Design Thinking transforms the way organizations develop products, services, and processes. It is a people-centered approach to innovation, and the qualities that make each person unique in their unrepeatable humanity.

Design Thinking borrows its cognitive, strategic, and practical procedures from those used successfully in design and engineering.

Design Thinking focuses on understanding customer needs to generate creative ideas and then proceeds through rapid prototyping steps. By using Design Thinking, you can base your decisions on what customers really want, instead of being guided solely by instinct or relying only on historical data.

More and more marketers are incorporating design thinking into the creation of initiatives and into the design of experience workflows. This is because design thinking encourages them to be more empathetic in their approach to communication, to take on the point of view of consumers to understand their needs, wants, and possible problems, solidifying the knowledge gained into communication practices that are more attuned to how they feel.


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The origins of Design Thinking: from psychological studies to applications in business

The basic concepts of Design Thinking were formed in the 1940s as part of psychological studies on creativity. The expression “Design Thinking” has been used since the 1950s to refer to a specific cognitive style (thinking like a designer), a general theory of design (a way of understanding how designers work), and a set of training resources (educational content available to organizations or designers to learn how to approach complex problems in a design perspective). 

In the 1960s, there was growing interest in the systematic and intuitive methods that the disciplines of industrial design, engineering, and architecture used in their design activities. The “soft systems” that Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall develop to address everyday problems represent one of the first results of this thinking. By identifying the recurring patterns underlying human activities, these cyclical learning systems make it possible to explore the real world in all its complexity, to interpret the perceptions of the various actors involved, and to decide, based on these preliminary considerations, which actions to implement.

In “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (1973) Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber show how design and planning problems are in fact “wicked problems,” problems that are particularly complicated and difficult to solve, very different from the tame problems that scientific disciplines deal with. Design Thinking, which uses its own methods, different from those with which science and academia traditionally think and communicate, is accorded a different status but equal dignity, identifying everyday obstacles as its specific field of application.

In the 1980s, a conception of human-centered design emerged in conjunction with an idea of business management that exploited the artistic and intuitive processes typical of design thinking to pursue business objectives.

In the 21st century, Design Thinking gained popularity and was increasingly covered in the trade press. Topics such as the creation of design-centered workplaces, the adaptation of the design approach to services, or the development of innovation strategy are explored in depth by both industry research and dedicated courses organized by management schools and companies themselves. In universities, Design Thinking is taken as the preferred mode for producing the conditions that are most likely to enable the development of technical and social innovation.

Design Thinking: the ever-expanding IDEO survey

“Design thinking is not limited to a process. It’s an endlessly expanding investigation.” This is a quote by Sandy Speicher, CEO of IDEO, the company that created the Apple mouse 40 years ago and has since dictated the design thinking guidelines that are still followed by organizations around the world. 

IDEO was probably the first design and consulting firm to put the concept of “human-centered design” into practice. In an effort to come up with effective, problem-solving ideas, IDEO integrates the investigation of people’s desires, investment in the opportunities created by technology, and attention to business needs into a single strategy. Its stated goal is to develop the ability to anticipate the future and make it tangible while making a positive impact on cultural, environmental, ethical, and social systems. 

Design thinking according to IDEO integrates what is desirable from a human perspective, what is technologically feasible, and what is economically feasible  into the same strategy. 

  1. Desirability: what really matters to people?
  2. Feasibility: what is technically feasible to achieve?
  3. Viability: what can become part of a sustainable business model?

The main stages of the Design Thinking process

The innovation process made possible by Design Thinking incorporates several stages and includes activities such as context and demand analysis, research and problem definition, ideation and solution generation, prototyping, and user testing. Let’s explore these areas further.


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Although for convenience we tend to describe the stages of Design Thinking as successive, the process is rarely linear; instead, the different steps unfold in an irregular and iterative pattern:

  • Problem framing. At this stage, all attention is focused on the people for whom the solution is to be designed. An attempt is made to identify the specific question that needs to be answered to give people what they need. Rather than accepting a problem as a given, designers explore its context, try to reinterpret it, restructure it, and frame it from other angles.
  • Search for inspiration. Suggestions on the path to effective and perhaps unexpected solutions can be found in the outside world. Inspiration that can be captured by observing customers as they live, buy, and consume.
  • Idea generation. At this stage, inspiration is to be employed concretely to formulate product, service, or experience ideas. The attempt here is to go beyond the obvious, the already seen, what we may have always taken for granted and which, if observed from other points of view, may offer an innovative way of solving complex problems .
  • Realization of ideas. This is the time to build “rough” and infinitely perfectible prototypes, never final versions. 
  • Prototype testing. Put the prototype to the test, gather feedback, repeat. This stage is essential to observe what aspects of an idea work “in the field” and those that do not.
  • Storytelling of the experience that led to the innovation. Once you arrive at the solution that enables you to answer the initial question, you need to create and share a story to present it to colleagues, customers, and stakeholders (better: multiple stories, each tailored to the specific target audience).

