Design Thinking 101


The usual design process for most projects of my working life, has been a waterfall. Here, one (creative) unit relies on the next one in order to build a finished product with previously established requirements. Think of it as a kind of design-torch relay, where each runner is interested in the outcome of the run (if you´re lucky) but can only affect the performance of his own distance.   

For creatives, this means completing an agreed upon task in a previously set timeframe. And as we all are procrastinators, we spend a lot of time with researching, slacking off and getting coffee and only really work when the end of our timeframe (aka the deadline) creeps up on us.   

The blog “toothpastefordinner” has put this process into a lovely chart that I personally found myself repeating project after project.

The problem with the waterfall process: It is not really creative.

Due to the set boundaries and the previously agreed upon requirements, it doesn´t call for a lot of communication between you and other process participants, the creative process is not user-centred and, as a result, often creates uninspiring outcomes. These are then given to the next poor bastard to work with – and the circle continues.

Here, Design Thinking can help creatives to break the vicious cycle of the waterfall process, get better, faster results and have a really good time while doing it.

In its essence, Design Thinking is a collaborative process that relies on a mindset shared by all participants. It is structured, low-cost (hi there, finance department) and reeeeally efficient: If you participate in an eight-hour Design Thinking-workshop you will come out with a finished prototype.

So, like I said, there are two aspects of Design Thinking: Mindset and Process.


There are literally no rules in Design Thinking, so the mindset only exists to get everyone on the same page and set some “thinking”-guidelines. It basically says: In order to get the most out of Design Thinking you must be hands-on, open-minded and willing to create user-centric innovations.

Better done than perfect: Don´t think about every little detail too much. Just do it.

Believe in Good: Don´t be a blocker of innovation – always say “yes and”.

Make mistakes and learn: Perfection is boring. Anticipate failure and creative outcomes.

Simplicity rules: Try to keep things as simple as possible, so that everyone is on the same page.


The process of Design Thinking consists of six consecutive steps. The durations of these steps depend on the overall timeframe, but they all result in realisations that are crucial for the consecutive step.

It is useful to have some kind of task or general question before diving into Design Thinking. This can be anything from “How do we sell more beer” up to “How can we make our customers happier”.


In the first step, we get to know the user and really dive into his world. We may observe users, create research-based personas or conduct interviews with people that will use the end-product. In the end, nonetheless, we will have created various insights that will lead us to the next phase.


After getting to know the user, we are able to define the problem, the user faces. It is important, that these insights are based on truths and not on constructed scenarios as the definition of the problem is the basis for all subsequent steps. At the end of this step, we should have defined the most urgent, unique or challenging problem.


Based on the previously defined problem, we are able to gather abstract ideas that can range from concrete concepts to simple one-word-ideas. Anything that comes to mind can find its way on the wall. Feedback is always welcome but initially, this phase is about gathering as many ideas as possible. After all ideas are collected, they may be grouped, sorted and rated. The outcome of the idea should be one or a few ideas that fit to the findings of previous steps.


In my opinion, this step is the most fun, because you get to get your hands dirty. The idea(s) are now constructed into real-life prototypes. The goal is to show something, anything that is able to gather feedback. I´ve had workshops where groups play ideas out as a theatre-performance, created a Lego-prototype of glued papers together. This is the time to get creative.


Now that you have something to show, perform or present, you are able to test it. This part can be conducted with real-life users, the workshop group, clients or the internet. Just present it to someone relevant and gather as much feedback as possible. Only then you are able to refine your prototype and enter the sixth and final step of the process.


Although this step is sometimes missed or neglected, it is the most important one, in my opinion: The goal of any Design Thinking process should always be to create an implemented product that people are able to use and work with. It is mostly a refined and polished version of the prototype and has undergone multiple feedback sessions in order to see the light of day.

As the process is iterative, you are able to refine the implemented product even further and start with the “Empathy”-phase again in order to create a more innovative or more user-centric product.

In the end, Design Thinking is the perfect solution for rigid waterfall-workflows and can generate user-centric innovation, a collaborative atmosphere and is just a hell of a lot of fun.