Design Thinking

Design Thinking

Amid the plethora of books on corporate must read lists, there are many that expound on the merits of Design Thinking to innovate in business development. What is Design Thinking (DT)?

The popular term of “design thinking” refers to a human-centered, structured process for innovation that can be applied to product, service, and business design as well as problem solving in social services, such as developing promising urban youth futures, or funding well digging ventures in Africa or improving the delivery of science lessons for fifth graders.

The success of Design Thinking is found in situations that call for creativity and innovation. In business, it needs team collaboration and a balanced consideration of product desirability, feasibility and viability to work.

Design Thinking employs a continuous evolving process through the stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Within each stage, problems are framed; questions emerge, along with more ideas, until the best answers are evident and chosen. The steps can be simultaneous or linear and they are repeatable. Many of design thinking business trainings during the last decade can be traced to DT guru David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley of IDEO. David helped to launch Stanford’s d School, and trail blazed Design Thinking boots camps around the globe. DT boot camps emphasize business leader and team application of DT principles while also harnessing their creativity. The Kelley brothers advocate that all can cultivate their creative side in their book, Creative Confidence.

Is everyone capable of harnessing their creativity? In my recent interview with infamous frog design founder Hartmut Esslinger, he offers an opposing view, “only one in ten are truly creative,” Esslinger asserts. “The problem in society is that the left-brained people have the power. They make all the money.  They’re rational; they manage companies as CEOs and so on. Steve Jobs was a rare exception. Most CEOs are number guys.”

Both David Kelly of IDEO and Hartmut Esslinger of frog design are the founders of the intertwined design thinking and human centered design movements. Both have contributed to some of our most valued innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Esslinger provided Apple with the snow white designs of the first Apple IIe and the first proto types for the modern laptop computers and cell phone, While also at Apple, David Kelly worked with Esslinger providing innovative input with his engineering knowledge. Kelley went on to found the design thinking Boot camp at Stanford University and a rack of books on the topic. Dr. Esslinger won awards for his work, founded the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Germany , and was hailed the most influential American industrial designer since the 1930s’ and ‘the first Superstar of High-Tech Design’ by Business Week. His human centered designs contributed to the iconic success of not only Apple, but also Louis Vuitton, Disney Cruise lines, Sony and others.

Is design thinking thriving? We only have to read the November 12th Times of India headline, “30,000 Infosys staff to be trained on design thinking. “ The Infosys chief executive officer Vishal Sikka plans to actively encourage thinking processes. Perhaps this executive and others are not finished creating more profitable innovations for their companies. Corporate executives that lack understanding and training in this vital collaborative approach to development may ignore this resource and miss their opportunity to impress 21st century consumers.

If you are interested in learning more about Design Thinking visit for a test drive! Share if you learned anything new you can apply to problem solving and team projects. You are welcome to participate in the Center for Workplace Diversity Research’s Design Thinking research group! 


Carlos Tasso Aquino's picture Carlos Tasso Aquino | November 19, 2014 8:22 pm MST

Excellent initial posting, Bethany. I look forward to reading more about Design Thinking.



Bethany K. Mickahail's picture Bethany K. Mickahail | November 20, 2014 10:21 pm MST

Thanks Dr. Carlos. Looking for affiliates to chime in soon!

Dr. B

Drew Jemison's picture Drew Jemison | August 19, 2016 4:32 pm MST

The comments you expressed in your blog are very engaging.  In your blog you stated, "Is everyone capable of harnessing their creativity? This question is the key to outlining strategies to design thinking developmental theories and practical concepts to provide answeres about the capability of harnessing creativity.  As I looked into the theory of Design Thinking, my obsevations of the text revealed that the theory of this creative leadeship idea, sugggests that organizations need to embrace new ideas.  

If this is the case, then my question is, what is the reason to ask "Is everyone capable of harnessing creativity?  The way I understand and apply the theory of Design Thinking to this question is, if a new idea is the start to initializing an individuals creativity, what is the best way to measure the perception that limits an indivduals creativity? Design Thinking demands that creativity thinking is not about becoming creative, but rather leading to produce creativity.  

With this in mind, do you first have to believe that there is more creativity left in the world?  If so, is there a way to measure the intensity of perception that will help organizations, healthcare organizations and tech companies unlock the potential needed to harness an individuals creativity?


Bethany K. Mickahail's picture Bethany K. Mickahail | August 31, 2016 7:33 pm MST

Thanks for posting Drew! Creativity is a positive attribute.

The points to ponder are innovation and success in many fields cannot discount the importance of the creative process. If you read David Kelley's book he would say all are capable of creative thought. Perhaps we need to ask, what can be done to make all more open to their own creative capabilities? The application of Design Thinking methods for problem solving is one way to approach this question and promote creative and innovative solutions across many fields,

Herman van Niekerk's picture Herman van Niekerk | September 9, 2016 2:24 pm MST

Thank you for the post, it makes for interesting reading.

