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What is Design Thinking anyways?

Eleanor Horowitz
Jan 29, 2016 · 4 min read

Ever wonder what design thinking really means? So did a room full of students who gathered today for a workshop led by Wharton’s student-led Innovation & Design club to break down the buzzwords, understand the steps of the Design Thinking process, and brainwrite about how to better prepare for stuff like #winterstormjonas.

Design Thinking is a mindset. Design Thinking is about having an intentional process in order to get new, relevant solutions that create positive impact. It’s human-centered. It’s collaborative. It’s optimistic. It’s experimental.

MBAs sometimes flee at the phrase Design Thinking, since we rarely come from design backgrounds (key exception = our club co-presidents Greta Carlson & Althea Simons, museum and fashion designers respectively) and we’re trained to solve problems using numbers and data. Inherently design thinking ≠ business thinking, right? Turns aren’t the two can be synergistic. A solution that arises through a Design Thinking process AND is supported by traditional business analytics is an ultimate threat. You can even think of the Design Thinking process as another variable in our equation: user-generated data.


At it’s core, Design Thinking is about stepping back from a problem and trying to understand the infinite possibilities before diving into one solution. The process is best described through 5 steps and can be used to solve problems as wide-ranging as corporate challenges like American Express trying to reach a new customer segment to policy issues like rebuilding communities in the Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda hit.

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First, interview real people in order to uncover needs that they have, which they may or may not be aware of. This step fundamentally distinguishes Design Thinking from the “Lean Startup” approach: the key focus is understanding the customer BEFORE piloting your idea (aka MVP — minimum viable product).


Once you understand the challenge through the eyes of the user, begin to define a specific problem statement and point of view. Your insights from Step 1 will help you target a specific customer type/persona whom you will imagine a solution for.


Most people get excited and jump right to this step — but don’t! The challenge is less about coming up with one idea, and more about encouraging as many, diverse, wild, “stupid” ideas as possible. The best ideas come from thinking beyond predictable solutions. When ideating, remind yourself to say “yes and” instead of “no but”. Another technique for generating creative ideas is to imagine how someone else would solve the same problem — What would a superhero say? How might Kim Kardashian think about this differently?


Protoyping is getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical (or digital) form. It can become a bottleneck between dream and reality, but often the simple prototype is the most effective — don’t worry about it being fully operational, lead with a basic mock-up or rendering.


Testing is where users can finally experience and react to your ideas. This step is helpful for refining your prototype, learning more about your user, and identifying whether or not your point of view/problem statement was accurate. Make sure to capture your findings and return to previous steps to keep improving your solution!


Well, now you know the basics of Design Thinking. If this sparked an interest, be sure to join the Wharton Innovation & Design club and check out some of our upcoming events:

You can also learn more through the Stanford’s bootcamp bootleg and needfinding cribsheet, which explain these concepts in further detail.

About Me: Eleanor is a first year at The Wharton School and is a board member of the Wharton Innovation & Design club, as well as a lead on the club’s annual Penn Design Challenge. Before starting her MBA, she worked in impact investing in India. Follow me @eleanorhorowitz.

Wharton Innovation & Design

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