Is Design Thinking the right approach for every development project?

Heljä Franssila
First-year SID student and comms professional

The first three-day study phase focusing on the basics of Design Thinking left me inspired, yet somewhat confused. When going back home after our last day together, I could not help wondering if design thinking really is a method we can use for every development project.

Under the guidance of Katja Tschimmel, our group had set out to find a solution for establishing an agenda for an ecologically sustainable Laurea University, starting from the Leppävaara campus.

In our task, we quickly ran through the phases of a design process from understanding to testing, following the Design Thinking Model of the Hasso-Plattner Institute (Tschimmel 2012, 9), or from discovery to delivery, as in the model of the Design Council (2012, 9) – or from emergence to exposition, as in the E.6² model by Tschimmel’s company Mindshake. Our case was solid in the sense that the challenge we were facing is a real one – how to create a sustainable campus in the times of an ecological crisis – but instead of creating a holistic action plan for the university, the design thinking method basically lead us to developing a mobile app for students. It was obvious that in real life, this kind of solution alone would not help Laurea to a more sustainable future in the large scale.

As an answer to my doubts, Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie assure me in their book Designing for Growth (2011) that we still need business thinking in addition to design thinking tools (Liedtka and Ogilvie 2011, 29). They enlist three reasons why combining business thinking models with design thinking tools leads to success. Here, in the context of our campus project, I understand the concept of ‘business thinking’ as a synonym to strategic thinking or other more traditional management models. Liedtka and Ogilvie argue that business thinking is needed because novelty, which is sought after in design innovation processes, does not necessarily create value, and sometimes even value creation is not enough. There are many other elements which must be taken into account, too, when managing a business, or, in our case, running a university (2011, 29).

Finally, according to Liedtka and Ogilvie, we must always consider whether the world really needs our innovation (2011, 29). This is probably the most crucial factor why our group’s innovation would not have survived the testing phase in the design process, as it simply would not deliver a viable solution to the challenge of a sustainable university.

Drawing portraits was a clever way of getting to know each member of our group. It also simply helped us to remember who is who. Yet it felt difficult to sketch a face of a class mate who you didn’t know at all, as the results of one-minute drawings weren’t most flattering! Image: Heljä Franssila

Victory with visuals

What are the strengths of design process, then? For me, the biggest revelation from Tschimmel’s masterclass and the study materials was the power of communicating ideas with visualisations, such as sketches, drawings and prototypes. As communications professional, I have thought to have understood the high value of photographs, videos and illustrations, but now I realise how strongly my thinking is dominated by words and text.

Tschimmel, as well as Liedtka and Ogilvie, encourage us to test and improve our hypothesis by experimentation (Liedtka and Ogilvie, 2011, 39), which can be easily done by rapid sketches and unpolished prototypes (Tschimmel 2012, 16). Using visualisation instead of text decreases the project risk remarkably, as text is much more open to interpretation than pictures and illustrated stories. The text easily leads each participant to imagine their own mental schema about the topic, which can lead to arguments when differing ideas are found out (Lietdka and Ogilvie 2011, 51). It is also recommended to do rapid prototyping as soon as possible, as it is cost-effective to fail at the early stage than in later development (Tschimmel 2012, 16).

In our study project, it first felt impossible to me to visualise my ideas either by drawing or by building legos (“why can’t I just write it!”)  but I see it now very clearly why developing visualisation skills is absolutely necessary for an aspiring service designer such as me. I am looking forward to my future as the first-rate lego builder.


Liedtka, J & Ogilvie, T. (2011). Designing for Growth: a design thinking tool kit for managers. Columbia University Press. 

Tschimmel, K. 2012. Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation. In: Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona.

Tschimmel, K. 2019. Design Thinking. Lectures. Held on 6-7 September, 2019. Laurea University of Applied Sciences.

6 thoughts on “Is Design Thinking the right approach for every development project?

  1. I agree with you. I think we always have to explore and check during the process whether we had a real value creation or if the idea we pursued is not as valuable as we thought it would be at the beginning. Design thinking and its methods are helping, but a business perspective is also necessary to view the supposedly generated value from another angle.

