The characteristics of a ‘design thinker’

I normally see lots of emails asking to “beautify” things at work. It’s one of the biggest insults to designers, a profession that looks to not only make things aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately functional and useful whether it’s in technology or communication. It’s a discipline that spans all areas because at its essence is not so much tools or platforms, but a strategic way of thinking that creates value. Back in 2008, Tim Brown, the CEO and President of IDEO and author of the blog ‘Design Thinking’, wrote a detailed article in the Harvard Business Review of how the thinking that goes into designing products or things can actually be used for all sorts of industries.

Simply put, design thinking is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity… Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.


The October 2014 issue of Wired magazine was all about design and editor Scott Dadich’s fascination and interest in design and the way design thinking can be used for innovation while making mistakes along the way, or what he considers “Wrong Theory“. While designers are often known or asked to ‘make things pretty’, it’s this process of making something pretty that holds the most value – the insight that comes from this process is what gets designers to take notice of what works and doesn’t work. But in order to do this, as Dadich writes, “You need to know the rules, really master their nuance and application, before you can break them.” By getting things wrong or off-balanced, a designer’s perspective of a challenge or problem helps him/her learn how imperfection can lead to perfection.

Designers touch and shape every single part of your day; they are a constant presence in your life. Your smartphone, glasses, activity tracker – someone made them, worrying over the details that turned those things into indispensable companions.

Lucky to be working with Sarah (, a talented designer who really loves her work!
Lucky to be working with Sarah Roxas, a talented designer who really loves her work!

I’ve found that sometimes the best ideas and thinking comes from people who don’t consider themselves designers. Again, thinking design isn’t so much a thing as much as a way of seeing a problem and finding a solution. So what does a “design thinker” look like? In his Harvard Business Review article, Brown highlights five characteristics to look for in a design thinker:

  1. Empathy. They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives—those of colleagues, clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective). By taking a “people first” approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. Great design thinkers observe the world in minute detail. They notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation.
  2. Integrative thinking. They not only rely on analytical processes (those that produce either/or choices) but also exhibit the ability to see all of the salient—and sometimes contradictory—aspects of a confounding problem and create novel solutions that go beyond and dramatically improve on existing alternatives.
  3. Optimism. They assume that no matter how challenging the constraints of a given problem, at least one potential solution is better than the existing alternatives.
  4. Experimentalism. Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.
  5. Collaboration. The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has replaced the myth of the lone creative genius with the reality of the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator. The best design thinkers don’t simply work alongside other disciplines; many of them have significant experience in more than one.

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