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How Design Thinking Works

With so many Design Thinking models available to follow, I’m often asked in workshops why I’ve chosen the Double Diamond Design Model from the UK Design Council and not other more visible or promoted models.

First and foremost – strictly personal – it’s the most teachable model, primarily because the model is designed to replicate exactly what the mind should do in problem solving:  switch between divergent thinking (analysis) and convergent thinking (synthesis).  It also takes the least amount of explaining.  Some Design Thinking models are poorly designed (yes, ironic, I know).  Their shape or flow is not clear, and others simply look like a logo more than a working methodology.

Of course, any model can work – although, I’m not always convinced that the models are inter-changeable.  Some, like the DDD Model, has an optional ‘pre-step’ phase (Determine) which suggests the design team must have a number of issues addressed prior to the commencement of a Design Thinking program.  Other models don’t have that pre-stage because they don’t want senior management to influence or challenge their thinking before they investigate deeper the problem to be solved.  So, in other words, make sure you understand the model well enough to 1) explain to someone else, 2) it fits the purpose, and 3) it should ideally explain itself.

That said, here’s the four phases of the DDDM – and by phases (vs stages) there are no clear-cut lines dividing them.

My design, adapted from the Double Diamond Design Process, UK Design Council, 2005


1. Discover

The process begins with a trigger: a problem, opportunity, observation, a change in the market place, among many others. Whereas the Old Model of Business would immediately develop a plan to fix the symptom (not necessarily the problem itself), the team in the Discover stage takes a step back to look holistically and with a fresh eye at the ‘mystery‘ to determine where the business is now, understand the current situation, and decide what area(s) to pursue. It begins with Empathy to seek information from a particular audience and to interpret their behaviour and values without bias. This observation is done in their natural environment (as opposed to an artificial environment like a focus group). The mindset should be focused on divergent (expanding information to seek many answers) and on analysis (breaking down the whole into parts).

Additional Notes  In addition to searching for the what we (may) know about the mystery, some businesses/designers may begin to consider the:

  • Why – the intent, objective or a rough statement which eventually will become the design challenge or point-of-view,
  • Who – the potential team necessary to move the process forward,
  • How – the criteria will be used to judge a successful outcome,
  • Where – the creative space that the team will need to develop the campaign,
  • When – the potential time frame for the program.

Be careful!  Setting the intent too narrowly at the beginning may limit the creative potential later on. That said, the next phases should correct this narrowness if the lead designer and his/her team keeps an open mind.

2. Define

The second stage of the process comes from a place of growing understanding, where the team – flush with information – attempts to extract insights. In other words, What does all this mean? What matters most? What should be our priority? What may be feasible? The goal of this stage is to formalise the brief (the design challenge, its point of view, the audience, the strategy) so a business plan can be created soon. (‘Soon’ is the operative word as all these elements will continue to change as the team synthesises the information.) The mindset should be focused on convergent (reducing information down to a single answer) and on synthesis (combining individual parts to create a whole).

Additional Notes  In an ideal world, the insights and themes come out naturally, but it’s more likely that the team will return to the beginning, to learn more, seek validation, check vagueness. That’s what iterative processes are – repeating key steps as needed to extract solutions, sometimes in tandem with other steps (as opposed to linear processes which doesn’t allow a user to move to the next step until the previous one is finished). Most important, that’s OK … and a natural part of Design Thinking.

3. Develop

The third stage begins with a burst of creativity and imagination. Because the design brief outlines the clear opportunity, the team begins creating solutions and concepts. Inside the creative space, the goal is volume of ideas. The details and specifications are irrelevant at this stage. It’s not just throwing out ideas, it’s physically making the ideas. This forces the team to think visually (as a designer), because by using your hands you have a better sense intuitively if your ideas is right or wrong, and how to improve it. Oftentimes you work directly with the end user to create and build the ideas. Returning to a period of divergency and analysis, the team builds rough prototypes (also known as low-res or low-fidelity), seeks feedback from users, and continues to refine the ideas into clear options.

Additional Notes  By this stage, businesses are often impatient. The Old School mindset sees CHAOS and MESS when it wants answers. That’s why it’s critical that senior management is actively involved with this section – and another reason why visualisation is vital. The more that people can see, experience the prototypes, and hear directly from users allows everyone on the team to feel that they’re going in the right direction.

4. Delivery

The fourth quarter moves from exploration to engineering. In this phase, it’s important to keep a mindset of “fail early, fix quickly.” Prototypes are moved to test phase, some may even be launched as a pilot or offered for a limited time to test their impact in the marketplace so feedback can be sought and the business’ understanding deepens. In turn, this realisation influences the business plan and strategy.

Additional Notes  An ideal Design Thinking process doesn’t end. The most innovative companies are constantly seeking to set the bar higher each time, if not re-organise the business so that the traditional silos of departments are restructured so that interdisciplinary groups can continuously support the Design Thinking cycle.

At this point in the workshop, I’ll compare and contrast this simple theory against the more common models used by the Stanford University School of Design (known as in the US, the International Design Federation in Denmark, the Illinois School of Technology, among others. My purpose here is understanding of the theory so no matter what your background may be, or the type of organisation you work currently (or want to work), you will be able to apply the workshop lessons however appropriate to you.

I hope this has been a good, fast introduction to the theory and methodology. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly or post your thoughts below.

If you’re interested to learn more about the Design Thinking workshop, please give me a shout. For those interested in registering for open workshops, AIM has dates set for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra throughout 2018. Click here to learn more.

For those wanting a tailored workshop, please contact me directly for some suggestions, agendas and pricing.

Curious what you’d learn in my workshop?  Go to this blog post:  How Relevant is Design Thinking to You?  In it, I’ve outlined the 10 useful things you could learn and apply to your organisation via Design Thinking.

Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you at the workshops!

1 Comment

  1. Hi Andy,
    Thank you for the very informative overview. I’m going to share it with likeminded copywriting / business colleagues.

    Best wishes,
    Beth from Old Gold

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Design Thinking

How Design Thinking Works