Stanford Daily | What is Design Thinking?
Widgets Magazine
Design Thinking (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

What is design thinking? We were curious so we sent staff writer Grace Chao to find out. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

As someone who had never taken a class, when I heard the words “design thinking” they seemed to conjure a single image of rainbow Post-its. On the Post-its floated buzzwords that meant little in my mind: disrupt, need-finding, ideate.

Design thinking, I knew, was never the simple culmination of a thousand sticky neon squares, posted and reposted on walls and whiteboards in the loft-style, high-ceiling-ed But then, what was it?

“It’s not rocket science,” Karen Ladenheim ’14 MS ’15 informed me when I told her that I wished to pinpoint what, exactly, design thinking was.

Ladenheim, a mechanical engineering co-term, had first learned about design thinking as a high school senior when she read instructor Tina Seelig’s "What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20." She then came to Stanford as an undergraduate and majored in product design.

Ladenheim’s capstone project used design thinking to work with mobile “brain game” maker, Lumosity, to create Rhythm Revolution, a game that helps music-craving adults improve their ability to keep rhythm.

Disrupt, need-finding, ideate. What did “design thinking” truly entail, and why had I heard it praised by students, educators and administrators alike? After more than four years at Stanford, I had decided to finally find out. (TRISHA SHETTY/The Stanford Daily)

The has become Stanford's unofficial eighth school. (TRISHA SHETTY/The Stanford Daily)

Design thinking, defined several ways

The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the, was founded in 2005. The building’s interior walls were once the exterior walls of an older campus structure; furniture is never bolted down so classrooms can remain dynamic; and chairs are slightly uncomfortable so that students get up more and sit down less.

Stanford’s unofficial eighth school has spurred life-changing projects such as Embrace, a portable incubator for premature babies in developing countries, and given life to the rapidly rising practice of “design thinking.”

“Design thinking,” I learned quickly, is difficult to pin down into a single definition. The’s online fact sheet boasts design thinking as providing “a glue that brings teammates together around a common goal: make the lives of the people they’re designing for better.” Design thinking classes are focused on “creating innovators rather than any particular innovation,” and the art of design thinking is best learned by doing.

On another webpage, design thinking is defined as “a methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches and requires collaboration across disciplines.”

Ladenheim described design thinking as “a tangible scaffolding through which [one] can approach problem solving.” She specified “reframing” the problem as a central tenant of the process, citing the redesigning of scissors as a paradigmatic example.

“If I told you to design a better pair of scissors, you would immediately think of something with a handle and two blades that fit into your hand," Ladenheim said. "But if I told you instead to find a better way to cut paper, then maybe you would imagine something that was larger and with only a single blade, or something that rips paper, or something more similar to a hole punch.”

“A lot of the time, problem solving can become very overwhelming, and I feel like I’m not making any progress,” Ladenheim added. “Design thinking is an attitude that gets you ‘un-stuck’ and includes a vocabulary around which you execute that problem solving.”

The exact vocabulary, according to the’s “Bootcamp Bootleg” document, consists of five basic actions: “empathize,” “define,” “ideate,” “prototype” and “test,” in that order. The five steps are based on seven guiding “mindsets”: “Show Don’t Tell,” “Focus on Human Values,” “Craft Clarity,” “Embrace Experimentation,” “Be Mindful of Process,” “Bias Toward Action” and “Radical Collaboration.”

In light of the first two actions, “empathize” and “define,” executive director Sarah Stein Greenberg stressed design thinking as a process that highlights problem finding as much as it does problem solving. It is a human-centered design process: one that encourages designers to observe users in the authentic context of their lives and “empathize,” or experience the same problems that their users are experiencing.

Before becoming executive director, Stein Greenberg, who completed her MBA at the Graduate School of Business just as the was opening, spent several years in India working closely with locals on social impact projects.

“You can be surprised by what’s truly going on in the behaviors of human beings,” Stein Greenberg said. “Before you can ‘define’ the exact problem that you’re solving, you need to go out and talk to real human beings to find out what the underlying problems are.”

I questioned Stein Greenberg on Peter Miller’s assertion in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article that design thinking could not (yet) become the new liberal arts because it appears to prioritize observing the current context over learning from historical research. She responded that the ideology of design thinking was never meant to replace that of the liberal arts—at Stanford, or anywhere else. Its position, rather, is complementary.

Yet as she made that distinction, Stein Greenberg was quick to clarify that design thinking indisputably considers the historical context of any issue, just not at the beginning of the process. She cited the “curse of knowledge” as a reason for doing so.

“If you rely on how the problem has been approached in the past, and what hasn’t worked before, then that can impair the team’s ability to see the problem with fresh eyes,” Stein Greenberg said. “We value expertise, but it’s helpful later in the process. [That we value history] doesn’t always come to light when people look at the way that design thinking operates.”

The ultimate mission of the, Stein Greenberg told me—though always evolving—is to “unlock the creative potential of people at Stanford and around the world.”

“Human beings are inherently creative, and design thinking offers a set of tools that really helps bring that out and helps people express their creativity,” she said. post-its (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Post-its play an integral role in the design thinking methodology. (RAHIM ULLAH)

Packaging, prototyping and applications

Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. I pondered the originality of these terms as tools for creativity.

Jonathan Kleiman, the lead instructor of Designing Your Stanford, a course that applies design thinking principles to help freshmen and sophomores to plan a meaningful college experience, explained—or confirmed—that what makes design thinking so distinctive is not necessarily the values that the process espouses, such as having empathy or prototyping as early as possible, but the very fact that these values have been codified into simple, coherent actions and mindsets.

