The Practice & Art of Thinking

Design Thinking – Towards a Definition – Part 1


There is really no consensus for the definition of Design Thinking (DT). This might not be a problem, however, as it is gaining popularity. Businesses and consultants are tackling DT and it is being taught in business schools.

When business people are asked to describe what DT is, there are a variety of explanations. Definitions may vary but there is a consistency in their understanding – it describes a particular style of creative thinking in action associated with the way problems are solved.

As long as results are achieved and people understand that creativity is a ‘gold mine’ that needs to be tapped into for the benefit of both business and society – then this definition works.

Having said this, I still think that definitions are good. They provide us with the essence of what the concept is; they elaborate and refine methods and provide a body of knowledge that can improve our problem solving.

My definition (or rather, framework) is captured by the metaphor of a spinning top.

Spinning Top

Spinning Top

Without going into the physics of how a spinning top works, a top will continue to remain in beautiful motion for a very long time, so long as the various forces can maintain a balance. Once one of these starts to falter, the top will become just another object losing its qualities.

My model for DT uses this principle. One needs to consider the various elements constantly and not just focus on or select one that interests us. All elements need to be considered, where essentially one is trying to make sense through abductive reasoning (searching for possibilities) and non-linearity principles, (where everything is interconnected and not sequential) to solve problems and delight our customers.

Design Thinking Model By Rui Martins

Design Thinking Model By Rui Martins

The framework that can help us in some way define DT is captured in the diagram above. The model has three layers and recognises the complex interaction of the business environment. The plethora of issues requires a broad mindset of being able to deal with the complex interactions – multi-layered problems require integration skills. I recommend using a non-linear framework (I use this often in various posts and in a future post, I will be exploring the mindset required to use complexity principles).

Based on this principle (integrative), one is making sense of the different elements that need to be considered simultaneously and interactively:

  • Visualisation.
  • Ethnography.
  • Ideation.
  • Empathy
  • Story-telling
  • Pattern Finding
  • Rapid Prototyping.

Notice that some in the list above like visualisation, ideation and empathy are mindset attitudes and skills rather than processes.

The rise in DT as an approach to solving business problems is exciting and signals that change is taking place.

A world of ‘one size fits’ all is fading. Business has realised this and is taking action. Making the shift from Knowledge as a specialised ‘process’ to Knowledge as a ‘design tool’ is a dramatic leap in approach to management of business – ‘thinking’ is king once again.

The traditional mindset in business is one of cause-and-effect relationships, where problems are simplified to the point where actions produce a guaranteed result. In this situation, if business does not do well, the problem is because of exogenous factors beyond the manager’s control. However, if we recognise reality as organic and non-linear – complexity as the norm – the action required is to deal with the complex variables simultaneously, rather than to ‘tame’ the problem as an artificial construct.

Integrative thinking and design thinking is an approach that considers many variables in the decision process; the ability to internalise and conceptualise non-linearly-structured relationships between the important variables. It is imperative to simultaneously be able to maintain a view of the whole problem whilst working on the individual parts; and the ability to harmonize and synthesize alternative standpoints, rather than choose between them, all the while retaining the ability to act, read the economic landscape and launch products or services in a timely manner.

The ability to zoom in and out of the problem is a skill to nurture and a fundamental mindset to cultivate.

Adapted image - original by Mi624352921 Dreamstime.

Adapted image – original by Mi624352921 Dreamstime.

Author: Rui D S Martins

Creative Director and founder of MindVision Technologies

6 thoughts on “Design Thinking – Towards a Definition – Part 1

  1. Nice answer back in return of this difficulty with real arguments and explaining everything regarding that.


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    • HI Krystle,
      As to your request to quoting some of my articles – not a problem.
      Providing credit and links back to my blog page is appreciated.
      All the best.


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