What is Design Thinking and how does it benefit business?

Design Thinking, blog post by Meg Fenn, Shake It Up Creative

Before we talk about what Design Thinking is, we want to point out that it is not just for design-specific sectors. It can be and is applied to any field; so keep on reading!

What is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is an ideology, methodology and process that puts the user at the forefront of complex problem-solving. Very importantly, it is a human approach, solution-focussed, non-linear and iterative. A relatively new way of working, particularly for non-designers, it’s seen widespread adoption in businesses working across a myriad of industries and disciplines.

If you put ‘Design Thinking’ into a search engine, you’re likely to find a variety of definitions and descriptions. We like this one:

“Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” – Tim Brown Executive Chair of IDEO

So how is this applied? As the definition suggests, the process starts with the user. This visual illustrates the 5 stages of Design Thinking. I recently attended UX Brighton 2019 where the theme was ‘A Focus On Design’. Talks on UX Design and Design Thinking dominated the conference and has provided a useful and clear way of framing this blog post and putting it into context.

5 phases of Design Thinking by Institute of Design at Stanford


In order to solve a problem, we must first understand who it’s a problem for and why. That means getting to know the user and asking questions, gaining insight and engaging with them on a deeper level. This succinctly illustrates what I mean:
Designing blind is a problem, Carmen Brion - The value for product teams to design think

This is hugely important for us. Not only do we love getting to know our clients and understanding their businesses, we need to know what problem they are wanting to solve and what makes them tick – what makes them get out of bed in the morning. So we ask a lot of questions and we do a lot of research. That could be a document, a phone chat, an in person discovery session.

Define the problem
Making sense of the answers (which may lead to more questions), making observations and beginning to frame the problem(s) in a user-centred way. For us, this can be presented to our clients as a statement or as part of the brief. Sometimes we are given this directly from our clients and need to delve further, explore and find out if that actually is the problem that they need to solve. For example, the problem we might be given – “We need to re-design our website to gain more enquiries”. That’s not enough for us to do a good job, we need to know more and what’s missing from their current website in terms of user journey, how it communicates its messages and the technical elements. So, the actual problem might be better framed in a similar way to this: “Your website is not regularly being found in searches and when it is, the bounce rate is high so we need to give users a reason to stay on your site and enquire”. By defining the problem, we can start to come up with ideas and solutions.


Now that there is a clear understanding of the problem that we are trying to solve and we are thinking like our clients, we can move on to the next stage; the creativity stage – where anything goes! Mindmapping, brainstorming, thinking outside the box, physical movement or experiencing a new environment can all be utilised to ideate. We love this as creativity is part of our brand essence. It’s important to remember to allow the space in which to be creative and not shut down ideas even though they might not be used. All ideas should be welcomed. The goal is to narrow the ideas down to a few agreed ones to move forward with.


This fourth phase is about turning ideas into tangible ‘products’ that communicate the potential solutions identified earlier on in the Design Thinking process. This helps to highlight or bring to the surface any constraints or other issues that need to be considered. This can be an iterative phase and for us, often consists of a lot of ‘doing’.


User testing is the final phase but by no means the end of the Design Thinking process. Often, the results of the testing phase will lead back to previous work, giving insight into what might need to be redefined or reworked. This helps to improve or redesign. Therefore, Design Thinking is very much a non-linear process.

UX Brighton speaker Carmen Brion breaks Design Thinking into two parts which we like and think can be helpful to businesses working in any sector:

Two stages of Design Thinking, Think and Make
(Slide 10 of 53)

How does Design Thinking benefit business? What is the business case for adopting this way of working?

If we re-look at that definition, it’s clear that in addition to being user-centric, business success is also a main component. In many ways, that is the ultimate goal. Because it is a creative process, it gives us permission to be un-blinkered and consider new pathways; alternative pathways which lead to solving problems. And because it is user-centric, it’s putting customers at the heart of everything which means designing, delivering and creating UX for real people – the people who are using your products and services. As a result, businesses will resonate with their customers faster and better, meaning more sales.

In this report by the Design Council a study of the design process showed there are some great examples of how companies in different industries use Design Thinking to grow their businesses, such as Lego, BT and Microsoft.

It’s also important to point out that Design Thinking is a team effort and is not conducive to working in silos. One of my favourite talks of the day was by Lead Designer at Bulb, Nat Buckley, titled ‘Good design is a team effort’.

I did mention that little word UX (user experience) which we wrote about in a previous blog post (UX – what is it and why should you care?). UX Design is all about the user and Design Thinking is a framework that is used in UX.

UX designer Piccia Neri says –

Design Thinking to me simply means: design for humans. It’s an incredibly useful framework for any project, but above all, it’s taught me to start with empathy, and to put people before business. Design for the people who use your products first, and the business will reap the rewards anyway.

Empathy is an important word here, as Piccia says, starting with empathy is vital in business. We partner with Piccia to offer you an introduction to UX online course. You can sign up to the course at a discounted rate HERE.

Let us know if you use Design Thinking in your business in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

Meg Fenn, Director of Shake It Up Creative

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