• Rafia Shabbir

What is Design Thinking and why it is Critical for Success in Business and Education?

Updated: Aug 21, 2021



What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a pedagogy that helps solving multifaceted problems in a human-centered way. It is fundamentally a solution-based methodology to determine the unknown by going through five iterative steps. It begins with realizing the problem, re-defining it in a user-centered manner, brainstorming the possible solutions, creating innovative prototypes and testing the prototypes for an ultimate solution. These five phases are summarized as empathizing, defining, ideation, prototyping, and testing.



Why Design Thinking?

This methodology is attracting attention worldwide because the entire five-step process allows us to come up with unconventional solutions to problems that are often complex through critical thinking and creative skills. The design process is followed to discover the solution of the problem keeping in mind the end-user. This popular approach gives us a new perspective on the problems. In this way, we are successful in unraveling those paths that we thought never existed.


How Businesses are Using Design Thinking for Innovation?

The business environment was never as volatile as it is today. Innovation is the key to business success. Therefore, businesses need to generate innovative solutions to conventional problems they face by following the design thinking creative process.


Formulating business strategy using design thinking is becoming increasingly popular in a business environment because it offers deeper consumer insights and out of the box solutions to the problems. It is also helpful in stages of product design and packaging which helps in maximizing the market opportunity, while giving a competitive edge to the businesses.


Global business giants like Google, IBM, Apple, and Uber are already torchbearers in this regard. If you want to know how design thinking has led to the invention of some of the great consumer goods as well as educational, financial and healthcare services, then visit the page THE ACCIDENTAL DESIGN THINKER.




Design Thinking – a Solution-based Approach


Design thinking facilitates in developing the skills that are critical for the success of an individual. Keep in mind that design thinking is a solution-based approach rather than a problem-based approach. You may be wondering what’s the difference between these two approaches? Well, the answer lies in their names.


As the name suggests, the problem-based approach focuses on the problems, hindrances and obstacles. On the other hand, the solution-based approach focuses optimistically on the possible solutions to the problems. Hence, we can conclude that the solution-based approach is more successful in solving the problems than the problem-based approach.





Design Thinking Process Steps

Now, let’s discuss the five steps of the design thinking methodology. Keep in mind that these steps are non-linear, i.e. they are not sequential. It is not mandatory to follow these steps in sequential order rather can also go through these steps in a parallel fashion.





1. Empathy – Understanding your Problem

This is the first step of the design thinking iterative innovation process which emphasizes on empathizing with your target audience by immersing yourself in their physical environment. The purpose of this stage is to conduct some user research to gain deeper insights into the user needs, feelings, and behavior towards the problem they are facing. In other words, the design thinker puts himself in users shoes for solving problems that are affecting them.


Accumulate as much information as possible by employing qualitative and mixed research methods to analyze user needs. Depending upon the available resources, design thinkers can consult with the experts besides users.



2. Define – Problem Statement

Using the information amassed during the empathy phase, define the problem creatively in a user-centric way. The observations made in the first stage are synthesized for defining the problem meaningfully. Your own assumptions and company's wishes should not overshadow your problem statement.


This phase is critical for the success of the other phases because when you have effectively formulated a problem statement, only then you can transpire creative solutions. If the problem statement is ambiguous, it can lead to misleading solutions or you can end up nowhere. A proper definition will give you and your team a sense of clarity and hence you can spark off in the right direction.


The Good and Bad Problem Statement

Besides being a user-centered approach, the problem statement should be broad enough and not single out a precise method that should be used to find the solution. In other words, it should focus on the user rather than the resources which should be used to solve the problem.


For example, the problem statement “To improve the health conditions by training doctors” makes no sense in the design thinking approach because the solution is already narrowed down in the problem statement.


But keep in mind that the problem statement should not be too broad either, which means that by reading it a person should get a fair idea of the problem. For example, the problem statement “To improve health conditions” is too broad and an example of a bad problem statement.





3. Ideate – Generate Ideas through Brainstorming

As the name suggests, the ideation phase is about generating ideas to arrive at a realistic solution. This phase is about brainstorming the possible solutions to the problem. In this phase, the designers use the gathered information from the last two stages to come up with out of the box solutions to the problem defined in the problem statement.


Besides, brainstorming you can employ other techniques like brain write, worst possible idea, challenge assumptions, analogies and scamper to evaluate alternatives. However, brainstorming is the most popular method to generate ideas.


