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Design Thinking Series - Part 1: Scratching the Surface

René Andersen April 27, 2021

The design thinking series examines the complexities and concepts that comprise design thinking. In defining our approach to this way of problem solving and developing human-centred solutions, we hope to provide a clear understanding and ideas for practical applications. The following blog was created by our resident design thinking coach René Andersen. 

Design Thinking Series - Part 1: Scratching the Surface

I like David Kelley’s quote: 


I also find it unfortunate that he used the verb “design” at the end of that sentence. It can give  the impression that design thinking is all and only about designing things, rather than building things, or developing things, more generally speaking.

Fair enough of David Kelley to frame design thinking in terms of designing. After all, he was a Design graduate and later co-founded IDEO, one of the world’s leading design firms and one that historically helped make design thinking famous. However, I suspect he would also be the first to admit that design thinking is not just about designing (in the sense of the word that emphasises the look and feel of something), and certainly not practiced just by designers (in the sense of someone who professionally practices industrial or visual design).

In fact, rarely have I seen such a delightfully diverse bunch of people as I have encountered among professional design thinking coaches. When I did my year long design thinking coaching training at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Europe there were people with backgrounds in business and management, computer science, sociology, engineering, political science, organisational development … you name it. There were also people with degrees in industrial and visual design, but only a few. And people came from a range of private as well as public organisations, bringing with them all sorts of problems that they applied design thinking to.

Empathy for the people whose problems you’re trying to solve

If I was to say something meaningful about design thinking, in line with the premise of David Kelley’s quote, it would be:


Let’s break this down. First, although important, empathy is not the only tenet of design thinking. Second, by describing what is being done in terms of problem solving, this opens design thinking up to a wide range of types of challenges you can usefully apply design thinking to: from software, engineering, product and service problems all the way to social, societal, and political problems. People even apply design thinking to help solve personal life challenges in the areas of health, relationships, or finding meaningful work and purpose.

While design thinking started out as a study of “the way designers solve problems” (e.g. Nigel Cross “Designerly ways of knowing”, 1982; Peter Rowe “Design Thinking”, 1987), it has since evolved into a discipline of its own. Globally, the Stanford d.school in the U.S. and the HPI in Europe are among the leading centres of excellence today, where design thinking is taught, researched, applied and continually refined.

When I reflect on other approaches to problem solving that I have come across in my life, it strikes me that design thinking is one of the most versatile things I have in my professional and private pantry. I avoid calling it a “method” or “tool” as I like to reserve these terms for something more granular than design thinking (e.g. a stakeholder map, a qualitative interview, paper prototyping …). Instead, I like to describe design thinking as an approach. 

Mental models for the design thinking approach 

I think of it as an approach to solve problems, or - if I want to be a bit more outcome focussed - as an approach to build products or services.

I like to call design thinking an approach because it is so multifaceted and complex. A few broad brushstroke characterisations might help to provide some initial context and to begin to see some of its contours:

  • It’s tightly structured at a high process level, and incredibly open at a granular tool level.
  • It‘s used by organisations around the world to develop innovative products and services, improve processes, and solve complex problems of any nature.
  • Its benefits revolve around efficiency (delivering good results faster), effectiveness (delivering great results), and organisational development (the process, when done well, is enjoyable and tends to leave the people involved in a happier and more productive state than they were before).
  • It‘s sometimes considered to be an agile method - and joined up with Scrum / Kanban, Lean Startup and the Business Model Canvas approaches.
  • It’s decidedly human-centered: it counsels to thoroughly understand the genuine needs of the people for whom you’re trying to solve a problem, build a product, develop a service, or improve a process.
  • It tends to focus on desirability (of a product, or service, or process …) more than it does on feasibility or viability. At least initially.
  • It recommends empathy as a powerful tool to unearth people’s real needs, and therefore, by proxy, as a tool to achieve great outcomes, such as delivering a product or service that precisely meets those needs.
  • It embraces failing early (being told by users that the first prototype sucks) as a means to learn faster and eventually deliver great results sooner.
  • It‘s usually a team sport (rather than performed by individuals working on their own), and under the guidance of a design thinking coach.
  • It tends to work best when the design thinking team is small (3-6 people), cross-functional, equal in the weight of their voices (no titles), and is allowed to work in a self-determined way.
  • It requires the team to be able to switch back and forth between wildly different modes of thinking and working: loosely associative and creative, rigorously analytical, deeply empathic, hands-on pragmatic, quick and superficial, slow and careful …
  • There is an emphasis on the mindset with which the team and the coach carry out design thinking. The mindset is focussed on genuine respectful collaboration, wide openness, focus, mental and emotional flexibility, the ability to tolerate ambiguity, and an appetite for disciplined trial and error.
  • It works best when the problems are truly complex (not just complicated), when the team has direct access to users (and can interview and / or observe them), and when the team consists of true team players (rather than brilliant individuals).
    There is a thoroughbred, textbook version of it, which you encounter in formal training, and then there is the art of making it work in real world (client) projects that come with various (inconvenient) constraints.

Examining the key aspects to gain deeper understanding

So what to make of all of this? I have only just begun to scratch the surface of this topic, and, for some of you, created more questions than I have answered. 

To understand design thinking more deeply, it can be useful to divide its complexity and conquer its main aspects individually. In subsequent posts in this series, I will attempt to cover all of the following aspects of design thinking:

  • Process: What do you actually do when you do design thinking, and in what order?
  • Team: What is a good size for a design thinking team, who should be in it, and how should they work together?
  • Coach: What role does a design thinking coach play?
  • Mindset: What characterises the mindset with which design thinking is practiced?
  • Workspace: What are the key requirements for a physical space that will support rather than hinder design thinking? And how can design thinking be done remotely?
  • Workshop: How do you structure design thinking workshops, and how do you facilitate them well?
  • Scaling: How can you scale design thinking to make it work in small as well as large projects?
  • Adaptability: How can you adapt design thinking to real world client projects that come with constraints that the textbook design thinking scenarios don’t include?

I hope that you enjoy learning about design thinking as much as I do, and encourage you to reach out with any questions about the concepts or applications discussed. 

Additional references:


René Andersen, Senior Product Owner and Design Thinking Coach at Trineo

Currently based in Christchurch, New Zealand, René has worked in digital transformation and innovation for more than thirteen years - across Germany, New Zealand and Australia. From large organisations to Start Ups, René enjoys combining methodological rigour with creativity and empathy, and is passionate about human-centered & iterative approaches to innovation and transformation. 

René Andersen

René Andersen