Design Thinking Open Course at HPI — Reflections

What is Design Thinking (DT)? With the following lines I want to reflect on a three-day workshop in Potsdam at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) where I tried to deep dive into the topic where it originated from.

First learning upfront: DT is not only a process or method but also a mindset.

From my point of view a common misconception is that people tend to think that DT is all about the “design thinking process”. Surely this is an important part of the whole but to embrace DT as a mindset I believe it is a good visual representation as stated below:


So lets have a look at the three big “Ps” that are important when you want to establish the right DT mindset: People. Process. Place.

1. People — Multi-Disciplinary Teams

A team is formed in an expressly multi-disciplinary manner to allow for ideas that extend far beyond the borders of the individual member’s own discipline. This trend moves visibly from an individualistic way of thinking to a „we-culture“ of mutual creation. It is precisely here that we see the greatest potential and where we set our starting point. It is a simple truth that collaborating teams react faster, use their collective intelligence better and generate working processes with greater sustainability. This is how they reach amazing results.

Ulrich Weinberg, Professor at HPI teaching „Design Thinking“ mentioned at a gathering on the first day that we „are not well trained in working togehter collaboratively“.

I agree on that point and believe it is a great opportunity to foster bringing together high-performing teams to solve complex solutions — this is something I can see also in the Digital Unit here. Collaboration is a key to having fun at work, fail and learn fast and creating successful products that customers love. Surely teams can always get better.

2. Process

Through the six-step Design Thinking innovation process, the team navigates from the problem space into the solution space.



The first phase is all about understanding the „problem space“. Just to name one method we made use of the so called „semantic analysis“. Here you try to get a common understanding of your design challenge (Our challenge was named: „Redesign how volunteers share knowledge“) and break down the meaning of any single word. Our output with this method was really great.


It is time for close contact with your target users. Think about interview questions. Create a catalogue of questions and „get out of the building“ (GOOTB). Another valuable part for the team to build empathy with your users.

Point of View:

Creating a shared point of view within the group is a challenge. Everybody throws in their opinions and tries to push his thoughts and ideas. Finally it is all about structuring the learnings from the two phases before and condense it to a single „point of view“ that the team can continue working on. This phase also closes down the debate about the „problem space”.


Time to step into the solution space and come up with crazy, creative and cool ideas. Different brainstorming methods are used in this phase and help to open up our minds. Finally one idea will be selected in the team to focus on. We used „dot voting“ to pick our winner.


Now it is time to be creative in the team. Thinking about a prototype of your idea is not easy. It makes sense to start this phase already with the next phase in mind. How might we test our prototype with our users later.

We came up with „lego-buildings“, „cardboard-buildings” and „drawings“ as prototypes.


Testing your prototype with real users is fun! You went throught the whole process (once!) and you finally face your „end-customer“. Brilliant to see how some of your thoughts are manifested by the words of your interview partner. Similarly you will learn that some of your assumptions are totally destroyed by potential users. The beauty of it is that you learn very fast with very little spendings.

My learning here: „After the design sprint is „before“ the design sprint.“

The process requires an open culture of error. Why? Because in Design Thinking we like to think in the realm of the impossible. The user is totally in the focus of the emphatic approach and its development. The intriguing thing about the process is that it activates the entire thought apparatus of those involved — both the analytical and the creative-intuitive areas.

While the team goes through the process there are some helpful guiding principles that try to open up a creative, open and collaborative working experience.

a.) Stay focused on topic

b.) Defer judgement

c.) Build on the ideas of others

d.) One conversation at a time

e.) Be visual

f.) Fail early and often

g.) Encourage wild ideas

h.) Go for quantity

i.) Think user-centered

From my experience I can say it is challenging to obey to all these principles within an intense three days workshop. I found myself challenging my own ideas while presenting them on the white board. Defering judgement and encouraging wild ideas was even a problem that I had with myself. In the end it was brilliant to see that the whole team gave feedback that we were strong to „build on the ideas of others“ — that is also how we came up with an interesting solution. For sure this would have needed some further iterations and runs through the process to optimize for the ideal solution.

3. Place

Ideas flourish best in a free and flexible working environment. Variable rooms are adapted to the needs of each project. Tables and partitions can be moved on rollers. Walls and almost all other surfaces are used freely to visualize thoughts and to share results. Shelves of colorful materials invite participants to illustrate ideas quickly and to bring them to life.

At the end of the workshop it became clear what exactly the „lines“ connecting the circles in the DT process mean. To really find a good solution for a complex problem you will have to repeat several parts of the process over and over. The reason is that the team is continously learning and you (re-)start the process with better knowledge.

Finally the last question that stayed in my mind was „How to establish DT in a bigger organisation?“ (might be another blog post). One problem for „old-fashioned companies“ might be that you never know what the outcome of a design challenge will be. Thus it is not predictable. It might fail…

You will be successful if you can convince your organization to „try it (DT) out“ and create positive outcomes with it. In this spirit I suggest:

Don’t wait. Innovate!

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