Design Thinking for Business Advantage

Post Date: October 6th, 2010

ne of the more interesting concepts for businesses that are being impacted by the economy, competition and change in consumer preferences is the whole idea of design thinking. Design thinking is not just coming up with a good design for a product, but rather it is a conceptual framework that has been developed for the creative resolution of problems and issues.

An important distinction is to contrast design thinking with analytical thinking. In business we often get hung up on identifying a problem and jumping directly into a comfortable analytical process to “solve the problem”. Design thinking focuses more on a creative process that is based on the building up of ideas.

Design thinking as a process is generally characterized by seven stages – definition, research, ideation, prototyping, selection, implementation and finally learning. The process is flexible and not necessarily linear. For example in the prototyping stage, one might learn something that takes the process back to the definition stage. Design thinking is in many respects an adaptation of the “studio process” where all work takes place in the open in a collaborative and creative fashion.

We can see the end results of design thinking in the product arena most easily with the ground breaking products from Apple. The elegance of the Mac Air for example comes out of a formalized design thinking process by some very capable designers and engineers.

And the same thing for the iPhone. There is a design elegance, functional usability and appeal that is almost unmatched in other competitive products.

We can see evidence of a more analytical process used by Microsoft in the design of their products – more engineering and function than design. If there is design it is likely an afterthought and more stuck on than designed in. Consider the lowly keyboard. Notice the difference design thinking makes in the execution of a keyboard product.

The elegance and functionality of the iPad, is yet another example of this kind of design thinking in practice at Apple.

Businesses are being forced to change at an alarming rate in response to the changes in the environment. Remaining competitive might just depend on not only reinventing the company, the product and the delivery methods but actually changing the methodology underlying the business process. Design thinking is not easily mastered, but remaining relevant may just depend on adopting a whole new way of thinking.

Design thinking has entered into the world of business school curiculum at some of the leading institutions. The Financial Times had a recent article highlighting this fact called Schools Learn from the World of Design. The article states-

The extent to which schools have integrated design thinking into their programmes varies. A handful of schools, such as Weatherhead and Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, have integrated the disciplines of design seamlessly into their curriculums, while others, such as Insead and Esade, have formed partnerships with art schools to create study exchange programmes and inter­disciplinary research opportunities. Others, such as Stanford, have taken a different tack. In 2005, the school established the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which brings together about 350 students to work on innovative projects in the areas of law, business, education, medicine and engineering…. “Design is not just about making things look pretty,” Manual Sosa says. “It’s getting customers what they need.”

So if you’re feeling challenged in coming up with new and innovative business strategy, model, product and service, try a little design thinking. Who knows you may find yourself with something that is life changing, both for your customer and your business.

Paul Christiansen is a serial entrepeneur who is constantly looking for new and innovative ways for businesses to evolve and thrive. He spends time developing web sites for small businesses and attempts to use the tenets of design thinking to come up with sites that do exactly what they are intended to do. He can be reached at