7 design thinking principles liberated from design thinking methods

Design thinkers were around a long time before “Design Thinking” was considered to be a discipline. These are some folks from America’s past that I see as design thinkers and the fields they impacted:

  • Benjamin Franklin — civic institutions: lending library, postal system, fire department
  • Fredrick Law Olmsted — landscape architecture
  • Henry Ford — the automobile, manufacturing
  • Walt Disney — animated films, theme parks
  • Steve Jobs — personal technology
  • Oprah Winfrey — personalized mass media

These design leaders followed principles that we may now regard as design thinking, though they never would have used that label. By their examples it should be clear that design thinking cannot be packaged into a fixed set of methods to be applied universally. If we try to do so, we may lose the spirit of design thinking itself. Rather, I think it would be useful to have two conversations that we keep separate:

  1. To discuss the principles that are at play in design thinking and why they are valuable.
  2. To discuss useful methods for applying design thinking principles and why those methods work or do not work in various contexts.

What I hope to do here is contribute to the conversation about the principles of design thinking. I believe that by keeping principles and methods separated, we can avoid unnecessary disputes and instead help one another become better designers. So I offer for your consideration…

Seven powerful design thinking principles

These seven principles have helped me understand and apply design thinking. Other designers would express these ideas differently or might add or subtract from the list. All such responses are welcome, as I think we can all learn from a vigorous discussion.

Design is purposeful

de·sign /dəˈzīn/…1.1. Do or plan (something) with a
specific purpose or intention in mind. — Oxford Dictionaries

Art need not be purposeful, only expressive, but design is purposeful by definition. Design thinkers have found that defining the purpose of a project from the outset is a crucial aspect of design thinking. Then a whole team can rally around the stated purpose, even when many people are involved, and the design team can tell if the project is on track or running off the rails.

In both corporate and charitable work, high level purposes are often stated in terms of quantitative results, such as profits or feeding a certain number of people. At the implementation level, purposes are often stated in terms of launching a certain product or service. For the design thinker, however, the most effective way to define the purpose of a project is in terms of improving a particular aspect of human experience in the daily lives of an identified group of people or “users.” This is because of the second big principle…

It’s all about human experience

A hallmark of design thinking is that it focuses on human experience, specifically, individual human experience. The mindset of a design thinker is to carefully consider existing human experience in some domain and how it can be incrementally improved by the product, service, or process being designed.

So, for example, a design thinker might consider the anxiety a person feels when they miss a flight and how that anxiety might be reduced by providing quick, frictionless access to customer service. To the design thinker, the objective is not to try to reduce the complaint rate of passengers in general, but to reduce the pain points and improve the experience of individual passengers. A corporate objective of reducing complaint rates would likely be achieved, but the design thinker believes the quickest and most reliable way to get good aggregate results is by focusing on improving individual experience.

Design thinkers talk about empathy because empathy is the human emotion that is necessary to understand the current experience of others in order to consider how to improve that experience. But empathy is not just a feeling; it is a practice that involves deliberately learning about the experience of potential users through research that typically involves direct contact with them.

Perhaps the primary reason that design thinking is powerful is that it connects people — users — with the thing being designed. When the design process successfully addresses the needs and pain points of the intended users, it is very likely that those users will embrace the resulting design. When that happens, the larger goals of the sponsor of the design project are likely to be achieved.

You work with what you have

This is the extreme pragmatic side of design thinking. You do what you can with what you have. Two ways this pragmatism plays out are in embracing constraints and embracing ambiguity. Embracing constraints means that you accept the financial, time, personnel, facilities, technological, and engineering constraints that you actually have. Embracing ambiguity means that both the full nature of the problem and the nature of the solution may not at first be apparent, but you move forward with the confidence that your design thinking process will help clearly define the problem and surface good solutions. This attitude of working with what you have makes design thinking applicable in many, many situations.

Design is refined by iteration

Design thinkers have a bias toward producing some kind of visual or tangible prototype of a design very early on, then using the prototype to begin to:

  1. Get feedback from potential users, the design team, and the project sponsor as soon as possible;
  2. Improve the design accordingly; and
  3. Repeat the prototyping and feedback loop until the design team is satisfied that the design purpose is being met.

Working with actual prototypes and early versions of the item being designed exposes flaws and inspires new ideas. It gives the design team a tangible focal point for discussion and design improvement. It gives the team a freedom to experiment, knowing that the design will be tested in a relatively inexpensive way so that the team is encouraged to gain valuable learnings from failures rather than be punished for them.

Design solutions are in layers

Many designers find it useful to think of design solutions in layers that correspond with different aspects of human experience. These are the layers we have found useful in our practice:

  1. Make it meaningful — create something that will solve a problem in human experience. At our company, Tapity, we call this strategic design.
  2. Make it usable — create something that is intuitive and easy to use by the users it is intended to serve. We call this interaction design.
  3. Make it delightful — make thoughtful use of graphics, sound, choice of words, and other sensory elements to create something that is enjoyable to use. We call this emotional design.

Initially, we build the design layers one upon the other, but as we build, the layers interact with each other to create a complete experience that can be recognized as great design.

Design is a team sport

Artistry is typically individualistic because it is an expression of something that comes from within the artist. Design — as understood by design thinkers — is about serving people by improving human experience. It benefits greatly from having a team of people working on the design project in order to get the benefit of:

  1. Many perspectives on human experience in order to better understand the design problem;
  2. Varying knowledge and skills to help develop design solutions; and
  3. The creative stimulation that comes from working with a diverse group of people with a common purpose.

A good team leader should create an atmosphere in which every team member feels comfortable both contributing their ideas and critiquing others’ ideas. A good team member will keep their focus on creating the best experience for the user and not favor the ideas they have personally contributed. The design result will typically be such an amalgam of ideas presented, tweaked, and built upon that it feels like the team’s design, not the design of any particular member.

Design not executed is failed design

Design thinking has a bias toward execution. If a design is never implemented, it will not benefit anybody. So if a beneficial design can be deployed, it may be profitable to implement it even if it has known flaws. Then iteration should continue after initial deployment to further improve the experience delivered.

In order to create the best chance of implementing a design, design thinkers will typically try to keep the design simple and focus its features on the essence of how it will improve human experience. Simple designs focused on a specific aspect of experience tend to be easier for the sponsor to deliver and easier for users to embrace. If a design is never delivered because it tries to do too much, it in fact does nothing and is therefore a failed design.

So what about methods?

We should not try to limit design thinking to a set of methods, or we may lose the essence of design thinking itself, which is at its essence adaptable. On the other hand, we absolutely need methods to guide us in applying design thinking. Methods are like tools in our toolbox that we draw from to solve design problems. However, rather than be limited to a set number of tools, I suggest that:

We need to use design thinking to grow the design thinking toolbox.

Candidate for design thinking?

Could design thinking be applied to improve the experience of employees using the office break room with a budget of $500? The answer should be yes, but we need mini-methods for such situations that can be applied quickly and efficiently. Could design thinking be applied to design a postal system for a third-world country? Again, the answer should be yes, but a design thinking methodology would be needed that deploys far different tools than for designing the experience of the office break room. For such large projects, it may be neccesary to custom design the methods themselves as the first step in the design process.

So let’s have a robust conversation about the principles of design thinking and then venture out to apply those principles to a vast array of different kinds of problems by sharpening the tools (methods) we already have in our toolbox and by designing new ones.

To learn more about designing in layers, click here to get a free “layers of design” list of top inspirational resources on strategic design, interaction design, and emotional design.

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Design thinking, unboxed was originally published in The Design Innovator on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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