Creativity and critical thinking skills come in full swing in this phase of the design thinking process. This is the phase where designers use divergent thinking to unearth solutions that were never imagined before by anyone else. This phase demands patience, team interactivity, and concentration to generate fruitful results.


4. Prototype - Samples/Simulations of a Product or Service

In this experimental phase, design thinkers develop prototypes of the solutions related to the problem statement generated in the ideation phase. Rapid prototyping is an iterative process of experimentation. These prototypes are inexpensive versions of the product which are re-evaluated again and again based on the requirement.


In other words, in this phase, we are able to discover what works and what doesn’t. The purpose of rapid prototyping is to specify the best possible solution to the given problem. The prototypes or inexpensive versions of the products are tested repeatedly and the phase ends with the selection of the best prototype.


5. Test - Testing the Solution

This is the last stage of the design thinking process map. After you have selected the best possible solution in the prototyping phase, you need to test that prototype rigorously. If during the testing phase, you find that the solution needs to be more refined, you can move to the previous steps because design thinking is a repeatable process.




In this phase, you should be empathetic towards the users and demonstrate how a specific solution is the best among all the alternatives. Soliciting user feedback is critical for the refinement of the solution or a product. In other words, we can say that this phase demands the practical demonstration of the solution rather than relying on storytelling.


How Schools are Using Design Thinking for Education?

Schools worldwide are adopting design methods and processes by integrating this pedagogical approach in their curricula and syllabus for innovation. D school at Sandford University is a pioneer in this regard. In the educational industry, primary, middle and high school teachers are employing hands-on activities in the class guided by design principles and processes which help students to solve problems affecting millions of population worldwide. Teaching early childhood education through design thinking prepares students for future success.




The schools conduct design thinking workshops, fieldwork, education week and summer learning programs to encourage creativity among the students. In these workshops and summer programs, authentic problems related to socioeconomic and human development subjects are presented to the students to encourage them to use their good design and logical reasoning skills to reach a viable solution.


Consequently, these workshops can promote student learning through hands-on experiences and experimentation. During the design thinking activity in the class, the teacher serves as a facilitator who guides the students through the whole process, while encouraging students to collaborate and think critically.




Top universities across the world are teaching design thinking courses because they know that in the 21st century; creative and critical thinking are the most sought-after skills by employers. Design thinking is especially critical in entrepreneurship education programs because they lead to positive youth development and cultivate entrepreneurial mindset among them.


Educators think that the integration of design thinking methodology at the school level will prepare the students for the coming challenges. As a result, we will be able to see more inventors and entrepreneurs in the future than ever before.





Benefits of Design Thinking in Education

Some of the benefits of incorporating design thinking in education are given below:

  • The process is supporting the students to learn actively and enhance their analytical thinking and reasoning skills.

  • Design thinking supports in tackling the deep-rooted fear of failure among the students and encourages them to accept the criticism with an open heart.

  • During the entire iterative design cycle, students can learn many valuable lessons from learning to empathize with human needs and desires to the importance of working as a team by solving complex problems.

  • Going through the stages of design thinking, students can rediscover themselves. It gives them a sense of achievement and confidence which is a valuable asset in their lives.

Design Thinking Activities in Schools


Number of online resources are available for educators that leverage the creative problem-solving skills of the students and enable them to emerge as thinkers and innovators. Some of these design thinking activities for students which give them immersive learning experiences through engaging in hands-on class projects are given below:


1. Design thinking for educators


Refine the design thinking skills in the classroom using an instructional design toolkit on this website. It also contains examples of human-centered designs used by the schools to tackle real-world problems.


2. Nureva


This website has 6 design thinking project ideas that assist students to enhance their problem solving and creative thinking skills. Students will dive into the design process to evaluate the best solutions to problems.


3. LiveTiles


This website has 3 design thinking projects which you can implement in your classroom following principles of design thinking in a fun way. Teachers can examine the prototype development process and guide the students to analyze the design solutions.


4. Edutopia


Navigate through this website to access 10 project ideas. These projects will help students to brainstorm innovative ideas to tackle some of the piercing issues. At the end of the activity, teachers should solicit student feedback on these activities to know how the problems can be defined more creatively.


5. Hacking Elementary


This website has some of the amazing design-driven ideas for elementary teachers. It will help the students in idea generation and will guide them through problem-solving process.


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