (1973) called these types of issues “Wicked Problems”. I like to call them “thorny challenges”.

In firms, these problems emerge as, “how do we grow market shares in a globally competitive marketplace?” “What do we need to do to increase employee engagement and retain talent?” “How can we survive in a declining economic climate?” Design Thinking has been credited with helping firms like Apple, Nike, and GE and agencies such as the National Healthcare Service of the UK and the Australian Taxation Office develop solutions to some of their toughest challenges.

Whereas, Design Thinking can be thought of “the what” and “the how” the concept of Design Thinkers looks at the skills people need in order to engage in Design Thinking. Regardless of whether you see Design Thinking as a methodology or a philosophy, there are skills that individuals need to engage in Design Thinking. So, what are the capabilities of a Design Thinker? This was the question I explored in a research study involving 536 participants across 20 industries. According to the study, there are six core capabilities that we need to build in ourselves, our teams, and our companies if we want to be more innovative and drive change.

Based on the study, Design Thinkers are…

Optimistic About Finding Solutions: Design Thinkers maintain a level of optimism that all problems have at least one solution. They see obstacles as challenges to overcome and that it is their job to create a solution that will alleviate the issue. It is important to recognise here that Design Thinkers are not blind optimists; their optimism is tempered with an understanding of the challenges surrounding a solution. They understand the need for practicality in the solutions they create.

Idea Generators: Design Thinkers are continually asking “what if” and coming up with new ideas. They realise that not every idea is viable so having an abundance of ideas to explore increases the likelihood of finding a good solution.

Visually Expressive: Design Thinkers use sketches, stick figure drawings, diagrams, and other visual means to share their ideas with others. Ever heard the expression “a picture is worth 1,000 words?” Well, Design Thinkers understand that showing someone their idea visually is much more effective than trying to explain it using words. These visuals allow for discussion and reflection, which lead to further developing initial concepts.

Human Centred and Empathetic: Design Thinkers are curious about the experiences of others, and this curiosity allows them to develop empathy for the challenges people face. Design Thinkers can see a problem from the perspective of those experiencing the problem. In understanding how people experience a situation Design Thinkers can create solutions that meet needs on a deeper and more meaningful level.

Risk Takers Who Learn from Failure: Design Thinkers recognise that creating solutions requires exploring the unknown and taking chances with trying out new ideas. They are willing to take risks in the pursuit of discovering new solutions. Design Thinkers also recognise that some risks don’t pay off, but these failures are not a complete waste of time. They use failure as an opportunity to learn and do not allow failures to deter them from finding good solutions.

Collaborators that Value to the Power of Relationships: Design Thinkers realise that good solutions do not come about in isolation. They understand that good solutions arise when people share ideas, consider various perspectives, and work together to meld different views. Design Thinkers engage with others to learn, generate, and test ideas.

There is a misconception that some people are naturally innovative or creative or good at change while others are not. This absolute perspective of either you have it, or you don’t is simply not accurate. The capabilities uncovered in this study suggest that we all have the potential to create solutions and drive change—we just have to tap into this potential. In this sense, these capabilities can be thought of as muscles that can be developed. The more we use these capabilities the stronger they become and the better we become at creating innovative solutions that drive change. Imagine the possibilities if we were all living up to our full Design Thinker potential…


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