How Do You Explain Design Thinking to Non-Designers?


Coe Leta Stafford, IDEO U Executive Design Director and Insights for Innovation instructor, answers the question, “How do you explain design thinking to non-designers?”


Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving that keeps people at the center. You don't have to be a designer to use design thinking. There are many ways of defining it and many tools and frameworks that are a part of it, but there are three elements you’ll always find when using the design thinking approach.


3 elements of design thinking


1. Inspiration — Connecting with people to understand their needs.


2. Ideation — Creative thinking and diverging to generate ideas.



3. Experimentation — Prototyping, making tangible, and iterating.



Design thinking mindsets

While there are phases of design thinking, it’s not a linear process, and it’s more than repeatable steps—it’s mindsets that move people to action. To be inspired, you must have a mindset of curiosity and seek empathy for others. To generate ideas, you must embrace the beginner’s mindset, be open to what you don’t know, and see ambiguity and constraints as opportunities. To experiment, you must have a bias toward action and learn through doing instead of waiting for the perfect answer. Let’s look at an example.


Design thinking in action—Shield Our Heroes

A group of designers at IDEO used the design thinking approach to produce face shields for medical workers in the span of a week. One IDEOer’s wife, a nurse at a San Francisco hospital, asked her husband if he could help as they’d run out of personal protective equipment needed to treat patients with COVID-19. He gathered some friends at IDEO and, inspired by the question “How might we create face shields using existing materials we can easily find?”, they created several prototypes in one day. The team gave these DIY masks to nurses at the hospital and asked for their feedback—what they liked and what wasn’t working. Based on that feedback, they iterated their prototype and made 100 more new and improved face shields. Other hospitals heard about the project and asked if they could have some shields too. To quickly ramp up production, the IDEO team launched a Go Fund Me campaign and connected with a local partner to begin making 1,000 face shields per day by the end of the week.

In this example, you’ll see the three elements and mindsets of design thinking. The team got inspired by a real need and used empathy to drive their thinking; they came up with lots of ideas for how to solve the problem; and they got hands-on by prototyping, gathering feedback, and improving their idea. The design thinking approach helped them move quickly to address a real human need in a creative and effective way.

This post is part of a series on design thinking questions submitted by our community. For more on design thinking, listen to the full podcast episode with IDEO U Founder and Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard and IDEO U Executive Design Director Coe Leta Stafford.


Want to learn more about design thinking and get hands-on practice? Gain a practical understanding of the design thinking approach through our Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate.

Courses Starting Soon

Foundations In Design Thinking - IDEO U Certificate
Designing Strategy Course from IDEO U