‘Design Thinking’ as explained by our team13 min read

Marieke van der ZeeDesign Thinking

It’s no secret that in today’s uncertain environment more and more industries (not just businesses) are on the verge of breaking down and in need of serious make-overs. It has become a matter of life or death for corporates to create and execute new ideas. This challenging environment demands solutions that go beyond the basic features of products and services. It is up to corporates to make tweaks in their DNA and to adjust strategies according to their users and leave behind the status quo of traditional business processes. Now THAT is where design thinking can help you. But you must already know that. 

At Board of Innovation, we want to introduce you to two members of our team who both share a passion and expertise in design thinking. We wanted to know their opinions and learnings about design thinking to share with you.

So we asked them.op


First off I want to ask a more general question, how do you feel design impacts the way we function? “We” as in any individual going through our daily activities.

“Good and bad design affects us all. Everything around us is designed but not everything is designed well. In every design you must keep in mind your users, people who are getting in touch with the product, service, process, city, and so on. Design can be a powerful way to influence human interaction and behaviors.

For example in the Netherlands, the simple direction of the arrows above the highway affected the flow of trafficBy pointing the arrows upwards traffic flows much smoother and there is approximately 30 minutes less traffic on the road. Having the arrows pointed downwards gave people a sense of suppression and caused traffic to be 30 min slower. This proves that design thinking can be applied to everything and it can have a major positive impact  on people’s life by finding simple solutions.”

“Design affects everyone in every aspect of life, consciously and unconsciously. We live in an environment where everything is designed has an influence on a person’s life, whether it is good or bad, based on its function and/or aesthetics. Design affects everybody whether they like it or not.”

How would you explain design thinking?

“For me, design thinking has three main elements:

The first element is the strong belief that in any decision you make, you must alway put people first, whether it is people inside the organization or customers. The objective should be tailored to them, their behaviors, their needs, and their problems.

Visualizing things as in storyboarding or making paper prototypes is the second element of design thinking, and it is a big part of it. Visualization enhances the way we communicate with each other; having an image or a physical object explain a concept takes away a lot of confusion. People from IT use very different words than people from the marketing department, though they have the same goal and objectives. 

Once you have this visualization (e.g. paper prototype) then you can start experimenting with it and testing it. You don’t need to have a perfectly designed prototype to be able to start testing whether the new product, service or process addresses a human need. You can solve complex problems with a minimum viable product if it has just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its users.”

mikel“Design thinking is about solving problems whilst putting users at the center of the process. It’s a structured methodology to understand users, from their point of view. It is broadly finding a range of solutions to solve that problem. It’s as much a mindset as it is a structured tool. It’s almost like a thinking philosophy. It has limitations as well, you are assuming that users have answers to all problems, which isn’t always the case. If you are developing something that is truly radical, with new architectures, new configurations, in new markets, consumers don’t tend to have any frame of reference to be able to think of a relevant solution to the problem because they don’t even know what the problem is at that point. It’s the visionaries who must come to the table with a solution to a problem that doesn’t yet exist. And if you can do that you have a better chance of ending up with a truly innovative company like Apple or Tesla.”

Design thinking is viewed as a creative framework that is often divided into 5 different stages. Do you think this is an accurate presentation of a design thinking process? Is it necessary?Design-Thinking-Doodle_Fotor_pink“All the steps are necessary, but design thinking should not stop with testing – it should go beyond that. When you go through these steps to innovate, design thinking as a process helps you define a business case; whether the product/service is desirable, viable, or technically feasible, for people inside the organization as well as customers. If all these three elements are aligned, that is what makes a good business case, and from there onwards you can start implementing.”

“It is necessary for many reasons, to push companies to see an overall framework and cycle, its limits, its structure. The design process has a fuzzy front-end and it is meant to provide structure to a very non-linear process which is essential to get right. It’s meant to align teams with the idea of solving problems from a user-centered point of view which can otherwise be a very messy process.”

Do you believe design thinking is something everyone (from corporates to individuals) should get involved with? Or does it only apply to a particular group of people in a specific function or to specific problems?

“There is an extra fundamental element to design thinking, and that is that design thinking is holistic and therefore multidisciplinary. It is important that different disciplines collaborate in one process. To be able to find a solution that is fitted to the end-user, people from all departments should collaborate and share the data and knowledge they have about the user so that all these small pieces of information come together to form one complete picture.

However, I believe design thinking is at its best when addressing the more complex problems and design challenges. If you look just for optimization you don’t need to take a deep dive into the world of the end user. If you don’t have the aim of adding something radically different, the whole process of design thinking is not necessary. Design thinking is best applied within very niche industries (both B2B and B2C), that is where you get the biggest effect.”

“I think it’s a framework that can be applied to any problem that has a customer at the end of it. It is not restricted to any particular industry or type of product or service. You have different versions of design thinking, like service design for services, agile for software development or lean startup for businesses. They’re all a variation of design thinking, stemming from the same core concepts and ideas.”

Are there rules to design thinking? A set of practices that one needs to go through?
Or is it more a do-as-you-go process?

