‘Design Thinking’ – a successful framework for achieving any type of problem-solving

The idea of “innovation” can be elusive and intimidating – what does new really mean? How does brainstorming, doodling, and generating ideas translate into concepts that really change the game and what is the process?

In this piece, I want to share some inspiration from the design world that is useful to our roles as researchers, strategists, and ultimately innovators.

Using research to solve problems has always been an important part of the design process. And some of the best design has come out of completely re-thinking and re-defining the way an experience, product, or space should be – for example iTunes & Spotify have changed the way that we listen to music and Netflix reframed the idea of at home rentals as a membership experience as opposed to a timed rental model.

To achieve successful innovation, designers must have a deep and keen sense of the people they are designing for and be able to think outside of the boundaries that they have become inherently accustomed to. The concepts of the iPhone and Netflix weren’t simply the result of a brainstorm amongst the most clever and creative minds. They were born from an insight or understanding of user behavior, needs, and preferences. This is the foundational step in the ‘design thinking’ approach to problem solving. The process is as follows…

Design Thinking

Empathize – Learning about and understanding the audience you are designing for

Define or (re)define – Establishing the “design criteria” from learning. Said in another way, establishing the boundaries/guidelines for a successful solution (they might be completely different than initially scoped!)

Ideate – brainstorming solutions

Prototype – building representations to be able to communicate the solution

Test – Optimizing ideas by bringing them back to the audience they are made for

Ultimately, good design is dependent on user research, which may or may not seem surprising. But, what is most empowering about the ‘design thinking’ process is a framework that can be applied to effectively solving any kind of innovation problem. It guides which stages are for learning and defining and which are for stepping outside of the box to think about something in a completely different way. To do this well is a real challenge and makes for some of the best designers.

As food for thought, here are two examples of cool innovations that use ‘design thinking’ to approach deeply ingrained issues/problems with a fresh perspective:


The American undergraduate university system is under serious scrutiny as tuition is sky-rocketing (costs on average over $40,000/year and increasing!!) and online platforms are threatening the value of expensive campus life. The students at the ‘D School’ at Stanford have completely re-imagined the classic undergraduate educational experience. The ideas they propose are not revolutionary, but it amazed me at how novel they feel given how deeply ingrained that way of doing things is in our subconscious. (more detail if interested: http://www.stanford2025.com/#fast-forward)

http://www.fastcoexist.com/3028816/this-10-mile-loop-of-parks-would-protect-new-york-from-rising-water This is an interesting solve for the real eco-threat of rising waters around NYC, while also improving quality of life for all those living within the city. Most likely WAY out of the city budget, but a very thought provoking idea.

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