Visualizing the 4 Essentials of Design Thinking

A couple of days ago, I was looking for a visual illustration of Design Thinking to share with my colleagues and clients. Thousands of diagrams were found online within a second. However, I was unable to find a single graphic that adequately revealed all essentials of the design thinking process.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” — Tim Brown

The Limitations of Existing Models

The Design Council introduced the classic double diamond design process model (PDF) with the diverge-converge pattern in 2005. However, “develop” and “deliver” have their own processes in a project life cycle, and should not be the essentials in the process of “design” and “thinking”.

Don Norman modified the model above in the 2013 edition of Design of Everyday Things, and summarized the process as finding the right problem and finding the right solution. It is a great high-level overview, but needs more details to show how it really works within each diamond.

Stanford University’s design thinking process has a good level of detail, but the diagram inaccurately appears to describe a waterfall process.

The “Loop” model that IBM recently published highlights iterations, but misses the important process of divergent and convergent thinking.


A New Design Thinking Model

To capture the essentials of the design thinking process, I created an upgraded double diamond model. (My colleague, ICF creative designer, Trish Willard, suggested calling it the Smiley Face Model.)

1. Finding the right problem first

Everyone is enthusiastic about problem solving and eager to come up with effective and even transformational solutions. However, it is not always the case that adequate effort is taken to identify the key problems to solve. A project often begins with objectives such as creating a mobile app or boosting conversion rates — these are actually solutions! Design thinkers have to step out of these outcome assumptions, and start by uncovering the real problems, their root causes, and how people currently deal with them.

2. Divergent and convergent thinking

The design thinking process is ultimately a divergent and convergent thinking process. To find the right problem, design thinkers conduct a series of studies to understand people and their problems, and then translate all kinds of findings into one or a few problem statements. To find the best solution, a cross-disciplinary group of design thinkers first brainstorm a variety of potential solutions. Through the exercises of evaluation, comparison, and consolidation, a limited number of solutions are selected for prototyping and testing. The final solution sometimes merges the merits of several alternatives.

3. Iterative process

There are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs. Iterations are indispensable. Prototyping and testing uncover the issues and gaps in the initial solution, and drive design thinkers to make refinements or develop new solutions. In this process, design thinkers learn more about the audience and may go back to redefine the problems.

4. Human-Centered Design as the foundation

Last but not least, the foundation of design thinking is Human-Centered Design, which should not only be applied to users of products (UX design), but also to customers of services (CX design), employees of organizations that provide products and services (organization and business process design), stakeholders of businesses (business model and strategy design), and everyone in social/economic/political systems. In the era of digital transformation, let’s DESIGN BIG, THINK BIG.


Are there any other essentials of the design thinking process that I have missed in this diagram? Let me know your thoughts.