What does it take to become a creative design thinker?

The world we are facing appears more and more complex to us every day. Many of us, including myself wonder how to keep up with the information flow. One thing is for sure. The concept of expertise is being challenged in a profound way. In order to tackle complex phenomena in the fast changing world people need general competencies that can be applicable to various fields. Design thinking is certainly one of these. Design thinking has potential to change the world if more and more professionals understood the value of it. But what does it take to become a design thinker?

Katja Tschimmel (2012) emphasises that design thinking should also be taught to humanists and politicians. Everyone who works with human needs and who promotes change in the society should understand the basics of design thinking. But what is design thinking in the context of skills?IMG_6060

It is first of all a mindset. In order to change behaviour you first have to change thinking. In order to think like a designer you have to start combining rationality with intuition and creativity. Well, this is where it becomes tricky. How to learn creativity when most of us adults consider ourselves anything else but creative?

It all comes to us defining creativity in a very narrow sense. We think of it as something we are born with. I suggest everyone to read the book of Kelley & Kelley (2013) on Creative Confidence. It made me realise that my drawing skills are not the same thing as my ability to be creative. If we defined creativity by words such as curiosity, imagination and courage, we could easily find the potential within us all.


Deep empathy is the key to creativity. Empathy towards others leads to empathy towards one-self. When opening yeas to others’ experiences and observation, the window for inspiration and creativity is open. All design processes begin from asking the right questions and defining the problem. Non-designers often have the desire to jump straight from question to problem-solving. Finding the right problem requires stepping into other’s shoes – asking, listening and hearing.

In addition to creativity two very important competences of a design thinker are; to be able to co-create and to experiment. It is worrying that out-sourcing of co-creation processes is more and more common especially on public sector. It is explained by the lack of facilitation skills and time invested. From design thinking point of view, empathy and commitment towards others rises only from being directly in contact with customers or stakeholders.


Experimentation is almost as  scary as creativity to many non-designers. Luckily there is more and more discussion nowadays also in the public sector on experimental culture.  Prototyping, testing and experimenting should become every day practices for people who work not just to develop products or services, but also processes and better ways of working.


But what if methodology becomes a religion? Designers have exactly the same trap of deep expertise as do other field experts. They might start to believe in the design process so profoundly that it actually turns against the purpose of serving needs of people. There is no “one size fits all” methodology and all design processes have to be carried out using creativity.

What in my opinion should be stressed out more in all of the design processes is the importance of implementation. No process is valuable if it doesn’t create change and impact. In order to apply the design process in effective ways, theories of change should be understood. Phenomenas like system power relations and decision making processes should not be left uncovered when applying design processes in various contexts.


To sum up the competences of a design thinker, they consist of the abilities;

  1. to listen
  2. to iterate
  3. to facilitate and to collaborate
  4. to visualize (in all creative ways)
  5. to experiment and to implement

I would also add two more to the list. First the ability to understand theories of change.  Second, the ability to question your own methodology and apply design processes in flexible ways.

4 thoughts on “What does it take to become a creative design thinker?

  1. A nice wrap-up of the important abilities for a service designer! One thing got me wondering though. You said that, in order to change behaviour you first have to change thinking. But could it be the other-way around?

    Experiencing new things and being experimental teaches us new things and helps us to to see things in a new way. At the Design Thinking class Katja Tschimmel told us that in the beginning of a service design process one of the goals for using the Design Thinking methods or tools is to give the stakeholders/participants some shared experiences. This helps them to “start talking the same language” and to start working together. I believe that doing new things and getting new experiences helps us to change our thinking. And there Design Thinking can indeed be a valuable and usably way of thinking.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I do understand the point of experimental learning and totally agree with that. I just believe that there has to be the mindset there before even experimenting anything. At least you have to be open minded and willing to learn something new:)

  2. I really need to read the book Creative Confidence! I also have problems with drawing, but I am getting better at being bad at something. I read that the book is almost like self help, do you agree?

    • Thanks for your comment! The book certainly is a self-help and it is full of exercises that can be applied in different contexts.

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