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What Is Design Thinking: Definition, Purpose, and Examples

Jun 19, 2023
What Is Design Thinking: Definition, Purpose, and Examples

The definition of design thinking is broad and often brings to mind designers or professionals in literature, art, music, science, and engineering. Even businesses actively use its principles, extending the meaning of design thinking. The design thinking process lets us systematically apply human-centered techniques to address problems creatively and innovatively, regardless of the field. Leading brands like Meta, Apple, and Google have adopted aspects of design thinking, as have many prestigious universities around the world—from Stanford and Harvard to Srishti Institute in India. If you are considering incorporating design thinking into your workflows, it is essential to understand what is involved and why this approach is so popular. This article will answer the question, What is design thinking? And we will explain what makes this mode of thought so beneficial.

What Is Design Thinking, and Why Is It Important in 2023

The essence of design is thinking outside the box, understanding the people who will be using products or services, and developing empathy with target users. The design thinking process involves:

  • Observing product interaction
  • Drawing conclusions based on research
  • Ensuring that users remain the focus of the final implementation

The iterative process involves ongoing experimentation through sketches, prototypes, testing, and trials of new concepts. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the meaning of design thinking.

What is Design Thinking

So, what is the design thinking process? The approach has quite a history, having evolved as a way of thinking in science and design engineering. It was first established in the 1950s by John E. Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and Stanford University, in his "Creative Engineering" courses. In the 1980s, design thinking grew in popularity due to the rise of human-centered strategies and the establishment of the design consultancy IDEO (headed by Tim Brown). The linear process became old-fashioned and was increasingly replaced by new methodologies. These rapid changes seemed chaotic initially, but design thinking approaches proved the most effective over time.

In the early 21st century, design thinking made its way into the business world. In 2005, Stanford University's design school began teaching design thinking as an approach to technical and social innovation.

Design thinking is an iterative and non-linear process that contains five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

The design thinking approach to problem-solving and innovation is human-centric and anchored around user-centered design. It seeks to solve complex problems practically by focusing on achieving results and solutions that are technically feasible, economically viable, and desirable for the user.

Why Is Design Thinking So Important

Design thinking is more than just a process. What is design thinking in business? Design thinking is a mindset and approach that encourages questioning the problem, assumptions, and implications. It opens up a new way to think while offering a collection of hands-on methods to help apply this new mindset. 

Here are some points that make the design process stand out:

  • Human-centered approach: Design thinking focuses on understanding the people who will be using products or services. It focuses on enhancing empathy with target users and involves ongoing experimentation through sketches, prototypes, testing, and trials of new concepts and ideas.
  • Solution-based and user-centric: Unlike other innovation and ideation processes, design thinking is solution-based and user-centric rather than problem-based.
  • An iterative process: Through ongoing experimentation and refinement, design thinking focuses less on reaching a single solution and more on evolving thought processes that continuously respond to users' needs.
  • Emphasis on observation and experimentation: Design thinking centers on observing product interaction, drawing conclusions based on research, and ensuring the user remains the focus of the final implementation. Instead of endless research or rumination, design thinking favors moving quickly and creating prototypes to test.
  • Practical and results-driven: Design thinking seeks to solve complex problems in a user-centric way. It strives to achieve practical results and develop solutions that are technically feasible, economically viable, and desirable for the user.
  • Widely applicable: When used across private and public sectors for business and personal projects, design thinking can address various problems, from designing products and services to building a joyful career and life.

Design thinking helps identify alternative strategies and solutions that take time to become clear. Ultimately, design thinking is about creating innovative solutions that can be prototyped and tested to redefine problems and better understand users.

Applying the Design Thinking Framework to Your Work

The design thinking process consists of four key phases: Clarify (sometimes split into Empathize and Define), Ideate, Develop (also known as Prototype), and Implement (or Test). These stages of design development can be carried out in parallel and repeated or revisited at any point. The ultimate goal of this approach is to foster the development and launch of innovative ideas.

Stage 1: Clarify

During the Clarify phase, the focus is on identifying the problem statement and any roadblocks that may have prevented a solution in the past. Tools such as observation and reframing the problem help shape insights and create a solid basis for the rest of the process.