“There is one main rule in design thinking: less talking more doing. Too often people waste a lot of time talking about an idea instead of just trying it out and actually doing something! Design thinking goes against the culture of big, long, static meetings, it is a very actionable process in which we team up with a few experts and start DOING!”

“You need to follow a structure because without it you will be lost in the very messy initial stages of a design project or a product or service development cycle. If you don’t set limits on your design brief you won’t have control over the process and you won’t have it within constraints and it will be very difficult to manage and deliver. ”

Do you believe it takes a certain set of skills or attitude towards life to be a “design thinker”?

“I have a background in industrial design engineering, a very technical education. I have realized, however, that I don’t necessarily like to make things, but I like to solve problems more. I like to combine technology with creativity. You don’t want to just implement a technology because it is there but you want to know how you can USE that technology to solve someone’s problem. You really need to be able to empathize with your end users, if you cannot truly sense their needs or desires it is very difficult to create a successful new offering.”

“You need to be open-minded and multi-disciplinary. Ideally, you need to be a T-shaped person, someone that spans disciplines and has a depth of knowledge across disciplines. Someone that spans across several branches such as design, business, technology.”

How is user experience different from or, on the contrary, related to design thinking?


“Design thinking as a concept is more a mindset; it is empathizing with people, visualization, and experimentation. Design thinking is something you should embed in everything that you do. User experience design, on the other hand, is more related to IT and the usability of digital products. With the industrialization we were just making physical products then there was a move towards offering services, and now it’s going even one step further; you want to make products and services that are rememberable to people.”

“User experience is another extension of design thinking. It’s thinking about how a user would navigate your products or services, or go through the process of using your product or service. It is another set of tools to understand the user, a lens to put the consumer viewpoint at the center of your process. Without user experience design, people won’t easily or ever, adopt your solution because it is not focused from a customer’s perspective.”

How do you integrate the principles of design thinking into your everyday life?

“In my home, I like to create a kind of setting with the different furniture we have. In my living room there are two coaches, a design by Verner Panton which is very playful and one that has a more classic feel to it. It is funny to see how people get in a totally different mode by sitting in the different chairs. If you want your employees to apply design thinking but the infrastructure or corporate culture in which these people work does not align with design then it will not work because the environment does not allow their behavior and thinking to be influenced. The environment that people are in is crucial.”

“In everyday life, I try to have as much empathy as I can for other people, on an emotional level. Having emotional intelligence is a key tool to life, it’s essential to get by. Being honest with yourself and others, and having empathy for yourself, and how you are genuinely feeling, that’s a very sensible choice in life, but can be difficult to achieve. That comes from design thinking I believe.”

Anneleen, you just had a Design Sprint with De Persgroep, can you tell us a bit more about this process? What is the most critical part of the design sprint?

“We worked with people from different divisions and from different countries (Belgium, The Netherlands, with technicians, business people, journalists) it was a mix of people and that was truly unique. All these people work for the same goal and strategy but most of them never meet each other. Everyone works separately towards the same objective, so by bringing these people together, you make room for great idea generation and insights.

The sprint was a 5-day process, and on the second day we already made a paper prototype and had talked to people on the street to get instant feedback. This is something we should encourage more often. People don’t just go to their end user, they don’t look at how people behave. We don’t trust our intuition anymore but like to rely more on numbers. We need to learn to use both sides of the brain again and that is exactly what design thinking is all about.


Design thinking as a concept was introduced a few decades ago. I’m not asking you to make any strong predictions but how do you think that design thinking will evolve in the next five years? Will it be standard practice to follow for all corporates, or will it become yet another buzzword concept that’s been overkilled and abandoned?

“You always have to reinvent yourself. I think design thinking will 
become even less product focused and more linked to people’s behavior. It won’t just be about how can we produce this new service or product but more and more about how we can create this culture/atmosphere in which people can be more creative and innovative.

It is already happening in urban development, for example, in Copenhagen, they are applying smart urban design to fight diabetes by designing the city in such a way that it provides healthy environments and encourages healthy habits.”

“I don’t believe it will be another buzzword, it has survived long enough to have gotten past that stage. I’m certain that co
mpanies will adopt it more and more, and there will be more need for companies to go through change management processes to incorporate it. But unless it continues to evolve, it will die out eventually. The field needs to evolve, it needs to add new thinking, new methodologies, extending the reach that it has across business development cycle. At the moment it’s just being used to get something out of the door by figuring out customer needs, then building something and testing it, and then building a business model around it. There is an extension of this, and it lies in what happens at the end of that process.  Once you’ve built and developed something, users are going to do something with it; what are they going to do with it? How are going to use it? How are they going to change it? And how will you feed that back into your next innovation loop?

There are bits missing in our understanding of the theory of innovation. Design thinking can either be included in that or maintain isolated in parts of that process. Hopefully, the concept will be broadened and used more widely across innovation management.”

We’ve created a 2-day design thinking course to bring the tools and techniques of Design Thinking to your team. In two days we’ll help you to analyze your clients and their needs. The outcome of this program is an extensive customer journey for one or multiple personas and a synthesis of the three customer problems that prove to be most valuable to solve.