Design thinking is like cooking

Oliver Vergo
Fonk Cape Town
Published in
3 min readAug 6, 2019


The other day, my colleague made the following observation: ‘you don’t always use the same exercises in design thinking workshops you run with clients. Why is this, and how do you choose which ones to use?’. I think this is a great question, because it speaks to how design thinking can be applied to product development, to business and to our own lives.

If you google ‘design thinking’, you may find many different interpretations of what it is: ‘a human-centred methodology for innovation’, ‘a solution-based approach to problem-solving’, ‘a collection of tools’, ‘a process’, ‘a methodology’, or even ‘a mindset’. For me, it’s all of these things, and as such it’s very much like cooking. If you’re a novice cook, you might start off with a recipe book, and you’ll learn how to use certain tools: knives, whisks, crushers, blenders, ovens, hobs, pots, pans, steamers, and so on. You’ll probably practice the things that you’re going be doing a lot of — like chopping onions, whisking eggs, or crushing garlic. You’ll then have a collection of tools and exercises at your disposal which lay the foundation for your cooking journey.

The beginner’s experience of design thinking is similar. You learn to use tools like post-its, whiteboards, marker pens and sticky dots, and also techniques like ‘mind-wash’, ‘stakeholder map’, ‘empathy map’, and the ‘point of view framework’. But these tools and techniques are not enough on their own. You need a process — or a recipe, for the aspiring cook — at least to begin with, so you have some sort of structure for what to do, and when. The design thinking process has many variants, ranging from three to seven stages, otherwise known as ‘phases’ or ‘modes’. Just like your favourite recipe, you’ll practice the design thinking process, using the relevant tools and techniques that you’ve learnt, at the appropriate stages.

But maybe after several iterations, you find yourself starting to add your own flair. In our cooking analogy, perhaps you like a bit more salt than the recipe advises, or actually you think the dish is better without onions. As you start to deviate from the recipe, you begin to build your own creative confidence. The cooking tools, techniques and process are all still there, but now they are more like guiding principles rather than hard and fast rules. Similarly, with creative confidence, design thinking becomes more like a system of methods, like a set of principles, and a way of working. You might also realise that this way of working can be applied to all manner of things, from running a business to building personal relationships. And so, it becomes a mindset, or a way of being in the world, that’s based on underlying principles, and with tools available to use where necessary.

As someone who loves to cook, I no longer see cooking as just a collection of tools, recipes or frameworks. It’s an art, and it requires feeling, intuition and creative flair, within a system of guiding principles and available tools. Similarly, design thinking, and particularly the facilitation of design-thinking workshops, requires these exact same qualities. Being able to read the energy in the room, to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of each project, and to adapt the tools, method, and process to allow space for the best possible outcome, is an art which requires practice. So, the answer to my colleague’s question may not be very satisfactory, but I hope this goes some way to explaining that, much like cooking, ‘it’s a feeling thing’.