Twitters” drawing and photo by Hélène Villeneuve

What is Design Thinking? A methodology or a mindset?

The answer to a never-ending question

I don’t know how many discussions on LinkedIn and how many live conversations I had on whether design thinking is a mindset or a methodology. I like these discussions because I get to see where people come from to design thinking.

There are some traits that I see in the perspective of people who are designers by trade — product designers, graphic designers, architects, etc., those who are design thinkers trained at any of the d.schools and people who have intuitively educated themselves in the principles of design thinking. But this is beyond the point. For me these are fruitful discussions and all of these people, all of us, have valuable experiences to bring in. The problem is we often expect to convince the other party and reach to one final, rightful answer.

I like to believe that design thinking is richer than that and that everybody can have his own answer to the never-ending question. And here is mine: design thinking is a humbled methodology with a bold mindset.

Why a humbled methodology?

Of all business methodologies, I’ve ever encountered, design thinking is the least of a methodology. Unlike Six Sigma or SIT, it doesn’t come with a big handbook full of instructions. It comes with a toolbox.

In it you can find some useful instruments, often borrowed from other disciplines, and it’s up to you to use them. It’s up to you to figure what’s broken, how to fix it or how to build something new. There is just rough guidelines for the process you need to follow empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. But even this could be turned upside down.

And this is good because methodologies don’t work, mindsets do. Particularly in the context of innovation. Methodologies create safety nets and support risk-averse behavior. They prescribe how to act and this is often used as an excuse not to think and even worse, not to act. Methodologies deceit individuals and organisations to follow a “secured step-by-step path to success”. Unfortunately there is no such thing. You’ve got to find your way.

Blindly following a methodology will lead you nowhere interesting. My friend Andreas Klinger said it very well in his recent post about why Lean startup methodology in its present incarnation sucks for startups: “Good teams don’t use the tools of Lean Startup as a navigation systems. They use it as a headlight…”

This is equally valid for any other business method, methodology, tool, etc. There is no navigation system to innovation. The most successful, inventive and creative people have never followed a methodology. They shared a certain mindset.

Why a bold mindset?

And this is what design thinking really is for me — it’s a mindset derived from the acts of successful and respectful business people, designers and inventors.

The most distinctive feature of such people is intuition. And this is what the teachings of design thinking are aiming at — develop students’ intuition. I don’t know of any other methodology that has this.

The d.schools welcome curious, smart, empathic kids and let them solve real-world challenges. There are no strict rules and there is no definitive process either. You move forward, sideward or even backward at your own discretion.

The key words here are learn and journey. Design thinking practice constantly reminds you to unlearn what you knew and learn anew. Mastering this awakens your courage to take unknown journeys. It sounds simple, but it’s the inability to do exactly this that fails businesses.

About this post: This post is part of a new series of articles on the topic of design thinking. These will be mainly interesting examples of applying design thinking in various industries and occasionally my own musings on the topic. You can expect to read about design thinking in the telecom, IT, banking and insurance industry, the public sector and more. This was the opening post and it’s about prison redesign.

About the author of this blog: Elina Zheleva is a Design Thinking Evangelist trained at the HPI School of Design Thinking and Stanford Previously she has worked in the European Aviation Safety Agency taking various roles in planning and controlling. Currently she is the editor and curator of Airport Hub & Passenger eXperience and an expert on passenger experience in air travel. She also works on bringing Design Thinking to Bulgaria and CEE where she originally comes from. She is the founder of

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