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What does design thinking mean in the corporate world?

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Design thinking, in a business sense, is a problem-solving method that revolves around deconstructing preconceived assumptions about a problem, which then encourages a designer or design team to tackle an issue from unique angles. Essentially, the goal is not just to think outside the box, but to break down the box and then re-build it.

Breaking Down the Box
Brainstorming sessions using the design thinking method often begin with exercises such as “The Worst Possible Solution,” which involves the group coming up with the most ridiculous design solutions they can for the problem (e.g. “duct tape”). This encourages the design team to drop their preconceived ideas about the problem—and the available solutions to it— right off the bat. Design thinking is sometimes likened to how an architect approaches a problem. There is certainly an immediate parallel in the way both seek to break down in order to re-build. However, the most important similarity in the way that a design team and an architect solve a problem is that they focus on the solution, not the problem itself. This is because, unlike in many other fields where the solution is one static answer, in design fields the solution is malleable. It is not their job to find the solution, but to create the solution.

Re-building the Box
Furthermore, the design thinking process strives to make the participants look beyond the bare-bones facts of the issue and make intuitive leaps. Such leaps are largely based around a key step in the design thinking process: empathizing with the consumer. Regardless of how clever a design is, it is useless if it does not make the consumer’s experience better or easier. Therefore, it is vital to keep the customer at the forefront during design thinking—their demographic, what they know, what they don’t know, what physical limitations they might have, etc. The design team needs to see the product from the consumer’s perspective. In fact, empathizing is one of the five steps that are commonly used as the outline for the design thinking process.

The Five Steps
These five steps are:
Empathize– Seek to understand the consumer, setting aside your own pre-conceived notions.

Define– Synthesize the relevant information and produce a consumer-centric mission statement. (e.g. Elderly people need to be able to navigate our website.)

Ideate– Brainstorm.

Prototype– A basic, easily-produced version of the product is created based on the concepts suggested during the “Ideate” phase.

Test– The company will evaluate the product, and may even set up a trial using a representative sample of their consumer base.

However, this is a loose structure. It is non-linear by nature, since it is necessary to return to previous steps and re-evaluate repeatedly throughout the process. This is, again, the result of the malleable nature of design solutions. There is no yes or no, pass or fail—only what works.


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