“The ideas, the methodology—they’re not that novel,” Kleiman said. “What’s radical about design thinking is the way that it’s been packaged into something really attractive and accessible. When some students walk into a class, their first reaction is ‘Oh, my God,’ and for others, it’s like, ‘Yeah, exactly.’ Design thinking is either totally mind-blowing—or entirely validating.”

Kleiman acknowledged that as one travels farther east, away from Silicon Valley, fewer people have heard of the term “design thinking,” much less understand what it means. His definition of the process is self-aware: Design thinking is an approach to problem solving that begins with [traditional] practices—putting the user first and finding out their needs—and then emphasizes rapidly prototyping, testing and gathering user feedback, based on ideas that were generated (“ideated”) from the initial need-finding process.

“[Design thinking is] learning by doing, learning by trying,” Kleiman said. Instead of spending years researching and attempting to “perfect the right product” before putting it out into the world, why not just “try something, make something and learn something”—in a matter of hours, days or weeks?

Kleiman told me that real designers would say that a step-by-step, linear nature to design is “not what designing is all about.”

Yet the veritably simple, and somewhat linear, nature of the “packaging” of design thinking—a structured codification that opens a gateway to unstructured thinking and creativity—is what makes design thinking so appealing. Its simplicity is what makes design thinking applicable to solving problems less tangible and less defined than improving incubators, toothbrushes and computer games.

Enter Designing Your Life and Designing Your Stanford, two courses offered by the design division of the Mechanical Engineering Department, both of which are taught by members of the Life Design (“”) Lab. The team is focused on employing design thinking in scenarios where user and designer are one and the same: life itself.

“There exists no manual on how to get through college,” Kleiman explained. “There’s no one right major, set of classes or job that’s going to make you the happiest person you can be. There’s no way that sitting in a library by yourself, reading books, will give you the answer to how to have a successful college experience or have a happy life.”

Designing Your Stanford (DYS) aims to help freshmen and sophomores design a personally meaningful Stanford experience; Designing Your Life (DYL) aids juniors and seniors in building a post-graduate pathway that prioritizes fulfillment and understanding over the belief that only “right” or “wrong” career-related decisions can be made.

Catherine Goetze ’18, who took DYS this winter, said that the course taught her “the difference between getting the most out of [one’s] Stanford experience and cramming as much as possible into the Stanford experience.”

Prototyping and testing, style, take the form of proactive, hands-on exercises: DYS assignments include talking to seniors to learn more about their Stanford experiences and practicing storytelling to recognize the importance of meaningful conversation. DYL students arrange and engage in informational interviews with professionals in their field of interest, a form of prototyping that Kleiman described as “expensive in minutes and cheap in years.”

Both DYS and DYL emphasize the values of reflection and open-mindedness. At the beginning of the quarter, students make “way-finding” maps —diagrams of meaningful past experiences—to mine them for telling connections that might inform their future academic or career plans. Later in the quarter, students create “mind-tree” maps, which involves designing not one, but three, different pathways that they might follow in the future.

The implication of designing three pathways, Kleiman said, is “immediately freeing to students because it takes off that pressure of having to ‘do it right.’” Instead, it acknowledges that there are multiple ways of going about Stanford, and after Stanford, that would make students happy.

DYS students brainstorm pathways for the remainder of their years at Stanford, while DYL students create five-year-long “Odyssey plans” that commence after graduation.

Like many other design thinking courses, Kleiman said, the contents of DYS and DYL are about “10 percent the same,” while their points-of-view are “100 percent the same.”

“If you sat in on these classes,” he told me, “you would see.” empathy (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Among the keys to design thinking is the idea of empathy. Design thinking espouses understanding your audience before you can create a solution to the problem. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Design thinking, in real life

I walked into Designing Your Stanford on a windy Thursday afternoon, yet something about the atmosphere—and the energy—immediately transformed the day into a sunny, summer Friday. Music played in the background as the 44 students of DYS sat down around seven large tables, placed at various angles within Lathrop Library’s spacious Room 282. Each table was headed by a section facilitator, either a DYS instructor or a student graduate of the course.

As I joined Kleiman’s table and became student #45, the arrangement reminded me of that of an elementary or middle school classroom; it was a far cry from the setup of a normal college lecture hall.

The topic for that week was “Designing Your Way Forward”: using design thinking to tackle a goal, be it old or new, long-term or short-term, that we found challenging to approach.

For practice, we would get up and split into groups of three (“triads”), and then employ adapted mindsets such as “Curiosity” (“What interesting questions can I ask about this?”) and “Radical Collaboration” (“Who can I work with that’s unlike me?”) to help one another “design our way forward.” We would jot down answers on individual rainbow Post-its, a representation of the wild and near-infinite possibilities of brainstorming.

Scott Morris, ’18, one of the members of my triad, presented his problem first. There was a baseball game that he wanted to attend that night, but pressing physics and CS 103 problem sets stood in the way.

For “Radical Collaboration,” Nick Hershey, ’18, the second member of my triad, suggested that Morris work in an RA’s room; the RA could, better than his friends, keep him from getting distracted. Morris considered the option.

For “Curiosity,” I asked Morris whether he had attended a Giants game before. Yes, as a regular fan, he had—so no, tonight’s game would not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I then asked Morris whom the Giants were playing that night. He did not know.

Hershey and I concluded that Morris was not a dedicated enough fan. Morris looked up the opposing team (the Marlins) on his phone, and concluded that the competition was too lacking for him to compromise two time-intensive problem sets.

We had solved a small, small challenge in our four-minute brainstorming session. But then, aren’t most of life’s large, wicked problems composed of countless little problems?

Contact Grace Chao at gracewc 'at'