Definitions of design thinking

September 7, 2008 — 62 Comments

In my HBR article I gave a ‘definition’ of design thinking. It was:

Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

On reflection this is a narrow description that focuses on design thinking’s role within business. The next sentence that I wrote.“….design thinking converts need into demand” , which I borrowed from Peter Drucker, broadens things out a bit but still assumes an economic motivation.

I am grappling with two questions as I think about this.

1. Is there a general definition of design thinking?

2. Is it useful to have one?

Tim Brown


62 responses to Definitions of design thinking

  1. A definition can be given if some rules can be applied. So the question is , what rules can we apply in order to use the imaginary part of our brain .

  2. Hi Tim,

    My view of the definition below……the problem – solution approach and the application of the principles to drive greater good through current and emerging technologies, beyond just the business opportunity……and trying to improving our world.

    Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to understand the problems that people and society are dealing with.

    Design thinking helps discover unmet needs, anticipates and matches people’s needs with what is [and what could be] technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value, market opportunity and social good.

  3. Shonali Mahajan November 1, 2013 at 1:30 am

    Design thinking for me is a simple solution to problems that are perceived to be complex. As designers we tend to break down the problem to it’s seed and build up from there on, eliminating the unnecessary and transforming the remaining vital parts into an aesthetic thought or product. A process aiming towards simplification & provision of a product or service whose benefits can be explained in a sentence.
    So to answer your question, I do think it’s useful to have a general definition for design thinking, though a broader design thinking theory will find itself adapting to economic and social situations.

  4. To me Design Thinking means, ‘do not think like a designer’ and keep trying so. Fix a probable deadline >> try to unearth the best >> sell it >> sit back to make it better … natures theory.

  5. Nur Ahmad Furlong April 26, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    Hi Tim, firstly we owe you a great deal of thanks for the great work you’ve done in bringing DT to the fore. It does seem to be gaining massive traction these days though still on a very superficial level. It also seems to be exploited as you say mostly for economic gain which I believe waters down the purpose of Design as an inherent human driver towards improving the human condition regardless of economics. Personally I feel service design is making a good go and completely overtaking any iterations of DT due to the economic drivers behind it.

    In many cases the economic motivations are what create many of the unfavourable situations we’re trying to change. I’m not saying profit or economic consideration is bad or not important just that it has a way of tainting things. Sincerity of intention being one of them.

    I’m developing some coursework on the subject and having been agonising over definitions for some time, opting mostly to quote a range from the spectrum and failing at developing my own concise definitions.

    From the perspective of Design, not just DT, I wrote the following:

    It is the expression of a purposeful intention to improve the human condition through the creation of objects and systems.

    I was considering adding meaning or value to the end of that one.
    I also wrote on attempting to sum up DT

    design thinking is a mindset, method, approach and/or set of tools applied in order to achieve human centred innovation, which will add sustainable and meaningful value within the contexts of business and society at large.

    I Would love to hear how your personal definitions might be changing in the current climate.
    I’d also love your feedback on my attempts above.

  6. Avnish Priya Gautam May 14, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Hi Tim !

    Design Thinking = Design +Thinking :> Thinking with Designer’s Mind
    And if I Peep into designer’s Mind, I see :-
    Empathy towards the User, Manufacturer, Society.
    Adds Emotional perspective to every thought ot Idea.
    Ability to connect things which otherwise seems to have no strings at all :)

    Another thing which i see in His mind is that a Designer can also Imagine from Product’s perpective :)


  7. I think this is one of the most important info for me.
    And i’m glad reading your article. But want to remark on few general things, The site style is great, the articles is really great :
    D. Good job, cheers

  8. Excellent post. I used to be checking constantly this blog and I’m inspired!
    Very useful info particularly the ultimate part :) I deal with such information a lot.
    I was looking for this certain info for a
    long time. Thanks and good luck.

  9. I blog frequently and I genuinely appreciate your information. The article has truly peaked my
    interest. I am going to book mark your site and keep checking for new details about once a week.
    I subscribed to your Feed too.

  10. You actually make it seem really easy together with your presentation however I in finding this matter to be actually one thing which I believe I would never understand.
    It kind of feels too complex and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking ahead on your subsequent post, I’ll attempt to get the hold of

  11. Sudhir Kesavan March 4, 2015 at 7:24 am

    When the guru poses this question I marvel at the humility and the challenge of simplifying that is posed in it. A bit of a background, I am kick starting a start up initiative in FinTech space and one of the tools I am encouraging the team to use is DT (have also left the Change By Design on the table to see if they are takers / curious folks).

    To answer your second question first:
    2) I believe there should be a definition because DT is getting misused (which to an extent is to be expected) but importantly mis-understood which needs to be avoided if it could. Too many folks are wedded to Six Sigma and analytical approach and start from the improvement construct.

    For the first question; I describe it to my team and the some of the other folks where i have submitted that DT would serve the need as follows:

    1) DT is the discipline of re-imagining and creating sustainable processes, systems, structures and business models through an empathetic and anticipatory humanistic approach using today’s brilliant technologies and cross disciplinary thinking which addresses unmet, desired and unanticipated needs of all affected stakeholders.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Vol. 2: - October 1, 2008

    Design Thinking and the likes…

    Erik knows my work and thinking on Strategy and Strategic Management for quite a while (also because he used to be one of my post-graduate Master of Design Management students at Inholland University, Rotterdam [the programme has been terminated in cas…

Leave a Reply


* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>