What the hell is design thinking anyway?

With the competitive business landscape currently at its most saturated, good design is now one of the few components left that companies can use to set them apart, showcase innovation, and remain strategic.

designThe success of brands such as Airbnb and Tesla has fuelled a renewed interest in the power design can bring, going beyond simply making products look desirable, and using it to solve deeper business problems. Thanks to this, the term ‘design thinking’ is quickly gaining interest and traction in boardrooms across the world.

Although design thinking originally started in Silicon Valley, it has become a popular problem-solving approach that is now being used by UK businesses to address a whole range of traditional issues.

When practiced correctly, design thinking has the ability to influence the way companies not only view challenges, but goes on to effect the solution they eventually reach. However, while design thinking has proved popular, its definition has always been elusive; something designers have understood tacitly, but struggled to explain to those outside of the industry.

So, what the hell is design thinking anyway? The term was popularised by design firm IDEO and was originally introduced as an innovative problem solving approach. However, as it has received increased exposure over the years, it has grown to encompass much more.

Design thinking is ultimately a combination of three factors; abductive reasoning, concept modelling, and the use of common design tools to solve uncommon problems.

The first of these, abductive reasoning, is often associated with creative problem solving – this is second nature to many designers, but may not always come as naturally to other individual across the company. For this reason, businesses tend to focus on the other two, more common forms of reasoning; deductive and inductive. However, there are numerous classes of issues that can only be solved through abductive reasoning.

Essentially, abductive reasoning means making educated guesses based on an incomplete set of information, coming up with the most likely explanation and solution – much like a well-though out TV drama. Think Sherlock Holmes, he has certain facts, plots the rest out and then uses abductive leaps to join clues together. In fact, its abductive reasoning that typically generates great bounds of innovation (rather than incremental improvements). It’s a skill that can be developed and finessed over time to produce great results and is how some of the best designers work.

As well as abductive reasoning, design thinking centres on the ability designers have to explore complex problems, processes, environments and solutions, in a visual medium rather than verbal. It’s a term that some designers have dubbed ‘facilitative leadership’ – how designers and other visual thinkers can use creative workshop facilitation techniques to lead teams through a problem solving process. Favouring a visual approach helps create a shared understanding and leads to further exploration of issues, allowing for more complete solutions.

This is where ‘design thinkers’ come in, as they can easily understand and communicate complex problems in simple, easy-to-understand visual formats. Whether it’s domain maps, post-it walls or service diagrams, creating graphical imagery means it can then be displayed around the office, ensuring everybody understands not only the problem, but are aligned on the solution.

The third and final components of design thinking is using the unique set of tools designers have developed to help tackle these complex issues. These include a variety of ‘design’ or ‘innovation’ games, offering a structured approach to solving specific and often common problems. One of the most recent and popular ‘design games’ is ‘the business model canvas’, which many start-ups use to think through the variety of potential business models that are open to them, in order to find the best fit.

These design tools, games and activities are used to encourage abductive thinking and therefore explore less obvious and more innovative solutions. It’s all too common for people to latch onto the first logical solution they come to, and to assume it to be the best one. Designers, however, are trained to avoid criticising ideas too early on when the ideas are poorly formed, fragile, and easily dismissed. Instead, rather than fixating on a single obvious idea, designers will generate numerous ideas and review all afterwards.

Design thinking allows companies to generate more ideas, especially more novel and inventive ones, than they would otherwise. Businesses looking to innovate and collaborate should consider the benefits a design-centric approach can bring. As companies continue to compete on products and services across the industry, any differentiator brands can use to set themselves apart should definitely be considered.

By Andy Budd, Co-Founder and Director, Clearleft