The power of Design Thinking is in the doing!

January 31, 2019 | 5 min read

From ‘I design think’ to ‘we design think’ (and do)! It's cool to experience what comes out of co-creation solution scenarios that are based on the real needs of the stakeholders involved. That’s how you create the difference and collaborate on solutions of dynamic, complex issues. In this article, I’ll explain how you can start Design Thinking – and doing.




The rapid rise of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is an increasingly valuable tool for change and innovation. Renowned business schools incorporate it into their curriculum, design gurus write numerous books about it and Design Thinking is showing up with more frequency on the management agendas of large organisations. This popularity is understandable. Bit by bit, we are faced with issues that have an open, dynamic, networked and complex character. In both the profit and non-profit sectors. Issues such as new highway construction, security within a nightlife or entertainment area or recruiting young talent within the technology industry. The conventional approach – which first goes through an extensive analysis, where the problem is broken down into tiny pieces before going directly to the one correct solution – no longer works. Today's tough issues require a different perspective and action. Brilliant, just how I like it!

Design Thinking is in our blood

Design Thinking is about exploring the answer to a question in a different way. But what's so novel about that? Many strategic design agencies already approach their clients' questions like this. Designers are trained to look at a problem holistically, constructively and positively, in order to reach other solutions. In that way, Design Thinking is in our blood. We simply apply the problem to a much broader range of problems. Tough problems in both the commercial and non-profit sectors, crying out for a different, innovative approach.

Design Thinking, stakeholders centre stage in the design process

Most people jump to conclusions about the design process; you put a bunch of creatives together in a room with a stack of Post-its, whiteboards, markers, etc., and after a few hours of good ol' brainstorming the proverbial rabbit pops out of the hat. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Tough issues are characterised mainly by the large number of stakeholders. Directly and indirectly, looking out for their own interests. In the Design Thinking approach the drivers and needs of the various stakeholders take centre stage. Of course, the (end) users, hold a prominent place; however, the interests of other stakeholders are also included throughout the design process. Ultimately, it's about making choices that add value for all the stakeholders. This way, solutions take hold that are positive, long lasting and present enormous added value.

Design Thinking, how does it work?

First, perhaps the most important and most difficult step; as problem owner, say goodbye to your conventional trouble shooters! Open yourself up to looking at the problem from a different angle. Be curious, dare to share and don't be afraid to try things out. To ensure that Design Thinking can really be used, VanBerlo developed a clear roadmap to navigate the Design Thinking approach. Let me explain now what activities are carried out at each stage, and what resources (form and tools) are needed to make it work.

1) Exploring the issue | scoping and definition
It seems almost excessive to say that you start by gaining an understanding about the original problem. Yet from the hundreds of cases we have worked on, we know that this point is often underexposed. In our approach, we start with a kick-off session together with the problem owner and other direct stakeholders (core team). During this session, you'll study the origin of the problem. Together you search for answers to questions such as: How did the problem arise? When does it flare up? What makes the problem difficult to solve? What has been done to solve the problem? In addition, you list all stakeholders together in one document and determine which stakeholders will be included in the next phase. You create an empathy folder for each selected stakeholder, to bring the pains & gains out into the open. In the final part of the kick-off session, you determine which form your empathy research will take (observation, interviews, focus groups, etc.) and which main topics you will include.

2) Gather insights | empathic research
Gathering the main stakeholders in the design process. In our approach this means that you involve several stakeholders (core team) directly in every element of the approach. Additionally, because of this empathic research you learn how to better understand other stakeholders. You do this through interviews, focus groups and observations. The trick is to really step into the stakeholder's shoes. This means not only assessing how he/she is facing the problem (and not the direction of the solution), but also to get a broader glimpse into someone's life. After each interview, focus group or observation you capture the insights in a data download. A data download is a tool that records the information in insightful and visual themes, quotes and important insights.

3) Ideation | themes and frames
After the empathic research is completed you carry out an analysis of all the collected insights. The themes are clustered to get a good picture of the connecting themes that come into play. During this step, and based on the clusters, you can develop new solution concepts (ideas) for the initial problem. To achieve fresh and innovative solutions, the so-called reframe method is often used in this stage. In a one-day co-creation session, the defined connecting themes will reveal a different way to look at the problem. What associations/metaphors come to mind outside the context of the problem? This fresh perspective helps you to develop a new take on the problem, a new frame. Looking at it this way, you gain many fresh themes to the original problem. Recently, a workshop based on the theme 'Uncertainty' revealed the frame 'My first pregnancy'. You can imagine all the solutions that came bubbling to the surface based on that frame.

4) Testing | scenarios and prototyping
To assess the potential success of the ideas, new solutions (ideas) are developed further. This can take the form of writing (user) scenarios, or developing storyboards, prototypes, sketches or visualisations. The resulting definite concepts are then tested on the stakeholders. Testing your concept on the stakeholders requires thorough preparation. Among others, we use the Value Proposition Canvas (A. Osterwalder, 2014). This is a tool that helps to develop the solutions your stakeholders have been waiting for. Here you describe the added value the new proposition can deliver to your target audience. Also, you can better assess what questions will get you honest feedback. Based on the gathered insights you can make choices and adjust your concept.

5) Apply | implement and sharpen
If a concept/prototype is selected and sharpened, it's important to involve the right stakeholders and other parties in making it tangible and come to life. When it's time for implementation, a clear division of tasks and the associated responsibilities become extremely important. Who does what, when? Next to understanding which partners play a role in the implementation of your new concept, other business components are also involved. For example, the financing and (internal) communication of your proposition. Here the Business Model Canvas (A. Osterwalder, 2010) proves to be a useful tool. The Business Model Canvas gives a visual take on what plays a role in your business model and it makes the interdependencies clear.


VanBerlo, Design Thinking method.

From 'I design think' to 'we design think' (and do!)

I've now given you quite an extensive look into all the steps involved in the Design Thinking methodology. Not just a peak. Using these steps, anyone who is searching for a supported and innovative solution for his/her complex problem can use this method. Design Thinking poured into a clear roadmap that lets you start creating the difference. Go for it:


More information about the Masterclass Design Thinking


About the author

Ms. Maayke de Brouwer
Senior Design Strategist
Areas of expertise: Strategy & Innovation

Maayke de Brouwer has been working at the prestigious VanBerlo for seven years. VanBerlo has been voted the most innovative Design & Innovation agency of the Netherlands. In her role as Senior Strategist Innovation, Maayke helps clients in both the commercial and non-commercial sectors to come up with surprising solutions for complex challenges.

As a specialist in the application of the Design Thinking methodology, she stimulates her clients to discover new opportunities from different perspectives. Maayke works on topics surrounding transition management, identity, safety, mobility, the quality of life and care. Her honest inquisitiveness and her motivation to make the world more beautiful ensure that she gets to work on each new problem full of positive energy. 

This article has originally been published on the Dutch Frankwachting website and this is a translation. Visit the Frankwatching website to view the Dutch article.
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