The Best Methods for Design Thinking

For anyone who is involved in a complex project that demands teamwork, creativity, and lots of brainstorming, there must be a clear strategy or process to make your team project effective and innovative. There are multiple plans or methods the designer can use to tackle a heavy design project. In order to carry out a productive process, he/she must have the proper mindset to solve problems, handle information, and apply it to the task at hand. A very particular mindset is called “the D mindset”. Issued by the Institute of Design at Stanford, this mindset includes 5 phases: Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and Test. The design leader, whether it be an entrepreneur or an architect, must use methods along with this mindset that helps the team achieve their goals for the project and the user. Each phase requires different methods, some of which are detailed below. However, it is not wise to use only a small amount of methods for each phase. It is helpful to use as many different methods possible to achieve maximum results in the design project.


The first step in a design project is to know the need. Every project must meet a need, and empathy helps the designer understand their target customer better by knowing their experiences, values and beliefs. Empathy gives the designer insight, and the insight leads to innovation. The project will be more successful if the design team knows who they are designing for and what they should be designing. The relationship formed between the user and the designer will help in the next phases leading all the way up to testing and feedback for further improvement on the final project.

The most common methods used are interviews, user camera study, and the extreme users method. Interviews are very simple in format, but an effective interview requires insightful questions that are organized in a manner that makes it easy for the person being interviewed to answer them. When interviews don’t get specific enough, the user camera study has the user take photos or video his/her life experiences to document to the design team. In this way, the designers will know the daily routines and struggles of the user. The extreme user method is like an interview but takes more time preparing for the interview by determining who would be the most relevant user to the design team’s project. For example, if the design was related to parks and recreation, the most likely candidates to be interviewed would be regular visitors to the park or recreation supervisors.


The second step is to know what the problem is. After gathering information about the user(s), the designer must focus on what his/her point of view is on the matter, and guide innovation efforts and possibly give the team inspiration based on the point of view. This includes working with the design team to organize and synthesize any data or information gathered from the previous phase.

A great method to define the problem and guide the team in the right direction is the critical reading checklist. It works by asking the team 4 simple questions: What is the point? Who says? What’s new? and Who cares? This determines what kind of point of view the team has in comparison to that of the designer. If the designer doesn’t think the direction of the project isn’t compatible with the needs of the user, then the designer must reframe his/her message and design principles to the team.


The third step involves brainstorming and pitching different ideas throughout the design team in preparation for any experiments or prototypes. As ideas are exchanged, the team must evaluate which ideas are useful and apply them later to the prototypes.

An easy and simple method is asking “How might we?” questions, or HMW. This helps the team brainstorm on a very broad level. The questions must not be too specific in order for it to work. An example is, “How might we make the park more elderly-friendly?”


A prototype is what happens when ideas are converted into a physical manifestation. It is common for the design team to work through multiple prototypes for trial and error in developing the final product. This may involve going back from the testing phase to the prototype phase. During this phase, interaction with prototypes and any feedback from the user usually takes place. The prototypes can help settle any differences the team may have in the direction of the project and improve the overall design of the product.

A very widely used method combines the prototype and testing phase into one: the prototype test with user method. It is very common in tech and software industries where companies want feedback from customers that use their products. For example, a video game developer invites gamers familiar with their work (the users) to test out a new game by playing it. Any feedback received from the gamers will help guide the design team to fix or re-evaluate the game based on the users’ experiences.


The final phase determines the overall success of the designer’s team and the product. If there are any flaws in the product or feedback coming from the user, the design team would go back into the prototype phase to make any improvements before testing again.

The D mindset is only one of many approaches to design thinking. As mentioned earlier, the designer must not limit him or herself to a set standard of phases and methods. The designer must determine the right processes and the appropriate set of methods for the team to use to achieve a successful design project. The strategy must be simple but effective, specific but easy to implement, and insightful enough to bring out the intended actions. It is the simplicity of out immense complexity that makes a successful designer; one phase at a time.