Mindset? Process? Method? A Comprehensive Descriptive Model for Design Thinking

Design thinking has become crucial for many activities in the business world as well as in other contexts. However, design thinking is still a rather nebulous phenomenon in literature as well as in practice. As Carlgren et al. (2016, 49) state:

There is a need for a description of DT that is less normative and static and that is specific enough to be able to frame it as a concept, yet flexible enough to allow for variety in its local use. There is also a need for a description that takes account of the various facets of use, so that DT can be seen as a process, or as methods, a toolbox, a mental approach, a culture or a mix thereof. This could mean that researchers studying DT would not have to rely on, for example, the d.school process, which is one of the more common descriptions but which does not capture what goes on in the name of DT in many organizations.

In this article, I propose a comprehensive three-part descriptive model for design thinking that is based on previous research (Hassi & Laakso, 2011 and Carlgren et al., 2016). Therewith I aim to provide a description of design thinking that is both tangible and lives up to the richness of design thinking.

So, what is design thinking? Design thinking can be described as a mindset and work attitude for creative problem solving based on the following five principles: user focus, problem framing, collaboration, experimentation and visualization. In addition, a structured process and physical space serve to support and implement these principles (figure 1). In the following, I would like to describe the three different parts in more detail.

Figure 1: The design thinking triad (representation by Samuel Tschepe, based on HPI School of Design Thinking, Hassi & Laakso, 2011 and Carlgren et al., 2016)

The design thinking principles

The first descriptive unit is divided into three levels, each related to the other (table 1). At level 1, there are the five core principles of design thinking: user focus, problem framing, collaboration, experimentation and visualization. Derived from these principles, there are different mindsets and work attitudes that are essential throughout all activities. The “mindsets” describe the mental attitudes with which one approaches the work at hand, as well as the general way of thinking in an organizational culture. The “work attitudes” category, in turn, refers to concrete practices and tangible ways of working that are consistent with the mindsets. Thus, the mindsets and work attitudes influence each other. At the same time, they support the application of concrete methods. Having the right mindset and work attitude is the basis for successful implementation of certain methods — the mere application of methods alone is not enough, as they must be applied with the appropriate attitude and specific goals. On the other hand, methods can in turn support the establishment of mindsets and work attitudes.

Table 1: The five design thinking principles (representation by Samuel Tschepe, based on Hassi & Laakso, 2011 and Carlgren et al., 2016)

The design thinking process

The second part of the descriptive model is the design thinking process. The process serves as a guide for the design team and provides a structure for the expedient implementation of the principles, mindsets and work attitudes as well as the methods. The process represents a framework in which promising ideas can be generated and user-oriented solutions can flourish. It´s similar to the Creative Problem Solving Process (CPS Process, a structured creativity process for systematically generating ideas), with certain specific characteristics such as a strong user focus and working with prototypes. There are different variations of the design thinking process; I am guided by the process that is taught at the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam. The process can thus be divided into six phases: understand, observe, define point of view, ideate, prototype and test (figure 2).

Figure 2: The design thinking process (representation by Samuel Tschepe, based on the HPI School of Design Thinking)

The first three process phases are all about learning about the problem, identifying the relevant questions, understanding the users and then defining a concrete point of view towards the problem based on this information. To sum up, the first three phases are about ensuring that a significant problem or user need is identified and addressed. Only then, in the next three phases, is the focus on creating solutions for the problems that have been identified: different ideas are generated, the ideas are made tangible in the form of prototypes and the design team gets feedback from the users right away.

The loops between the process phases indicate that DT is rarely a straightforward approach; instead it is an iterative process in which the different phases are repeated continuously. Thus, different modes of thinking are used at different times. Divergent thinking describes a creative, open, unsystematic, experimental and playful approach, while convergent thinking is a logical, rational, systematic, linear decision-oriented approach.

The physical space in design thinking

The third part of the descriptive model is the physical space. While the physical space itself cannot produce ideas, it can inspire the people within it and support them, e.g. to get more creative or work together in a better way. Depending on the working mode, there are different requirements for the physical space (figure 3).

Figure 3: The physical space in design thinking (representation by Samuel Tschepe)

Teamwork plays an important role in design thinking; therefore an open, teamwork-promoting spatial structure is important. Furthermore, the space should stimulate the team so that it is prompted to use easily accessible materials for building rapid prototypes. Next, the versatility of the premises is relevant in the form of various working areas and surfaces, so that the principle of visualization can be followed. Lastly, a flexible room design makes it possible to easily adapt the space to the respective needs (e.g., standing vs. sitting, focus vs. activity).

So, this three-part descriptive model depicts my understanding of design thinking. I would like to express my thanks to Lisa Carlgren, Ingo Rauth, Maria Elmquist, Lotta Hassi, Miko Laakso and the HPI School of Design Thinking for their great work.

I hope you find this useful and I’m looking forward to your questions, thoughts or feedback.


Carlgren, L., Rauth, I. & Elmquist, M., 2016. Framing Design Thinking: The Concept in Idea and Enactment. Creativity and Innovation Management, 25(1), pp. 38–57.

Hassi, L. & Laakso, M., 2011. Conceptions of design thinking in the management discourse. Porto, European Academy of Design Conference.

Tschepe, S., 2017. Was sind die wichtigsten Eigenschaften und Fähigkeiten von Design Thinking-Coaches? Available at: http://www.designthinkingundcoaching.de [Accessed 2 April 2017].