Some of these steps are bound to be repeated, and it may be necessary to leapfrog, back and forth, countless times.

The characteristics of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is much more than just a series of steps and procedures; it is a true way of thinking, an alternative to technical rationality, integrating creative resources and lateral thinking into a framework of experimental evidence. Because of this inherent property, it can be fruitfully employed in support of marketing activities:

  • Design Thinking solves so-called “wicked problems”: problems that are terribly difficult because they are presented in an ambiguous, nondefinitive form and cannot be solved by the classic true-false alternative or by applying rules or technical knowledge.
  • A Design Thinking approach prioritizes adaptive and productive reasoning. In creating new proposals, design thinking promotes nondeductive modes of thinking, such as analogies, by taking advantage of available information and personal experience. 
  • Design Thinking designers communicate using nonverbal graphic or spatial modeling media. Design Thinking employs visual and material languages (sketches and drawings, models made with graphics software, and physical prototypes) to translate abstract elements into concrete objects and explore provisional solutions through their representation. 
  • In Design Thinking, problem and solution co-evolve. During the Design Thinking process, the designers’ attention typically oscillates between understanding the problem context and the ideas developed for its solution, in a flow in which problem and solution evolve together. This is because successive versions of the same solution can lead to a deeper or alternative understanding of the problem, which in turn can trigger other and more direct solution ideas, in a continuous innovation perspective.

Why Design Thinking is valuable for improving marketing strategy

We live and work in a world of interconnected systems, where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. Design Thinking is able to act on these problems more effectively than other methodologies.

In this post, we have tried to highlight how Design Thinking is not just a tool we can have at our disposal to solve difficult and complicated problems or a process that is articulated in the succession, however irregular, of a series of moments. Design Thinking is a mindset that companies must make their own if they are to take full advantage of the benefits of design thinking.

Design Thinking starts with listening to potential users, discovering their mostly unexpressed needs, and using the information obtained to generate product and service ideas that are perceived as useful and relevant. Ensuring that this information (along with information about possible competitors) is incorporated into the innovation process from the outset, Design Thinking offers marketers the opportunity to actively participate in product development: input from consumers and the market contribute to the creation of version after version of the minimum viable product, where the standard for the “minimum viable product” is decided by the customer, who will experience it directly. 

Marketers can combine quantitative data collected from touchpoints and market research with qualitative data obtained through Design Thinking. This mix of qualitative and quantitative information allows companies to empathize with their target audience and understand not only how much customers are willing to pay, but more importantly, why. 


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The wealth of knowledge that comes from the design process, related to preferences, patterns, and habits of consumption and to the emotional dimension of the target audience, also proves invaluable in brand-consumer communication. Indeed, Design Thinking puts marketers and content creators in a position to tap into aspects of experience that are typically human.  Content created in this way is much more powerful than content that merely reports the technical features and functionality of the product or is limited to explaining typically commercial benefits such as lower cost. 

In this sense we can say that storytelling is one of the key components of Design Thinking. 

Design Thinking to build better customer experiences

Design Thinking, by involving marketers in product development and in making brand communication more empathetic from the beginning can play an important role in building more engaging customer experiences. Specifically:

  1. When done correctly, Design Thinking deepens the company’s understanding of customer needs and reveals the key factors in their choices in a way that other quantitative techniques fail to do;
  2. Design Thinking connects those who design products directly with the customer, empowers them to hear, if not experience firsthand, what the customer has experienced using the product or using a particular service. Designers can then quickly integrate what they learn and make products that will be more likely to be successful once they go to market.

Design, product development, and marketing teams become an active part of the innovation development process: they listen and observe customers to get to know them deeply, with the goal of creating better products, services, and experiences. In this way, Design Thinking enhances research into consumers’ wants, needs, preferences, and critical issues and supports marketing in building a more meaningful customer experience.