Design Thinking Isn’t Just for Designers

You probably already know the term “design thinking.” Odds are, you’ve read an article or two on how design thinking became a business buzzphrase. Maybe you’ve even read an article on how non-designers’ generic adaption of design thinking risks ruining the creative integrity and innovative nature inherent to the process.

But have you ever thought about using design thinking yourself?

At the risk of offending some purists, I’d venture to say that every businessperson would benefit from embodying the traits of a design thinker.

While many people in the tech and innovation industries already know this, not everyone has had a chance to see what design thinking can do for them. I’d argue that design thinking’s successes in transforming many companies for the better shows us it’s worthwhile. Business life cannot be all financial statements and Six Sigma processes – there’s room for more.

The learning that can come from design thinking shouldn’t be left to the realm of professional design. It can, and should, be leveraged daily by non-designers.

How do I know?

As someone not trained in the formal aesthetics of design, I use design thinking daily, and I train other non-designers to do so too. Design thinking offers me a new way of working. It has given me a framework to order my thinking and challenge my assumptions.

It has also changed the way I see most problems. All of these are big gains for me. And who wouldn’t benefit from being more strategic while also being more insightful and empathetic, or more solutions-oriented? Aren’t all of us looking to add value and remove friction for our audiences? Design thinking can help us do this. It’s a new way of seeing your business, your problems, and your customers. It offers you something different, something you may not have run into before.

This is the genius of design thinking: It captures the best traits of creatives, innovators, and designers, and it consolidates those traits into a simple strategic framework. It helps us be free to experiment, to consider form and function together, and to iterate without fear. It also involves a little bit of process (which is non-linear by necessity and not too complicated) to help remind us that, no matter what we do, we are in the business of solving each other’s problems, big and small. It also reminds us that in order to do that, we need to understand the human experience, be willing to ideate around deeper need states, and try things out to see what is most effective.

Consider politics.

What mindset can understand that a country would elect a president who ran on a regressive platform immediately following the second term of its most progressive president to date? Design thinking can. One of its core components is integrated thinking, a process that acknowledges that, although two things may be completely contradictory, an optimistic solution can still emerge from them.

Consider the boardroom.

It’s a place where egos tend to thrive on the power they’ve been given access to. But incorporate design thinking – a fairly ego-less system that looks at humans in a 360-degree way – and decisions can be more collaborative and solutions-driven.

Consider entertainment.

That’s my world. Empathy for the end user is absolutely critical to the success of an entertainment company’s content and branded experiences. Calling them “end users” really doesn’t articulate the importance of the relationship between company and consumer. As fans, the audience drives the conversation and adoption that makes or breaks a product, its relevance, and its long-term success.

Consider how parents raise their children.

As the child of two graphic designers, I was consistently impressed by my parents’ curiosity about the world at large. They would often pull out a reference from A in a conversation about B, or relate a Harvard Business Review case study to my grade-school social dalliances, pushing me to experiment and find what worked best for me. And if something didn’t work out? I was taught to learn from it and try another solution.

Even consider design thinking itself.

There can’t really be design thinking “purists,” since – as is the case with any sort of mindset or philosophy that has been spread across the world – there are many different interpretations and applications for various situations. There’s IDEO’s take on design thinking, Idea Couture’s take, Stanford’s take, and many more. In some ways, interpreting and applying the tenets of design thinking to fit your specific scenario is the most dynamic and functional part of the thought system. Design thinking isn’t process for the sake of process; it’s a flow that demands its own utility and application – otherwise it would be tucked on a shelf with other planning principles.

Designers create simple, human solutions for complex problems – brilliantly, in many cases. But they aren’t the only ones who can. We can – and must – learn from their example to work toward more exciting, innovative, and intuitive offerings. Design thinking offers us the opportunity to think in a different way. We should use this to build things we couldn’t have thought of before.

the author

Sarah Unger

Sarah Unger is Vice President, Marketing Strategy, Trends & Insights at Viacom.