    From my own experience, I can also confirm the advantages of visualizing ideas and thoughts. Customers often have problems communicating what they want to say or to see if they talk about the same. Visualizing things always helps to talk about things on another level and overcome a plateau.

  2. I’m glad you pointed out the business and viability aspect of the assignment (seems I have to get a hold of the book you mentioned). I could not help but wonder the same during our exercise. Some of our ideas were out of this world!

    But I concluded that all this ideation was more about being creative and not limiting ourselves with real-life facts. I have experienced the negative impact of too strict limits in work-related brainstorming session, such a buzzkill!

    I also relate to what you write about images and the power of the written word. I found it very helpful that Kelleys’ had examples (in their book Creative Confidence) how to draw people etc very simple and easy way. I too hope this is something I get to learn more of.

  3. Thank you, Heljä, for your blog post! You brought up the very two issues that I was struggling with too. First, I left the first classes inspired (and very tired) but also a bit confused: through design thinking, how can we address large problems in a holistic way if we in class session ended up in creating one-off solutions to questions that were clearly worth larger perspectives. Of course in the class we were only practicing and experiencing the process, but in real life, how can we use design thinking to turn around large organizations, for example. For course reading, I chose Idris Mootees (2013) Design thinking for strategic innovation. It gave some ideas but left me missing that comprehensive perspective. Maybe that book of Liedtka and Ogilvie’s would cover it, what do you think?
    Second, visualization vs. writing? Ok, I was already a fan of visual facilitation – for workshops. But making a business plan? I found myself questioning if it really works. I do unerstand the point that you cannot draw something that is very vague or abstract and I do believe that drawing helps you to birng your ideas down to earth. Visual effects are can be absorbed quickly without going through tens and tens of tedious pages, and as the saying goes, one picture can tell you more than a thousand words. But still, on one hand, words and writing for me have always been a natural way to think and analyze things, and on the other hand, the interpretation of images, doesn’t it vary a lot from one individual to another? I think my final realization is yet to come, but for now I’m happy to continue using visualizations to help a group of people think together especially when people come from different backgrounds and there’s a high risk for different semantic interpretations.

  4. Thanks for your post, Heljä. I fully relate to what you say about the struggle of learning to visualise your ideas by drawings and prototypes. It’s not easy to capture, without words, exactly what you want to say. As we went through the different phases during our class, I understood that text is open for interpretation and therefore it’s a good idea to use images instead. But I also couldn’t help but wonder, that just like text, aren’t images also open to individual interpretation. Without going too deep into pondering this, I guess at this stage, I can just accept that there’s positives and negatives in both approaches.

  5. I also work with words everyday and had very similar thoughts after few hours of Katja’s class: “Why for God’s sake we have to draw everything?!? The same thing could be expressed so much easer with just few words!”. But after the exercises I realised that there is actually a seed of wisdom in this methodology: Not only drawing lessens the room for different interpretations but also forced us to capture only the very core of the idea. It also enabled us to see the service concepts in a more holistic way.

    But like some of my class mates, I do have my doubts over the method. Firstly, I am not convinced that visualisation without any – or just very few – words would be the best way to communicate service ecosystems with high complexity, such as Apotti software for the healthcare professionals. Secondly, in order to use visualisation successfully in a concept creation workshop with the potential customers, it requires very skilful facilitators since some people are convinced that they can not draw and therefore are very reluctant even to pick up a crayon. In these instances, creation of trusting and warm atmosphere is the key to success. At least with insecure and stubborn Finns! ;D

  6. Thanks Heljä for the thoughtful and honest blog post. You approached the topic with healthy skepticism but remain open to the potential of design thinking for your working application. I think the pursuit of innovation which is co-linked to design thinking, is meant to be challenging, fraught with doubt, self doubt, and perhaps frustrating even, in context of challenging our familiar ways of working. By realising we are outside of our ‘comfort zone’ and cannot solely rely on our safe working tools, or words in your case, we can approach the problem or invent a fresh solution. Words or pictures, is one better than the other you question – well Its no surprise that comms and marketing are intrinsically part of the same team in organisations, words and the message matter, visuals and the design impact matter and together they help us create the story and experience for our intended audience.

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