An Introduction to Design Thinking

Since its creation in the 1960s and commodification in the 2000’s, design thinking has exploded in popularity. Businesses—like IBM, Airbnb and Capital One—have made it a significant driver of their organizational strategy. It’s created an entire industry of consultancies and agencies (yup, we’re part of that), universities have been quick to adopt design programs into their business schools, and it’s even been the subject of some controversy.

So, what’s it all about? Design thinking is a methodology/way of thinking that prioritizes putting people first—solving for real needs that we humans have, not just doing things because we think the business wants it or we think the technology is cool.

Here at The Design Gym, we like to define design thinking as a creative and collaborative problem-solving methodology used to generate more empathetic and innovative solutions.

With its popularization and mass adoption, the methodology has evolved over time into many varying approaches and interpretations. Here’s our take on the design thinking process:

Examine Phase

The first phase of the process is the Examine Phase. Here, it’s all about gathering research, digging into the problem and building empathy to better understand the humans whose needs you’re trying to solve for; so when it comes time to solve those needs, you can design the best solutions possible.

Building empathy is no easy task. It’s a natural tendency to want to place our own experiences and biases on others. However, taking on other’s perspectives without judgment is how you collect interesting and different observations that’ll set you up nicely for arriving at creative and innovative solutions. Remember, empathy is a choice. It’s not always easy to do, but the more you work on it, the better you get at it.

When planning your research strategy, make sure to align with your team on what you’re trying to learn, keep the questions fairly neutral and, especially in this phase, stay away from being judgmental. You get to have an opinion later on in this process, but here you want to be very open and accepting of what it is that people are saying to you and the motivations they have.

Understand Phase

Once you’ve gathered the data, your next step is to make sense of it. The Understand Phase is where you actually land on the question that you’re solving for. Ultimately, the questions you come up with in this phase will have a huge impact on the solutions that you generate later on down the line—it could be the difference between building a bridge, constructing a tunnel or taking a ride in a hot air balloon.

To get to the right questions, you want to develop insights. You can think of insights as an understanding of what drives an observable piece of data, behavior or situation—or, in simpler terms, it’s “the why behind the what.” Your data on its own is not in itself an insight. It’s the interpretation of your data (that “aha” moment) that’s going to lead you to something interesting, creative and innovative. Go deeper, find patterns and frame your challenge based on the stakeholders’ needs.

We’ve found, both internally and with clients, that this phase can feel a little messy. As smart people tend to do, you want to get to solutions. But you’re in this murky insight phase where you’ve got a lot of data and questions with no answers. Have faith. It’s taking the time to do this right that will lead to better and more interesting outcomes.

Ideate Phase

There’s much to say about the Ideate Phase—the quintessential, commonly-captured-in-photos phase of the design thinking process. As the name gives away, this is where you start to generate ideas for potential solutions to your challenge.

As with all other phases of the design thinking process, you’ll be using the mindsets of open and close (also referred to as convergent and divergent thinking). You’ll want to make sure you’re super clear about which mindset you and the rest of the team should be in at a given time. Prematurely closing when you’re in open mode can really limit the ideation session. If you let ideas incubate in the open phase, you get to nurture them a bit and you’ll end up with more options to play with. Then, when you’re in close mode, you can figure out what to do with them more practically.

A few things to keep in mind as you kick off the ideation process:

  • Leverage the interesting insights from your data as stimulus for coming up with various solutions.
  • Be iterative and generative—produce as many ideas as you can, good and bad.
  • Don’t stop at the obvious or the impossible.

Coming up with creative ideas can sound a lot easier than it actually is, so don’t be afraid to bring in a few tools to help you and your team out. You can check out our Creative Ideation to Spark Fresh Thinking toolkit for some common tools we use.

Experiment Phase

At this point, you’ve got some good ideas on your shortlist, now it’s time to pressure test them. The Experiment Phase allows you to bring your ideas to life in low-fidelity ways so you can quickly gather feedback on them from your stakeholders.

The first thing you want to do when kicking off the Experiment Phase is define what it is you’d like to learn or know more about. This is key. Despite popular belief that experimentation is about prototyping, it’s not—it’s about learning. And, regardless of what you’re aiming to learn, putting your idea in front of real people is the best way to do it.

Once you’ve identified what you and your team would like to learn, it’s time to build a prototype. Prototypes are meant to be low fidelity. They can be anything from a rough sketch to a role play video—the idea is that your prototype is designed to help elicit feedback on what you’re trying to learn.

While it’s true that we, as professionals, are not conditioned or used to putting imperfect things out in the world, ignore the urge to make your prototype perfect. Conducting cheap, fast, experiments helps improve the likelihood that your idea is going to succeed before you invest a lot of money in your final product. It allows you to weed out your own biases and again center your work around what ultimately matters: the needs of the humans you’re designing for.

Finally, remember that all feedback is great feedback. If you learn that no one is into your idea, congrats! You learned that very early on. Now you can course correct, modify and move forward until you land on your final solution.

Distill Phase

Creating the innovative solution is not the end of the battle, now you have to secure approvals, buy-in and excitement. In the Distill Phase, you’re responsible for crafting a compelling story behind your solution.

Not every organization incorporates this phase into their design thinking process, but we find a ton of value in including it—because, after all, there will be some point where you’ll have to convince someone to support your idea.

To be more effective during these share-outs, think about creating an experiences, instead of just explaining the functional parts of your concept. Bring them along for the ride: show off your prototypes, explain how you got here and make it interactive. By bringing in the insights, inspiration and artifacts from your journey, you can actually show your audience why you’re so invested and why they should be too.

For a little insight on the effectiveness of a well-told story, check out how the experts at Pixar use the storytelling basics to inspire their viewers.

Design Thinking, Not A Linear Process

While we’ve walked through the design thinking process linearly in this post, it’s not meant to be linear in practice. Chances are you’re going to pick and choose different tools from the process at various times in your work. And that’s perfectly normal! You might find as you’re entering into a later phase that the challenge you’re working on isn’t right or that you’re questioning an insight you’re working off of. Don’t be afraid to bounce back and take a look at the data again or to go out and collect more. It’s all about being iterative, empathetic and collaborative on your journey of solving the challenge you’re facing.


Getting your hands dirty and actually using the tools is one of the fastest ways to learn about the process. Come check out one of our interactive workshops to learn more about design thinking.

Not in New York? Check out our blog and downloads for tons of tools, expert advice and more in-depth design thinking reads.

The Design Gym
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