Design thinking is immensely important to business. It's important to client and customer growth and retention. Its application can foster innovation and smooth innovation's acceptance. It can be a key part of business strategy.


Many people, though, are unsure about how "design thinking" as a term used in business differs from product design - the creation of logos, the deployment of industrial design, and so on.

It's quite different. Simply put, design thinking uses the creativity, re-envisioning, and re-tweaking that are part of product design throughout the departments of a company, to think through creation, improvement, and use of products and services. Forbes called design thinking "a proven and respectable problem-solving protocol." It's that and more. In fact, it creates problems as well as solutions.

Four Principles of Design Thinking

A Harvard Business Review article pinpoints several principles of design thinking as used in business.

The first is a focus on the user experience. Companies involved in design thinking explore their clients' perceptions of their products and services. Are they easy and streamlined to use? Are they intuitively comprehensible to use? It should be noted, too, that the design-thinking function exists in every client-facing role, including finance.

The second principle of design thinking is creating models to explore problems. Models are flexible ways to gather data and advance solutions.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, has a large and somewhat complicated outreach to its client base - American veterans. Its Center for Innovation employs what they term called a customer journey map to improve services. Its findings indicate that veterans often feel overwhelmed and confused when trying to obtain information about VA services.

One design thinking conclusion, spurred by placing the veterans at the center of the map, is to reach out proactively to them on a steady basis to proactively arrest frustration.

The third principle is to create prototypes to explore potential solutions. This is very related to the formulation of hypotheses in scientific method - and, of course, very related to technology news, where products are rolled out in versions. The 1.0 is generally intended to be supplanted by 2.0. The 2.0 will have knowledge developed from the reception and performance of 1.0 embedded in it.

Prototypes can be new products, but they can also be news ways of providing goods - a new social media channel, for example.

The fourth principle is integrally related: tolerance for failure. Rolling out a 1.0 - or even a 5.0 - is a crucial aspect of learning what works and what doesn't. As a result, the necessity for tweaking and re-envisioning has to be accepted. That might include abandoning products whose performance and reception are less than optimal. As the article points out, even companies who have had spectacular successes, such as Apple, had its share of clunkers. Remember the Newton?

And the fifth principle? Thoughtful restraint. Companies who offer a simplified menu of what they do often succeed. The smartphone application Cash, for example, was developed primarily to send money to friends of the user. The CEO of Square, Cash's parent, observes "we need to present one cohesive story to the world," rather than multiple and potentially confusing uses.

Design thinking is intimately connected to business strategy and success - it is no longer the province of only how things look.