The promise of design thinking

In earlier times, innovation was mainly guided by top-down policy- and strategy-making. In contrast, a vision project employs a bottom-up approach, based on design thinking, in which concrete and contextual elements are the driving forces of the process (Munnecke & van der Lugt 2006). The project team is typically multi-disciplinary and led by designers that pragmatically integrate insights across a wide spectrum. This formula has proven successful in producing highly creative visions and proposals that transcend the conventional frames of solutions (Brown 2008).

The power of design thinking comes from the designers’ pragmatic and solution-oriented way of working (Cross 1982). They comfortably integrate technical, social, economical, and emotional aspects into a greater picture, and deploy an efficient, learning-by-doing approach to effectively conceptualize and give form to radical innovations. Some of the designers’ most important skills are their creativity, imagination, and ability to think laterally and holistically. Another important skill of the designer is visualization, which makes it possible to capture ideas, concepts, scenarios, and visions in a visual format that is easy to understand and communicate throughout an organization. Such visuals fertilise dialogue across disciplinary boundaries in the organisation and can act as a common language across different divisions.

Last but not least, designers are exceptional at observing and empathising with people. In the past decades, designers have incorporated many ethnographic methods into their toolbox, so that they now have a unique capability to understand the complex interplay between products, people, and the everyday context – which is all-important for changing everyday activities and addressing modern challenges.

Radical innovation may change everyday activities and thereby address modern challenges.

The present moment is crucial in the history of design. Only recently has design thinking been given a prominent role in solving modern challenges. However, the trust and hope that is being put on the shoulders of designers is no easy burden to lift. If modern challenges are to be solved by design thinking, then the quality of the proposals must match the potential consequences. Leading design researchers question whether design can step up to the mark (Cooper 2006; Hands 2009), especially as stakes rise due to the emergence of complex global and environmental issues which leave no room for learning by trial and error.

If design thinking does not step up to the mark, trust in design thinking may be quickly withdrawn. This would be an unfortunate development, because design thinking has great potential to deal with modern challenges and create long-term sustainable value for people, business, and society at large.

Extract from PhD thesis “Everyday-Oriented Innovation”