What is “Design Thinking”?

Welcome To The Different Design Thinking Discourses


A Conceptual Model of Design Thinking

A Conceptual Model of Design Thinking


So you want to know what “design thinking” is? Broadly spoken it is a package of mindsets, principles, practices, and techniques , which resemble the way certain designers work and approach problems that go beyond a product’s look. We call it “package”, because the knowledge has just been made tacit and accessible on a broader scale to non-designers in recent years (e.g. as advocated by IIT.ID, d.Schools at Stanford and Potsdam, and many others). As this package resembles certain elements of intra-/entrepreneurial activity (e.g. user-centeredness, brainstorming, synthesis, prototyping, testing solutions with users, multidisciplinary teamwork, etc.) and as it organizes them in an apparently structured manner, many organizations took notice. Spurred by the success stories of companies like IDEO, P&G and the like they perceived design thinking as a way for navigating through our complex contemporary economy, as it combines all these critical success factors into an integrated (innovation) approach.

Different conceptions of design thinking in the management discourse as proposed by Hassi & Laakso

Refers to mentality, cognitive processes and thinking style:

  • Abductive reasoning – „the logic of what might be“
  • Reflective reframing
  • Holistic view – 360° understanding of the problem
  • Integrative thinking – bringing competing constraints into harmonious balance

Refers to mental orientations towards the work:

  • Experimental and explorative – willingness to risk failure
  • Ambiguity tolerant – acceptance of a „liquid and open“ problem-solving process
  • Optimistic – unwillingness to give in to constraints and obstacles

Refers to concrete activities, ways of working and the use of specific tools:

  • Visualizing
  • Thinking by doing – e.g. prototyping
  • Human centered approach – putting people first
  • Collaborative work-style
  • Combination of divergent and convergent approaches


Depending on their perspective people may also define design thinking as learning process, problem solving protocol, working culture, personal posture influencing behavior, new innovation paradigm, and many things more. Discourses and attempts to define design thinking go back much further than the ones which came up – in what  call the management discourse – of recent years. Therefore different patterns of interpretation of practitioners and scholars forgather. This is why in blogosphere, social media but also scientific circles, different positions and viewpoints clash: People who perceive it a philosophy, argue with pragmatics who use it as a toolbox; people who use it as an innovation technique make different experiences than those who apply it as an instrument for employee engagement. At times this leads to situations were people talk at cross purposes with each other, as the following quote illustrates beautifully:


I can’t imagine what kind of process the author has experienced but it clearly has nothing much to do with the inclusive, multidisciplinary process that I’m used to orchestrating.

 User “pallsopp42” commenting on a recent article in FastCompany, named “The Trouble With Design Thinking”

Click here, to see to which purposes design thinking gets adopted in organizations ...

In our recent study we found 20 patterns of design thinking appropriation, which show the immense spectrum of design thinking adoptions and understandings. The experiences they gain within these fields of application, will influence their take on design thinking.


Therefore it is hard to give an explicit answer to the question what design thinking is. The range is just so wide that it would equal an inadmissible simplification to give a clear-cut definition. Design thinking has taken on a life of its own. It gets appropriated by organizations to serve all kinds of purposes. Often these purposes seem strange to design thinking veterans. Against this backdrop it is important to understand that often especially these veterans and experts (in conjunction with professional designers and design researchers), will argue with having one or even a combination of different perspectives on the topic in mind.

Some scholars have tried to describe these “competing” perspectives a.k.a. schools of thought. Below table shows a deconstruction of the different design thinking research streams by , which clearly differentiates the different “managerial” and “designerly” discourses on the topic. We believe that this provides a valuable starting point to differentiate, from which position(s) one actually reasons, when having another passionate discussion on design thinking.


 The different design thinking discourses after

Originator Discourse Character & Academic Perspective Relation to Practice
Epistemology Core Concept
Management discourses IDEO & other
industry leaders
Showcase success cases → experiences, some connections to innovation research How we do design thinking  and how anyone can use it . Company managers
(potential customers)
Roger Martin Use success cases to illustrate theory development » cognitive/ management science/ planning theories How successful production companies use design thinking and how ‘any’ organization can do it Company managers & educators (academics, consultants)
Boland & Collopy Scholars apply their theoretical perspectives to the design area » different perspectives Design thinking as
analogy and alternative
Academic researchers
& educators
Design discourses of »Designerly thinking« Simon Economic & political science Rationalism:
The science of the artificial
researchers &
educators in
the design field
Schön Philosophy & music Pragmatism:
Reflection in action
Buchanan Art history Postmodernism:
Wicked problems
Lawson & Cross Design & architecture Practice perspective:
Designerly ways of knowing
Krippendorf Philosophy & semantics Hermeneutics:
Creating meaning
Table adapted from 


The obvious lack of an unambiguously definition may be the reason why design researchers like Kees Dorst demand the more subtle articulation of “the kinds of design thinking and the ways they can be applied” . In design thinking research there is now a tendency to empirically examine what design thinking has and might become in practice . With the stories and interviews presented on this website we want to make our contribution into this direction. We will try to show that design thinking has entered new domains and is now used by people and organizations, which have developed their very own understandings of it. Depending on their ambitions and their chosen fields of applications for design thinking, it might “work” for some, whereas it may not for others. This is their design thinking …


Author: | Last modified: July 9, 2019

Image Sources


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