Design thinking draws attention to the skill and craft of designers, while promoting a shared language and a set of creative tools to better address a vast range of issues. This process doesn’t turn every individual into a designer—we hold tremendous esteem for trained designers across all disciplines, and their expertise and craft are integral to successful collaboration and problem-solving. What design thinking does do is draw on the mindset that skilled designers cultivate—strategies for unlocking creativity, approaching the unknown with curious confidence, and being unafraid to try new approaches.
There are many celebrated designers of the past century who model this approach. From small products to large buildings; from household objects to industrial systems, we can look to trailblazers like Ray and Charles Eames, Naoto Fukasawa, Florence Knoll, Dieter Rams, Le Corbusier, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and countless others to understand the many stars that constellate the notion of design thinking. Each of these individuals knew that to design well requires attention to context and consequences. An elegant and effective solution doesn't exist in isolation, but in connection with the systems that support it, and that it in turn supports. It's this outlook that informs our deep research process and necessitates prioritizing human needs and listening to human voices on the way to design innovation.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been introduced to the basic concepts of design thinking through classes at business schools and engineering schools, or through online courses and freely available toolkits. Upon learning about design thinking, many people quickly adopt it as a common-sense approach for solving problems. In the context of business, its influence on organizational culture—with an emphasis on collaborative teams, human-centeredness, and learning through exploration and experimentation—can have immediate, clear benefits. As they come to rely on the tools, traits, and mindsets of designers, many experience a-ha moments, suddenly seeing the world and their work differently. Individuals awaken to their creative capacity, and teams get further faster when equipped with these new skills, often making progress in a fraction of the time it took to accomplish goals through their entrenched methods.
Of course, this elemental advantage of design thinking is also a weakness. While beginners can easily learn and engage productively with the approach, they can also get stuck in the basic motions of design thinking, while missing opportunities to move from a shallow to a deeper understanding and practice. Truly mastering design thinking takes time, practice, and mentorship. There are no shortcuts. Nor are there precise roadmaps or timetables. In our experience at IDEO, the arc of mastery is long and the end point can move just as you near it. There’s also the matter that mastery needs to be achieved at two levels: personal and organizational. Mastering design thinking as an individual without the ability to share and apply it within an organization limits the overall potential of the approach.
Designers draw on many tools depending on their particular approach, the constraints of the challenge, and the intended outcome of the work. IDEO has a history of designing tools and kits to meet its own needs, as we did in 2003 with the creation of the IDEO Method Cards, designed to help our teams keep people's needs at the center of their work. Arguably most notable is this human-centered design toolkit developed over the years with our sister company, IDEO.org, who also created this travel pack of guiding cards to generate and direct design work. IDEO has even developed a toolkit to cultivate design thinking for educators.
Toolkits are not a silver bullet for problem-solving. On occasion, a toolkit can become Pandora’s box—a cluttered and complicated array that generates false confidence and leads to trouble. Some of the key activities suggested for design-led work, such as deep immersion with stakeholders, rapid prototyping, and storytelling, can be applied in shallow ways that overlook the role of craft and close the door to insights. To move past this, we need master teachers who can lead the way within their own organizations and act as a liaison, bringing in constructive outside resources and inspiration, then infusing the organization with those new ideas through approaches that suit the culture and make adoption more natural.
Design thinking holds tremendous potential for tackling some of the world’s most challenging problems, but in order to realize that potential, we need a critical mass of trained design thinking leaders. As part of IDEO’s commitment to maintaining the integrity and utility of design thinking, we have created—and continue to develop—ways to train and enable leaders who are prepared to face and address those large-scale challenges. These include IDEO U, our online school where learners can take a flexible online class or multi-week course to develop the skills of design thinking and mindsets of creative leadership; as well as OpenIDEO, an open innovation platform that enables and empowers people around the world to undertake design challenges that address their own communities' needs.