05/30/2014 07:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2014

Design Thinking - What Is It in Practice?

The design thinking-process' general structure, as compared with the conventional design-process:

Promoted heavily by academic institutions and consultancies alike, design thinking has been a big buzzword during the past decade, turning some people on and others off. Though design thinking has actually been around for half a century, when asking creative professionals how they define it; I always get completely different answers and most are an inch deep and a mile wide.

This comes as no surprise, since there is no real agreement on what "design" is and I have not even attempted to look for consensus on the definition of "thinking." Is design thinking "thinking like a designer?" Is it some sort of "new process" or, just "old wine in a new bottle?"

We invited creative professionals to share their experience with design thinking on online social platforms, by asking:

What is design thinking in practice?
Since design thinking has become such a buzzword within many professions, how do you define and apply design thinking?

The challenge sparked a heated debate and here is what was learned along the way:

Firstly, design thinking may be a poor choice of words, because it is more about 'design doing' or 'design making' than actual 'thinking.'

In opposition to the traditional design process, design thinking focuses on upfront problem framing before solutions are explored. It is important that the framing be independent of the solutions. Design thinking is an iterative process and relies heavily on prototyping to build knowledge, test and validate concepts. Design thinking helps non-designers understand and deal with ambiguity though the use of a structured process.

Professionals felt design thinking did not address some of the more important challenges, such as team dynamics and changing team configurations. Since these cross-functional collaborations are key for quality in design thinking, they affect available knowledge and experience and the momentum for integrating team considerations in any design process is critical.

While there is a sense that designers own creativity and have a need to teach others, other professions have also been eager to leap onto the bandwagon and to adopt design thinking in a more superficial way, which unfortunately has muddied the waters.

It is important for design thinking to keep evolving and to not become static. One aspect that design thinking fails to support today, with its user-centered-design focus, is breakthrough innovation, which comprises fully ten percent of all new product development.

The design thinking process, which seems to have generated the most traction "user understanding" => "Iterative design process" => "after action learning," is rooted in design practice rather than academic dialogue or design research. As such plenty of case stories hail its virtues, however no objective evaluations of its performance is available.

As we push further into the future application of design thinking, we will see new ways to better understand and use statistical data models in design (i.e. better mathematical programs that are easier to understand and use). With better tools and methods to build, acquire and apply data sets, designers and design thinkers will be able to forecast with better accuracy how their convergent thinking decisions will affect potential growth, culture and scalability.

Only the design thinking that is adopted by industry creates value for society, so, for broad acceptance and maximum impact, design thinking needs to be understandable and collaboratively used by all stakeholders. For it to survive, it must continuously evolve and demonstrate measurable improvement over existing approaches. Unless it can also provide breakthrough innovations, it will remain a tool for incremental improvement of business as usual and soon lose its appeal.