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What Is Design Thinking, and Why Do You Need to Know About It?

Design thinking is rapidly emerging as one of the most talked about methodologies in the business world, with big brands – from Apple to Telsa – using it to enhance their user experience and their commercial success.

But what exactly is it, and why is it a skill that professionals today should look to harness?


What Is Design Thinking?

What is design thinking

Design thinking is both an ideology and a process. It is a way of solving complex problems in a user centric, and often creative way. At its heart, it focuses on seeking to gain an in-depth understanding of people’s needs to come up with constructive solutions to meet them. It is not simply the domain of design departments; instead it is a strategic tool that has been adopted holistically by some of the globe’s most successful businesses to ensure they continue to innovate. By drilling a problem or customer need down into smaller pieces, they identify the core issues at hand, and from there, build a picture of the most critical aspects of the issue to devise an effective resolution. In short, design thinking keeps companies in tune with their customers, their problems, and empowers them to create real, effective and creative solutions. 

As Dr Stuart English, Programme Academic on our Design Management MA explains, it is not a new methodology:

“People such as Herb Simon and Bruce Archer started thinking about design as a thinking process back in late 1960. However, with the growth of digital technology, it’s now more important than ever that companies can innovate at speed in order to stay current and move with the times. Innovation is a direct by-product of how we think about problems and situations and adopting a design thinking way of approaching a situation is a perfect way to come up with new solutions. As businesses grow and evolve, and the market changes, design thinking is able to reimagine and reconsider the assets of an organisation in relation to the social and economic needs of the time.” 


What Are The 5 Stages of Design Thinking? 

Video about How to Put Design Thinking into Practice

There are multiple design thinking frameworks that companies can look to follow to put design thinking into practice. One of the most popular design thinking methods focuses on five simple stages: 

  1. Empathise - during this stage in the process, teams get to know customers – their unique needs, wants and frustrations – on a psychological and emotional level through a range of immersion and observation techniques. 
  2. Define - with the in-depth customer knowledge garnered during step one, companies are armed with the tools they need to understand the situation in hand and create a ‘problem statement’. This statement provides a clear description of the issues that their customers are currently facing that their final innovation should look to solve.  
  3. Ideate - this stage is dedicated to generating a set of ideas that could solve your problem statement, bringing together the in-depth knowledge of customers, the in-depth understanding of the problem the company has chosen to explore and the business’ imagination.  
  4. Prototype - the penultimate stage is to decide which ideas should be selected for prototyping, creating a scaled-down version of a product which will help test an innovation before investing money into its development.  
  5. Test - end users are asked to test a prototype in the context of their everyday life, which may reveal unexpected insights leading to the refinement of the prototype.  

Find out more about the Design Thinking process and how it works in practice here.


Change By Design: Using Design Thinking to Drive Growth 

One thing is clear: in design-focused companies, there’s a clear shift from viewing design simply as the remit of a separate team who are concerned with how a product looks or feels. Instead, customers are at the centre of the process which permeates throughout the business – and departments from marketing to HR use design thinking as a tool to sharpen their competitive edge. The five simple steps outlined above become a tool for change, transforming the way that companies do business. It’s a way of thinking that works: a study by the Design Management Institute revealed that design-focused businesses like Apple, Coca-Cola and Nike exceeded the performance of S&P 500 companies by 219% over a ten-year period.  

Here are four companies that are successfully using design thinking to place their customers at the heart of their business to drive growth: 


  1. Tesla are using design thinking to combine advanced technology with business viability and human desirability to reach a worldwide revenue of 21 billion US dollars. 
  2. Netflix used design thinking to transform their transformation from a DVD mail order distribution company to become the world’s biggest streaming service. Find out more about how Netflix’s design thinking tricks keep us watching.  
  3. Apple used design thinking to turn their fortunes around to become a market leader. They are world renowned for their ability to consider both the form and the function of their products and services to create simple, holistic user-friendly experiences. Find out more about how design thinking is one of the key secrets to Apple’s success. 
  4. Eve Products Ltd have worked in conjunction with academics from Northumbria University to explore their business problems from multiple different perspectives and used design thinking to identify commercial solutions. The result? Five new product ranges and an increased turnover of nearly 200 per cent. Find out more about the project here.


Bridge the gap between the creative and the strategic  

Design thinking is a methodology we’re passionate about here at Northumbria School of Design. With an illustrious alumni list consisting of individuals in influential positions globally – from Rob Law MBE, founder of Trunki, to Sir Jony Ive, former chief designer of Apple products such as the iPad and iMac – we understand how to nurture design thinking talent that drives social change and economic growth. Design thinking is at the heart of our online Design Management Masters. Taught directly by academic staff with research specialisms in the area, you’ll learn to apply creative solutions to problems in order to create new opportunities. 

Discover more about our Design Management MA and our Design Thinking module.

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