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How do people define design thinking?

There’s no one definition of design thinking. At IDEO, it’s a set of both mindsets and design-based activities that foster the collaboration required to solve problems in human-centered ways. It’s not a fail-safe approach; nor is it the only approach.

The following are a collection of reflections on how a mix of people define design thinking.

  • “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” —Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

  • “Design thinking is a way of finding human needs and creating new solutions using the tools and mindsets of design practitioners. When we use the term ‘design’ alone, most people ask what we think about their curtains or where we bought our glasses. But a ‘design thinking approach’ means more than just paying attention to aesthetics or developing physical products. Design thinking is a methodology. Using it, we can address a wide variety of personal, social, and business challenges in creative new ways.” — David Kelley, IDEO founder, and Tom Kelley, Partner

  • “Design thinking is to have a bias toward action and empathy toward who you are designing for … to not have a fear of failure.” — Bernie Roth, Director Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University

“The new liberal art of design thinking is turning to the modality of impossibility. It points, for example, toward the impossibility of rigid boundaries between industrial design, engineering, and marketing. It points toward the impossibility of relying on any one of the sciences (natural, social, or humanistic) for adequate solutions to what are the inherently wicked problems of design thinking. Finally, it points toward something that is often forgotten, that what many people call ‘impossible’ may actually only be a limitation of imagination that can be overcome by better design thinking.” — Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” 1992

“What is design thinking? It means stepping back from the immediate issue and taking a broader look. It requires systems thinking: realizing that any problem is part of a larger whole, and that the solution is likely to require understanding the entire system.” — Don Norman

“Design thinking is a method of problem-solving that relies on a complex set of skills, processes, and mindsets that help people generate novel solutions to problems. Design thinking can result in new objects, ideas, narratives, or systems. The excitement over design thinking lies in the proposition that anyone can learn to do it. The democratic promise of design thinking is that once design thinking has been mastered anyone can go about redesigning the systems, infrastructures, and organizations that shape our lives.” — Shelley Goldman, Stanford School of Education, and Zaza Kabayadondo, Design Thinking Initiative at Smith College

“Design thinking is abductive in nature. It is primarily concerned with the process of visualizing what might be, some desired future state, and creating a blueprint for realizing that intention.” — Jeanne Liedtka, University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business

“Design thinking is … always linked to an improved future. [...] design thinking is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas.” — Fast Company

“Design thinking is a process — applicable to all walks of life — of creating new and innovative ideas and solving problems. It is not limited to a specific industry or area of expertise.” — Kaan Turnali, Forbes

“Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving.” — Coe Leta Stafford, Managing Director, IDEO U