The Design Thinking Process

A picture frame, camera, light bulb, scissors, clipboard, and microphone representing the design thinking process.


Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving that centers on the needs of people. It starts with what is desirable from a human point of view, along with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

With design thinking, the six phases—framing a question, gathering inspiration, generative ideas, making ideas tangible, testing to learn, and sharing the story—form an iterative approach that is adapted for each specific challenge. We teach the phases of design thinking as linear steps, but in practice the process is not always linear. Some of the phases may happen several times, and you may move back and forth between them. As you start learning about design thinking, it’s helpful to understand the six phases of the process.

Frame A Question

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In the design thinking process, it’s critical to determine the question that you’re asking before jumping to potential solutions. Start with curiosity and a beginner’s mindset. As you work to define a problem, “why?” questions can be helpful for uncovering a challenge or opportunity. A great question that led to the invention of the Polaroid Instant Camera in the 1940s was asked by the founder’s four-year-old daughter, who wondered, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”

Taking the time to craft a good question will inspire your team and lead to stronger ideas that actually address the needs of your customers. Remember the power of questions—they help you to learn more. Later on, “What if?” questions are effective for encouraging brainstorming, and “How?” questions are useful for narrowing in and implementing ideas. You’ll oftentimes return to this part of the process and ask questions at multiple points throughout your design thinking journey.

Try this activity: Lead through questions

Gather Inspiration

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An important piece of design thinking is drawing inspiration from what people really need. Observation, interviews, and surveys can help you to better understand the groups you’re working with. When you listen actively and step into another point of view, you build empathy in a way that allows you to bring in a diverse set of ideas and perspectives, which can lead to more creative solutions.

When you are gathering inspiration, focus on staying open to different contexts and ways of thinking. One activity that can be useful is analogous inspiration, which involves looking at analogous contexts outside of the particular field you’re working with to spark new insights. You can then start to brainstorm ideas with the insights you uncover through your research.

Try this activity: Explore analogous inspiration

Generate Ideas

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When brainstorming new ideas, you diverge and explore all of the possible solutions to a problem before converging on the best ones. Divergent thinking focuses on quantity over quality, prompting you to share ideas that might seem wild or unfeasible. Then, you narrow down with convergent thinking. You might diverge and converge many times before moving forward with an idea.

As you ideate with your team, keep in mind the 7 rules of brainstorming, which include deferring judgment and building on the ideas of others. An activity that can encourage groups to be more creative and generative is the magic circle, where you momentarily set aside constraints and dream big. Afterward, you can use your constraints to evaluate and refine your ideas.

Try this activity: Brainstorm wild ideas

Make Ideas Tangible

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Prototypes provide a way to communicate your ideas by making them tangible. They can take many forms, from a sketch to a cardboard model. When you create a prototype, it allows you to get feedback from others and learn what’s working. In the process of building a rough version of your idea, you may even discover more ideas that you hadn’t thought of before.

There are many different kinds of prototypes that you can create. When getting started, be quick and scrappy using whatever tools you have. Once you build early prototypes, you can then test them with your users, and use your learnings to improve your prototypes.

Try this activity: Prototype with sketches

Test to Learn

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When you test your prototypes, you learn about how people would interact with your ideas in the real world. As with prototyping, there are a variety of tests that you can run, from low-cost guerilla tests to higher-fidelity ones. Tests can give you quantitative metrics and evidence, as well as qualitative emotions and reactions from your users.

Oftentimes, what you learn in your tests will inform how you move forward with your ideas, and you’ll go through a few cycles of prototyping and testing before arriving at your solution. This is called iteration, and is a key part of the design thinking process. Refining your prototypes will bring you closer and closer to your finished product or service. 

Try this activity: Run small tests

Share the Story

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Once you’ve taken your idea through prototyping and testing, craft your story and share it with colleagues, clients, and customers. Storytelling is an important part of the design thinking process because it connects you to the people you’re sharing your idea with, and makes it relatable on a human level. Without an engaging story, it’s hard for others to understand why your work matters. 

When communicating your story, focus on the big idea that you’re trying to get across, and remember to put your audience at the center of it. These storytelling tips will allow you to create a compelling story that resonates. As you continue to practice your design thinking skills, sharing your experience will help you to reflect and improve your craft. At IDEO U, we encourage everyone to share their stories—tell us about your design thinking journey by tagging us on Instagram or LinkedIn.

Want to go deeper with design thinking? Enroll in Foundations in Design Thinking, a professional design thinking certificate from IDEO U.

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