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What is design thinking?

What is design thinking? Well, there’s a short answer and a slightly longer answer.

The short answer is that it is an “essential tool for simplifying and humanizing”.

That comes from the designer, academic and author, Jon Kolko, founder of Austin Center for Design, design thinking. He believes that for organisations today, it can’t be peripheral or even preferable, but a “core competence”.

Kolko can help us with the longer answer, as well. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he says that a “design-centric culture” is not just a consideration of aesthetics and craft, but a “set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life”. He highlights five in particular:

1. Emphasising users’ emotional experiences

Kolko defines a design-centric organisation as one that encourages its members to “observe behavior and draw conclusions about what people want and need”. He believes that the ones that truly comprehend design “use emotional language to describe products and users”. They’re concerned with customers’ desires and aspirations, how they engage with, experience and feel about a product or service.

2. Creating models to examine problems

Design, Kolko says, has moved from the physical to the intangible over recent decades as organisations have sought answers to more and more complex questions.

Where once you might have considered a designer to consider a problem relating to an object or an image on a screen alone, now organisations use designers to examine all manner of business problems.

He uses the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation as an example. They wanted to “understand veterans’ emotional highs and lows in their interactions with the VA”. It took design thinking – and the creation of a customer journey map (a model) – to do it.

In Australia, Melbourne design agency PaperGiant undertook a similar project with disability service provider, Scope. The inception of the National Disability Insurance Scheme dramatically changed the landscape for Scope, who realised they urgently needed to understand their customers’ experiences. PaperGiant created a picture of the customer journey, identifying areas for change and ultimately informing Scope’s transformation strategy.

3. Using prototypes to create solutions

Analysing a problem requires a design model or diagram; solving that problem generally involves a prototype.

A prototype, for Kolko, is a way of “transform[ing] an idea into something truly valuable – on their own, ideas are a dime a dozen.” He says that design-centric companies are marked by a tendency to “tinker with” ideas in a public forum and update prototypes quickly.

4. Tolerating failure

No competent organisation embraces failure, but design-centric organisations understand that “it’s rare to get things right the first time”. Kolko uses Apple’s little-talked-about Newton tablet, Pippin gaming system and Copland operating system as examples of outright failures at arguably the world’s most successful company.

5. Exhibiting restraint

A natural outcome of considering users’ emotions and desires is often simpler products. Kolko believes that this “thoughtful restraint” is a result of designers’ decisions on what a product “should do and, just as important, what it should not do. By removing features, a company offers customers a clear, simple experience.”

A question of empathy

So, by their very nature, design-centric organisations put a premium on empathy. Kolko talks about designing around “users’ needs rather than internal operational efficiencies”. Or, to put it very simply, to be less self-absorbed, even self-serving, than what we might call “traditional” organisations.

This is important at a time when millennials and generation Z are becoming more and more cynical about businesses’ motives and ethics. The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that a minority of millennials believe that businesses behave ethically (48 per cent, down from 65 per cent in the 2017 survey). That’s critical for organisations, not only when it comes to selling a product or message, but also retaining staff.

However, there is enough evidence to suggest that businesses which embrace design thinking, and an empathetic mindset, do consider more than profits and self-interest. One example is digital products company Tigerspike, which in 2017 joined with the global humanitarian organisation, Mercy Corps, to analyse the ways in which emerging technologies could help people displaced after fleeing the most traumatic of circumstances. Providing aid to these people is an incredibly complex problem for NGOs, but technology and design thinking can help make the process easier for them and better for those in need.

Nurturing design-focused leaders

What we’ve looked at so far is the ‘why’ of design thinking. Why it’s so important to modern organisations.But what about the how? How do those with leadership aspirations prepare for roles in which they can guide businesses towards design thinking or reshape the way an organisation considers design-centred thinking?

The new RMIT online MBA has been created with design thinking at its very core. It cultivates empathy and encourages experimentation, understanding that these aren’t useful ‘soft skills’, but directly affect and improve products, services, processes and strategy.

Indeed, the course requires participants to engage in a project for a real-world organisation, acting as a consultant on a problem or opportunity.

As a graduate, you will have become familiar with the Double Diamond design methodology, involving discovery and definition of a problem, and the development and delivery of a solution. You’ll also be experienced with prototyping and testing solutions that address users’ needs.

The course is as much about the next 20 years as it is about tomorrow. You’ll be introduced to the concept of futures thinking and how it relates to design in a rapidly changing world of digital technology.


Dr Kevin Argus speaks about design thinking at RMIT University.


This is not a traditional MBA. It is an online course designed for those who understand that the world is changing faster than ever before and the best businesses are changing with it. Get in touch with our Enrolment team today to learn more on 1300 701 171.