What is the differenences between Design thinking, Creative thinking and Critical thinking? Are there specific tools and techniques that you can advise using in each of these three modes?

Thank you for your feedback



Bethany K. Mickahail's picture Bethany K. Mickahail | September 13, 2016 1:16 pm MST

Dr. Herman,

Thank you for your interest and questions.

Design Thinking (DT) is defined for this discussion by Stanford’s D school terms. It is a “a continuous evolving process through the stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Within each stage, problems are framed; questions emerge, along with more ideas, until the best answers are evident and chosen. The steps can be simultaneous or linear and they are repeatable (Mickahail 2015).“

The DT process is featured in the graphic* below while also integrating the elements of Creative Thinking and Critical thinking under each “stage” of the DT process. It should be noted that DT stages employ at times highly creative/or critical thinking features. The word lists below were adapted from Fischer’s paper (2002) about creative minds. It features many elements that mirror Bloom’s Taxonomy, indicating what Bloom defines  as “critical thinking skills” are really an evolving blend of progressively integrated creative and critical thinking skills.

Provided also in the graphic* featured is the point at which the fusion of critical and creative thinking skills merge and blend to ‘test” a prototype that grows from the DT process, . the prototype does not work or needs more study, the DT process of the stages:  Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test, will repeat again.

What is the difference between the 3? For the purpose of this discussion and the question,   it is best to state critical thinking and creative thinking work together to create innovation in the Design thinking process. These  thinking processes all work together to bring forth creative innovation and problem solving ideas needed in the 21st century world.

I will email you the document I wrote that will not upload in this forum.

*Please note the author generated graphic for this discussion  is published at




Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. A. (2001). Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Design Thinking Boot Camp, Standford University(2015), retrieved: 

Fisher, R. (2002). Creative minds: Building communities of learning in the creative age. Paper presented at the Teaching Qualities Initiative Conference, Hong Kong.


Rilla Hynes's picture Rilla Hynes | April 12, 2017 8:12 am MST

Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Gender Bias

Women are underrepresented in the higher echelons of leadership across the spectrum of business, political, military, and sports organizations.  According to Gipson et al. (2017) women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce yet men hold the majority of leadership positions in corporate and political fields.  It is not enough to teach girls how to lead, stereotypes about women and girls must be challenged.  It begins before kindergarten, encouraging girls to learn to speak with peers, handle conflicts, and take risks (Simmons, 2017; Weisbourd, 2014).

Wicked problems are social or cultural problems that are difficult to solve because of lack of knowledge, numbers of opinions and people involved, an outsized economic challenge, and the interconnectedness of the problem with other issues and problems (Kolko, 2012).  The underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership in male-dominated fields is a wicked problem.  The lack of visible role models and mentors are part of the wicked problem that organizations have tried to address with trainings and support groups.  But recent studies by Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2017) and Weisbourd (2014) indicate early intervention is needed to allow girls to develop into women leaders.  Simmons (2017) stated bias has already set in by the time a young woman goes to work.  The work of Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2017) shows gender stereotypes affect the self-perceptions and behaviors of girls as early as 5 and 6 years-old.  Grassroots organizations might create intersecting programs to provide opportunities for young girls to build leadership skills and self-confidence while allowing girls and boys to experience leaders of both genders, allowing all participants to express their full selves in a non-biased, safe environment.

The wicked problem of addressing gender bias in leadership might be accomplished using Design Thinking.  According to Kolko (2012) there are always more than one cause and one solution to wicked problems.  The goal is not to ‘fix’ the problem of gender bias in society, but rather to ease the negative symptoms and change the direction of society and culture in a positive way.  Applying Design Thinking problem solving strategies*  to gender bias in leadership opportunities will allow the application of multiple perspectives from representatives of community groups, educational institutions, political parties, and business organizations in an empathetic, reasoned, rapid prototyping of possible solutions to the problem.  There is no one answer to society’s bias about women’s capacity for leadership, but with DT methods local organizations can change the vision of their community.

*For more information on DT strategies see the Stanford University crash training at



Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391.

Gipson, A. N., Pfaff, D. L., Mendelsohn, D. B., Catenacci, L. T., & Burke, W. W. (2017).

Women and Leadership: Selection, Development, Leadership Style, and Performance. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science53(1), 32-65.

Kolko, J. (2012).  Wicked problems: Problems worth solving.  Austin, TX: AC4D.

Simmons, R. (2016). The Things We Cannot See: Changing What We Think, Want and Believe When It Comes to Girls and Power. Catalyst.

Weissbourd, R. (2014).  Leaning out: Teen girls and leadership biases.  (Making Caring Common Project).  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

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