Design Thinking Defined

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, CEO of IDEO

Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach, which is known as design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren't trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.

The intersection where design thinking lives diagram

IDEO did not invent design thinking, but we have become known for practicing it and applying it in solving problems small and large. It’s fair to say that we were in the right place at the right time. When we looked back over our shoulder, we discovered that there was a revolutionary movement behind us.

About this site

This design thinking site is just one small part of the IDEO network. There’s much more, including full online courses we've developed on many topics related to design thinking and its applications. We fundamentally believe in the power of design thinking as a methodology for creating positive impact in the world—and we bring that belief into our client engagements as well as into creating open resources such as this.

At IDEO, we’re often asked to share what we know about design thinking. We’ve developed this website in response to that request. Here, we introduce design thinking, how it came to be, how it is being used, and steps and tools for mastering it. You’ll find our particular take on design thinking, as well as the perspectives of others. Everything on this site is free for you to use and share with proper attribution.

(From 2008-2018, designthinking.ideo.com was the home of IDEO's design thinking blog, written by our CEO, Tim Brown. You can find that blog here.)

Design thinking in context

We live and work in a world of interlocking systems, where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. Think of some of the big questions being asked by businesses, government, educational and social organizations: How will we navigate the disruptive forces of the day, including technology and globalism? How will we grow and improve in response to rapid change? How can we effectively support individuals while simultaneously changing big systems? For us, design thinking offers an approach for addressing these and other big questions.

Divergent and convergent thinking diagram

There’s no single definition for design thinking. It’s an idea, a strategy, a method, and a way of seeing the world. It’s grown beyond the confines of any individual person, organization or website. And as it matures, its history deepens and its impact evolves. For IDEO, design thinking is a way to solve problems through creativity. Certainly, it isn’t a fail-safe approach; nor is it the only approach. But based on the impact we are seeing in our work, the relevance of design thinking has never been greater.

Design thinking today

Design thinking is maturing. It’s moving from a nascent practice to an established one, and with that comes interest and critique. People are debating its definition, pedigree, and value. As a leading and committed practitioner of design thinking, IDEO has a stake in this conversation—and a responsibility to contextualize its value in the present moment and, importantly, in the future.

We’ve learned a lot over the years, and we’d like to share our insights. We’ve seen design thinking transform lives and organizations, and on occasion we’ve seen it fall short when approached superficially, or without a solid foundation of study. Design thinking takes practice; and as a community of designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, teachers, researchers, and more, we’ve followed the journey to mastery, and developed maps that can guide others.

Designer's mindset

At IDEO, we are a community of designers who naturally share a mindset due to our profession. Our teams include people who've trained in applied fields such as industrial design, environmental architecture, graphic design, and engineering; as well as people from law, psychology, anthropology, and many other areas. Together, we have rallied around design thinking as a way of explaining design's applications and utility so that others can practice it, too. Design thinking uses creative activities to foster collaboration and solve problems in human-centered ways. We adopt a “beginner’s mind,” with the intent to remain open and curious, to assume nothing, and to see ambiguity as an opportunity.

The 3 core activities of design thinking diagram

To think like a designer requires dreaming up wild ideas, taking time to tinker and test, and being willing to fail early and often. The designer's mindset embraces empathy, optimism, iteration, creativity, and ambiguity. And most critically, design thinking keeps people at the center of every process. A human-centered designer knows that as long as you stay focused on the people you're designing for—and listen to them directly—you can arrive at optimal solutions that meet their needs.

How the journey of a project feels diagram

Anyone can approach the world like a designer. But to unlock greater potential and to learn how to work as a dynamic problem solver, creative confidence is key. For IDEO founder David Kelley, creative confidence is the belief that everyone is creative, and that creativity isn’t the ability to draw or compose or sculpt, but a way of understanding the world.