Stage 2: Ideate

The next step is to Ideate, with the goal of overcoming cognitive fixedness and devising new, innovative solutions to the problem at hand. The user's needs are at the forefront of the process, and tools like Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) are used to encourage creative thinking.

Stage 3: Develop

In the Develop phase, new concepts go through multiple rounds of prototyping, testing, and experimenting to answer critical questions about the viability of proposed solutions. This phase is not about achieving perfection but rather experimenting with different ideas to see which parts work and which do not.

Stage 5: Implement

The Implement phase brings the entire process together by testing and reflecting on results, iterating based on the findings, and refining ideas until a successful solution is found. Achieving solutions may require returning to a previous phase, as design thinking is often an iterative, non-linear process. Results are shared with stakeholders, and innovation management strategies are reflected on to identify learnings.

Of course, design thinking skills are not all that is needed for success in the modern business world. Design thinking is only part of the skill toolkit required to promote innovative solutions.

Graph showing common skills required alongside design thinking across industries

Source: Emsi Burning Glass 2021

Design thinking is important because it helps organizations create lasting value for consumers by solving concrete human needs and tackling problems that are difficult to define. Through an observational and human-centric approach, teams can uncover pain points that consumers may not be consciously aware of and provide solutions to those pain points. By identifying problems based on real consumer behavior, design thinking helps define ambiguous problems and makes it easier to surface solutions.

Examples of Design Thinking Success

Design thinking has become increasingly popular in business over the last few decades as a way to drive innovation and promote collaboration. For instance, IBM developed its Enterprise Design Thinking framework to help cross-functional teams meet user needs, resulting in faster product launches, more efficient teamwork, and a higher return on investment. Even insurance companies like MassMutual have used design thinking to address complex problems, such as encouraging young adults to purchase life insurance. By partnering with IDEO and conducting extensive user research, MassMutual developed the Society of Grownups, a suite of digital tools that helps young adults make informed financial decisions.

Harvard Business Review provides a few more examples of design thinking success:

Example 1: 

Problem: The innovators face an overwhelming amount of disorganized qualitative data.

Design thinking: Data is organized into themes and patterns. Design thinking enables innovators to make sense of the data and sends them in the right direction.

Solution: New ideas and working solutions result from deep insights.

Example 2:

Problem: Innovators hit the boundaries of their expertise and experience.

Design thinking: By immersing innovators in the user's experience, design thinking changes their mindset.

Solution: Innovators achieve a deeper understanding of the individuals for whom they are designing.

Example 3:

Problem: Differences in perspective among members of the design team cause divisions.

Design thinking: By translating insights into design criteria, design thinking fosters alignment within an innovation team.

Solution: The team achieves convergence around design aspects that are truly important to users.

Example 4:

Problem: Innovators are faced with a multitude of disparate yet conventional ideas.

Design thinking: By redirecting through focused inquiry, design thinking fosters the emergence of novel ideas.

Solution: A diverse but limited range of possible new solutions is revealed.

Example 5:

Problem: Innovators hesitate to make adjustments or feel uncertain about future changes.

Design thinking: Because experiments involve staff and users, design thinking provides a learning experience in action.

Solution: Innovators develop a new, shared sense of dedication and confidence in the product or strategy.


In this article, we covered two big questions: What is the definition of design thinking? And what is the purpose of design thinking? Design thinking differs from any other innovation process since it is solution-based and user-centric rather than problem-based. It prioritizes the consumer's needs above all else. It shows how consumers actually engage with a product or service rather than how a team or organization thinks consumers should engage. To be genuinely human-centered, designers watch how people use products and refine business solutions to improve the consumer's experience. This iterative approach favors quickly creating and testing prototypes over ongoing research or rumination. Design thinking helps teams and organizations build new and meaningful solutions they might not discover using other methods.

​Interested in diving deeper into the world of design thinking and its applications in the field of UX design? If you're passionate about creating user-centered experiences and want to enhance your skills, consider applying for UX training today!

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