What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a systematic, human-centered approach to solving complex problems within all aspects of life. The approach goes far beyond traditional concerns such as shape and layout. And unlike traditional scientific and engineering approaches, which address a task from the view of technical solvability, user needs and requirements as well as user-oriented invention are central to the process.

This approach calls for continuous feedback between the developer of a solution and the target users. Design Thinkers step into the end users’ shoes – not only interviewing them, but also carefully observing their behaviors. Solutions and ideas are concretized and communicated in the form of prototypes as early as possible, so that potential users can test them and provide feedback – long before the completion or launch. In this way, Design Thinking generates practical results.

Design Thinking combines three essential components

Design Thinking creates practical results


Innovation and effective problem-solving combine three essential components:

  • technical feasibility
  • economic viability
  • human desirability.

Design Thinking approaches problems from a human perspective, with the objective of designing innovative and desirable products, services or experiences that reflect all three aspects.

Design Thinking Elements_HPI Academy

Success factors


Three important factors make Design Thinking successful: the collaborative interaction of multi-disciplinary and decision-capable teams, flexible work space for collaborative work and a workflow that follows the DT process.

Multidisciplinary teams

Innovations and answers to complex questions are best generated in a heterogeneous team of five to six people. A variety of professional backgrounds and functions, plus curiosity and openness for different perspectives, are the foundation of the creative working culture of Design Thinking. In Design Thinking workshops, each team is accompanied by a coach who is trained in the DT methodology. The coach leads the team members through the entire process so they can focus on the contents of their constructive collaborative work and reach their targeted goals.

Teams constantly strive toward achieving tangible and concrete results. These are then regularly exchanged with other teams to maximize the learning effect. Splitting up into small groups ensures that every perspective is given the proper consideration. A strong cohesion develops within the teams with a lasting effect, due to the high acceptance for the resulting concepts.

Design Thinking process

The Design Thinking process is based on the intuitive workflow process of a designer. The team is led through iterative loops which take the participants through six phases.

Understand: In the phase understand the team sets the problem space.

Observation: In the phase observation, participants gain an outward view and form empathy for the users and stakeholders.

Define the point of view: In the phase, which serves to define the point of view, the knowledge gained will be collated and summarized, and the challenge reframed.

Ideation: In the phase of ideation, the team subsequently generates a variety of solution possibilities, then selects a focus. 

Prototyping: The prototyping phase serves in the development of concrete solutions. These solutions can then be tested on the appropriate target group.


The Process of Desing Thinking

Variable space

A team needs optimal spatial conditions so that it can develop its creative process. These include flexible, movable furniture, adequate space for whiteboards and presentation surfaces as well as materials for prototyping design ideas, such as Lego bricks, fabrics and images.  Design Thinking teams work standing up in spaces designed for up to six people. Participants are thus able to easily interact with other teams working in parallel. This collaborative work becoming a dynamic experience for everyone involved.

Background to Design Thinking

Design Thinking was developed by David Kelley, Stanford professor and founder of the renowned design agency IDEO in Silicon Valley, and is strongly influenced by Professors Terry Winograd and Larry Leifer at the d.school at Stanford University. Since 2007, Design Thinking has been successfully applied and further developed at the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam, and made available to companies and professionals through the HPI Academy.