Four people holding post-its and discussing in front of a whiteboard.

What Design Thinking is NOT – Taking the buzz out of the word


Design Thinking has caused confusion not only in terms of its definition, but also in what it actually is. We unravel Design Thinking and steer clear of buzzwords.

Sense and nonsense of Design Thinking workshops

Design Thinking has been a topic of great interest last year, and also one of heated discussion. Design Thinking skills are in demand and as a result, numerous institutions offer Design Thinking workshops or bootcamps. This article is not meant to criticise that, but it will get rid of common misconceptions about Design Thinking. For instance, that Design Thinking is something that can be ticked off a list after one workshop.

The term Design Thinking has come to be used in various domains and in different ways, leading to confusion about what it actually entails. Its blurriness has been criticised heavily by designers. The fact that it has become a buzzword has made Design Thinking controversial, specifically in the design community. Time to define Design Thinking and its methods clearly.

Where does Design Thinking come from and what does it entail?

The notion of Design Thinking was first touched upon by cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon in the 1970s. He introduced what are nowadays regarded as the key aspects of Design Thinking (such as rapid prototyping and testing through observation). The term Design Thinking as such was introduced only later, in 1987, by Peter Rowe in his book of the same name. Design Thinking was originally developed in the field of industrial design, but its use has since expanded to other design fields.

Design Thinking is usually visualised as a five-step process:

The five steps of Design Thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototype and test.
The five steps of Design Thinking and what they entail. Image by Shorte Designs.
  1. Empathise: Emphatic understanding of user needs
  2. Define: Definition of parameters and the focus
  3. Ideate: Brainstorming of potential solutions
  4. Prototype: Creation of a prototype
  5. Test: Testing of parameters and prototype

What appears to be a linear and simple progression is in reality a messy process, where the repetition of a step or jumping backwards and forwards between steps are the norm. Ideas or feedback received during testing may lead to a completely new prototype, which has to be tested again. During this procedure of constant iteration, it is the users’ needs that are the driving force in the Design Thinking process.

A human-centred approach to problem-solving suitable for all domains

None of these steps mentioned above are explicitly linked to Design as a discipline. Rather, the process is based on the combination of procedures from ethnography, basic brainstorming and constant iteration. These are methods some design disciplines have been using for decades. Designer Anish Joshi, who is constantly challenging Design and the Design industry in his talks, summarises Design Thinking as a human-centred approach to problem-solving:

This is what it is about and should be called — a human-centred approach to problem-solving. Designers (and others) doing real design, do Design Thinking, where a human-centred approach is intrinsic to the act of creation and craft.

This method can be learnt and used by people from a broad range of disciplines. The illustration by Karel Vredenburg helps to illustrate how Design Thinking is an overarching procedure appropriate to all fields, including design, business and engineering. Therefore, Design Thinking mustn’t be confused with design as a discipline. Nor is it a profession in itself. It’s simply the application of ethnographic and creative methods to problem-solving.

T-shaped diagram where Design Thinking respresents the horizontal stroke and the disciplines Busines, Design and Engineering the vertical stroke.
Design Thinking is the overarching methodology for all the subdisciplines. Illustration by Karel Vredenburg.

Design Thinking as a constant learning process

Since Design Thinking uses tools from various fields, it cannot be mastered by simply attending a workshop. These Design Thinking bootcamps rather offer an introduction to the methods. Design Thinking itself is a constant learning process which involves changing attitudes, taking courses, adopting different perspectives and continually trying to incorporate Design Thinking in your work. By integrating the methods into your work and with constant practice, it will become an effective tool for you.

We don’t offer Design Thinking bootcamps, but we would love to help you apply Design Thinking methods in your project. Interested? Drop a line to