The Big Secret of Design Thinking? Doing.

12.5 million. That’s roughly the number of hits you get today on Google when you search on the term “design thinking.”

Design thinking has come a long way since my days at IDEO back in the early ‘90s when the mere mention of the word “design” saw most technologists and non-designers frowning their brow with skepticism.

What was design thinking before it was design thinking?

Back then, this process wasn’t called design thinkingIn fact, it didn’t have a name at all. It was simply what you did when you gathered together a bunch of creative professionals (like engineers and industrial designers) who were experts at making things, and had them collaborate with another bunch of creative professionals (like psychologists and human factors experts) who focused on understanding human experience.

From this clash of perspectives, an organic process emerged, anchored by the rich platform and tradition of Design with a capital D. (For more on the unfolding and impact of design on Silicon Valley, I highly recommend the fascinating book Make It New by Barry Katz.)

And over the past 25 years, while adoption of design thinking has grown substantially, its essential ingredients have remained the same:

  • build a diverse team of creative people who love to collaborate

  • focus on people’s experience through observation

  • ideate, create, and prototype

  • test and iterate

  • deliver, reflect, and improve

Teach a person to fish and you… gain an enthusiastic fishing buddy!

Today, those familiar with design thinking may understand how the practice of observation is central to its process. However, in those early IDEO days, we spent a lot of time justifying it to clients. They didn’t see why we needed to go out on “observations” to gain inspiration. Weren’t we supposed to be the beacon of inspiration? Couldn’t we just think about it and come up with some new solutions?

We knew that if a picture is worth a thousand words, an experience is ten times more valuable than that. And we realized we had to start bringing clients along on our innovation journey.

So, we invited them to join us on observations to see the things people actually do out in the world. We asked them to immerse themselves in the experience they wished to create. And we showed them how to discover opportunities and get inspired by asking questions and staying open to all possibilities.

When other consulting firms learned what IDEO was doing, they feared we were sawing the branch we sat on. “Our process is what makes us special! Why would we want to share that with our clients? They’ll learn it, run with it, and we’ll never see them again!”

Those fears proved to be unfounded. It turned out that sharing the process with our clients simply made them better clients. And having them take the innovation journey with us allowed them to appreciate our unique approach and expertise even more.

Those results were compelling. And in 2012, some former IDEO colleagues and I decided we wanted to focus our efforts on guiding companies through the process of applying, learning, and adopting design thinking. And with that, our company Innovationship was born.

At Innovationship, we believe the most effective method of teaching design thinking is through immersion, iteration, and guided mastery. And we focus on the integration of learning over time, through ongoing coaching and mentoring.

Through our work, we’ve helped startups, midsize firms, multinationals, and academic institutions around the world bring this essential process into their organizations. We’ve worked with teams at Fujitsu Laboratories of America, Juniper Networks, Kaiser Permanente, PepsiCo (Shanghai), UCLA Andersen School of Management, UTEC (Lima), Wedgewood, and many others to help them adopt a design thinking — and doing — mindset.

Design thinking is for doers. 

These days, the once unnamed process of design thinking has become almost synonymous with innovation. Yet for people who haven’t experienced this human-centered, collaborative, and creative process, the name “design thinking” itself can be a bit misleading.

“How exactly do designers think?” is one question I get all too often, usually after mentioning that I teach design thinking.

It’s a fair question. At face value, the phrase design thinking perhaps conjures an image of a group of designer-types (black shirts, unusual wrist watches, unique shoes) with thoughtful looks on their faces, sitting around a table, perhaps sketching with pencils, pondering possible solutions for an abstract aesthetic problem.

But anyone who has had hands-on experience with the process knows that the scenario described above couldn’t be further from the truth. Because design thinking is actually all about doing. It’s about taking action — observing, brainstorming, prototyping — as a way for thinking through a challenge or solving a problem. It's thinking by doing.

Getting into the right mindset (and bodyset!) is key.

Another way we talk about design thinking is to categorize it as a mindset, a lens through which to look at challenges and discover opportunities in the world. Although, this, too, can be misleading.

In reality, design thinking is not only a mindset but also a bodyset. Because it’s not enough to perceive information and process thoughts — one must be able to act upon the learnings and insights gained from all of that thinking. And those actions require specific skills — whether drawing from the flow of an experience, building a cardboard prototype, authoring a presentation, or going out to do one more observation — you must continually do stuff to keep moving forward through the creative process.

By doing, we generate more opportunities to gather new information, which in turn affects our thinking, then informs our subsequent actions, and the cycle continues.

We use the word “design” to describe this magical cycle of thinking and doing, this mindset and bodyset, but people also use it as an umbrella term that serves to cover all of the specific attributes of an object or a space, like shape, color, size, placement, etc. 

Next time someone says, “I love that design!” ask them what specifically they love. Have them describe the elements they admire, like the shape and color of a car, or the way a restaurant has arranged and decorated its interior.

Then remind them that someone designed those specific elements. Someone spent many hours shaping that car, and they probably tried hundreds of variations before that one was chosen. Someone sketched hundreds of restaurant interiors, then arranged and rearranged those ideas before bringing it into reality. Design is doing.

People will also praise a service like an online purchase or a process like a training program, and those too are the result of design by doing, if less often recognized as such.

Ongoing innovation doesn’t have to be elusive.

When it comes to ongoing innovation, there is no substitute for doing — to actively create something new all the time, be it a story or sketch, a set of insights from interviews or observations, a presentation that captures your latest thinking, or a prototype to test your newest idea.

Thoughtless doing wastes time and resources, so be clear about your intentions as you jump into action. But remember that your action will generate new information, provide feedback and insights, and help move your thinking along.

Keep the mindset of a doer and the bodyset of a thinker — balance thinking and doing in a perpetual cycle that keeps your creative journey unfolding, evolving, and growing to produce unexpected results.

Want a closer look at design thinking?

Ever wondered what makes one company consistently innovative, while another company takes years to turn an idea into a new product or service?

We’ve written a free eBook called The 3 Keys to Innovating Every Day to help illustrate why design thinking is such an effective approach to innovation. The 16-page guide explains how it can help solve complex problems and uncover unique new solutions, and why more companies are embracing design thinking as a way to inspire individuals and teams, and build a creative culture.

Click here to get The 3 Keys to Innovating Every Day, and let us know what you think!