Why every problem solver needs design thinking

You might have heard of design thinking in business context and its possible perks. A design thinking approach is usually chosen when there’s a need for new inventions, growth or increasing satisfaction. Design thinking is the way designers think – putting human needs in the centre of development and creating engaging and inspiring solutions. Design means an invention or a solution to a problem. Without inventions, there’s no growth. That is why you should get involved.

Design thinking can be taught and learned, it’s not a personality trait 

In Dunne & Martins (2006) article they refer to the problem that the word design withholds. Usually the word design is associated with product development or fashion and it is seen as unrelated to the business world. Contentwise design thinkers use the same business tools, like KPI´s and ROI´s, but they always add the question “In service of what?”. 

Another reason experts do not embrace design thinking is the idea that design means creativity. We, as a society, tend to categorise people as talented or untalented in different areas, ourselves included. But people are not born leaders, analysts, designers or rockstars – you need to learn the competences! Creativity and design thinking can be taught, and you can learn them.

The human-centric way to solve problems

First you need to understand the why and then you can learn the how

According to Liedtka & Ogilvie (2011) the whole point of design thinking is to learn a new, systematic approach to problem solving. If you want to compete in the same market in few years, you need to grow and build resilience – you need to innovate. If the innovations are made internally, inside an organisation, a team, or even worse, inside someone’s head, you are heading to trouble. 

Most experts know the straightforward way of problem solving: define the problem, identify various solutions, analyse each and pick the best one (Liedtka & Ogilvie, 2011). Traditional problem solving can be seen as a linear process. It follows a process of build-measure-learn, focusing on the building. 

The traditional approach is problematic. It’s optimistic with no proof of the solution delivering great value. The process is cold and clean and all the learning about the solution comes afterwards (Liedtka & Oglivie, 2011). 

In a design process you turn the roles other way around, learn-build-measure, focusing on the learning. A design process is never linear and it consists of multiple failures and iterations (Brown, 2018).

The process aims in discovering genuine human needs and developing specific solutions. It all starts from empathy – trying to imagine what others think (Liedkta & Oglivie, 2011). Others meaning your customers, team members, users or partners. As they say, they are not numbers! They are always real people with real emotions, problems and personal targets. A design process creates solutions that inspire through true engagement and emotional connection. 

Learning design thinking doesn’t just mean learning a new set of tools. It also means learning to collect and analyse large quantities of data, learning to think what might be instead of is, learning to manage the feeling of uncertainty and collaborating with many new parties (Liedtka & Oglivie, 2011).

Why haven’t all organisations embraced design thinking?

Organisations with new innovations and best customer and employee experiences recruit the best experts and dominate the market. Still human-centricity is fairly rare. 

Comparing the two approaches presented, design process can seem slower. When the emphasis is in the beginning of the project, where all the learning and value creation systems are mapped, the project will not provide solutions as fast as the traditional approach. This is why I’ve seen multiple projects crumble under the feeling uncertainty and change to the traditional approach.

Where next? 

Now that you have some understanding of the why, you can start expanding your personal tool kit with new, collaborative tools.

Written by: Elina


Brown, Tim (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June, 84-95.

Dunne, D. & Martin, R. (2006) Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2006, Vol. 5, No. 4, 512–52.

Liedtka, Jeanne & Ogilvie, Tim (2011). Designing for growth: a design thinking tool kit for managers, New York: Columbia University Press.

Tschimmel, K. (2020). Design Thinking Masterclass, Laurea.

8 thoughts on “Why every problem solver needs design thinking

  1. Thank you Elina for your clear and ever so topical post.
    I agree and same time partly wonder why design thinking approach is often chosen particularly in order to create something new. To my experience the expectations lie too much in “let’s-innovate- because-now-we-have-this-thing-called-design-thinking” rather than let’s really define and clarify the problem (design challenge) and then the goal can just simply be solving it. As a “side product” something new is emerging for sure.

    About teaching design thinking and especially learning it, I would suggest that even though design thinking is not a personality trait the traits (BIG 5) and how they are distributed in each person can influence how successful design thinking as a method or tool can be.

    I was inspired by your observation that on of the reason not to choose design thinking but traditional problem solving could be the assumption that design thinking is a slower process. How about if a time scale was added to both approaches to help in comparison and in decision making?

    Best Wishes,

    PS. what was the source for the real informative pictures of traditional problem solving and design process?

  2. Good overview on design thinking! Why haven’t all organisations embraced design thinking? I think that the traditional business strategies and processes have underestimated the power of (potential) customers and the aspect of empathy. They have been concentrated more on numbers and “hard metrics” than really figuring out the prevailing needs, habits and wishes of (potential) customers. In addition to the business field, also the engineering field has failed to consider the humanness. The traditional thinking that the best set of technical properties provide the best solutions is so outdated. Besides, I rather doubt that it is in the end at all faster way of doing things if you first spend 5-10 years with high tech R&D and after that begin to look on the market potential (viability) and last the usability (feasibility). And in the worst case notice that the many years of R&D work have gone in vain. The first step towards holistic innovation process would be to add design thinking teaching and approach to every university and company in my opinion!

  3. Thank you, Elina for your post, and also thanks for the comments Johanna and Katriina. We definitely have so much work to do. There are so many organizations that do not feel design thinking as the right way to go, or as said, feel it to be more as an innovation tool, or something extra – to polish things or the process itself. Many reports show how companies that use design are more valuable than the ones who are not using design (Design Value Index by Design Management Institute). Maybe we need also more communication and tools to make that data visible and to be heard?

  4. Why haven’t all organisations embraced design thinking? That is a very good question and I would also argue that many organisations that say “yes, we are embracing Design Thinking” are actually just touching the surface. In my experience many organizations see this as a role that is needed, and they solve this by hiring a Designer and think that everything happens magically from there. Of course, that is a good start but if organization doesn’t include Design Thinking and its methods to its core processes it continues to be just something that someone does. In reality most of the things stays to same and Designers continue to struggle to get their voice heard. There have been studies about design maturity and from there it is bit unfortunate to see that there is still lot to do.

    Danish Design Centre: THE DESIGN LADDER: Four steps of design use https://danskdesigncenter.dk/en/design-ladder-four-steps-design-use

    And Invision Design Maturity model: https://www.invisionapp.com/design-better/design-maturity-model/

    • Thanks for your comment Kimmo! I agree with your thoughts about organisations just touching the surface of design thinking. There is a need for design thinkers and business designers 🙂

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