Creating New Concepts With Design Thinking

Michael Abehsera, a UI/UX Designer and Lead Editor of the Design Blog at Toptal, explains how teams can apply principles of design thinking to generate innovative ideas.
7 min read

The concept of design thinking has been around since the late sixties, but over the last decade, this approach to problem-solving has influenced business, the sciences, and technology. Defined in the simplest terms, design thinking is a methodology for tackling complex problems using a solution-based approach. The five basic steps of design thinking are:

  • Empathize: Understand how the problem you’re addressing affects people.
  • Define: Use your learnings from the empathize stage to define the problem as a human-centered problem statement.
  • Ideate: Employ various idea-generating methods to identify possible solutions to the problem.
  • Prototype: Produce inexpensive, simple versions of multiple possible solutions.
  • Test: Test the various prototypes thoroughly to determine which is best.

Design thinking is a powerful and reliable tool for innovation. In this article, we will focus on the “ideate” phase, by exploring six methods for generating new ideas using design thinking.

Why Thinking Like a Designer is Useful for Business

Design thinking is taught at top business schools. It is an approach to operations, products, and breakthroughs that has taken hold well beyond the world of design. But why is that? What is so special about the way designers think?

  • Designers think with people in mind: Their brains are trained to put aside natural biases and constraints, numbers and profit margins, and to think primarily about what would be best for the end user.
  • Designers understand that problems are not static: They can be approached from a variety of angles so that both the problem and solutions evolve together, making it easier to take action quickly and effectively.
  • Designers dive in and get their hands dirty: They don’t wait until they have a fully formed plan to start crafting a new website, product, or building. Designers tackle complex problems head on with a solution-based focus.

A core component of design thinking is ideation: the step in which the action of generating original solutions happens. Here are six ways that business teams can ideate using design thinking.

1. Connecting the Dots

Bestselling author Seth Godin introduced the idea of the “purple cow.” One day he was driving through the countryside with his family. They saw some cows grazing, and thought it was a beautiful sight. But as they continued to drive, they saw cow after cow, and the cows became ordinary—they lost their novelty. That’s when Godin thought, “What if there was a purple cow?” A purple cow would grab their attention again, because it would be remarkable.

Purple cows are ideas that bring together two or more concepts that haven’t been linked before to create something remarkable. For example, spare bedrooms and skyrocketing hotel prices were never linked by a business until Airbnb came along. Now Airbnb is at the forefront of the sharing economy.

Connecting the dots to come up with a purple cow idea, something innovative and remarkable, requires out-of-the-box thinking. There’s no single method for “connecting the dots,” but here is one possible strategy:

  • Start by defining specific categories of resources your business has available, goals your business wants to achieve, and/or sources of inspiration for your business. Possible categories your team might find useful could be “current products,” “target demographics,” and “companies we admire.” Start with at least three categories, but not more than six.
  • Set a time limit and fill in index cards with items that fall into each category.
  • Separate your cards into their appropriate categories.
  • Start looking for original connections. Here are some methods for connecting the dots:
    • Flip over one card from each pile to create random combinations. For example, what would it look like if GOOGLE marketed your company’s SECURITY SOFTWARE to COLLEGE STUDENTS?
    • Mix the piles together and spread them out on a table. Have your team stand around the table and point out possible connections. Write every suggestion down -- don’t filter out any suggestions.
    • Pin each card from the first pile to a board in a column. Then take the next stack and match each card to a card from the first column, pinning the new card beside the original card. Do the same for each stack of cards, and see what combinations you end up with.

2. Brainstorming

A word of warning: Brainstorming is NOT an effective method for coming up with original ideas in a group. Brainstorming—the method for sketching out ideas without a filter that we all learned in elementary school—should only be done on an individual basis.

Why is that? Researchers have found that brainstorming in groups does not lead to the most original or best ideas. Instead, it leads to groupthink. The loudest voices take over, and the first ideas mentioned get honed in on by the group, leaving more original thoughts out of the conversation. First thoughts are usually the least creative, so the group ultimately ends up focusing its time and energy on cliche ideas pushed by the loudest participants.

That said, on an individual basis, brainstorming can be an effective tool for spitting out ideas and organizing your own thoughts. Here are a few tricks for getting the most out of an individual brainstorming session:

  • Give yourself permission to have bad ideas. Turn off your internal filter and write down every last thing that comes into your head.
  • Give yourself a time limit and stick to it.
  • Give yourself parameters to work within. Decide to brainstorm about the interface or the building shape or the fabric choice. Stick to a particular part of the problem.

Contrary to what you might assume, constraints facilitate creativity, because constraints make it easier to come up with specific solutions rather than broad, general ideas. Without specificity, the mind tends to gravitate toward cliches and tropes. Constraints make it easier to focus and get to the heart of the problem.

3. Brainwriting

Brainwriting is the preferred method for effectively generating ideas in a group. Studies have shown that brainwriting leads to 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas than traditional group brainstorming. This is because, by its nature, brainwriting requires participation from every person in the group.

Brainwriting is best done with three to six group members, and the exact methods vary, but there are a few basic principles that should be followed:

  • Everyone in the group should have a solid understanding of the problem being addressed, and no one should talk during the brainwriting session.
  • To begin, each person writes down ideas on note cards for a set period of time—perhaps five minutes.
  • When time runs out, each person passes their idea cards to the next person, so now everyone is looking at another person’s ideas.
  • The clock starts again, and now you can add to the ideas that you were given, come up with new ideas using the inspiration you get from your teammate’s cards, or simply set the cards aside to pass along to the next person if they don’t speak to you.

This cycle continues until everyone has had input on each set of cards. Then the cards are organized into groups and discussed.

4. Jumping In and Playing

Sometimes the best approach to addressing a problem is simply getting started. When approaching a problem, you probably have some inkling of what you’d like the solution to look like. Start there. Don’t worry about outcomes or final products. Just see where your creative, hands-on brain takes you. You can step back and analyze after you’ve had your fun.

Google is famous for formalizing the idea of play at work with their “20% time” policy, wherein employees are instructed to use 20% of their work time to focus on whatever problems or ideas appeal to them without any sort of directive or supervision.

Of course, “20% time” has come under scrutiny as more of a philosophy than an actual policy, but the idea still has merit. When team members are given time in their day to focus on problems that they find intriguing, regardless of final results or specific business drivers, overall creativity and company morale improve. And, in Google’s case, seminal products like Gmail and AdSense are created.

5. Turning to the Web for Inspiration

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Now, we’re not recommending theft, but it’s always helpful to look to what others have done before you for inspiration. And indeed, sometimes it is helpful to start by studying and trying to mimic an existing solution.

If you’re trying to create an app like Slack, for example, start by studying exactly what Slack does, how it works, and why it is effective. Use what you learn to start creating your own solution, which will inevitably evolve into its own style—its own purple cow—as you get deeper into the creative process.

Some particularly useful sites for finding inspiration are:

  • Dribbble: This is a site where top designers showcase their latest designs. It’s filled with illustrations, websites, prototypes and more.
  • Behance: Another great site for sifting through quality, current designs. Sift through specific categories, like art direction, photography, or industrial design.
  • Muzli: A tab extension for Chrome. Every time you open a new tab, Muzli will populate that tab with curated news stories, invention, and design images from around the web, which you can customize to your tastes and needs.

6. Whiteboarding

This is exactly what it sounds like—using a whiteboard to organize ideas. Whiteboards are an incredibly powerful tool that should be present in virtually every kind of meeting. Whiteboards help your team stay on track, organize new thoughts as they arise, and make sure that things said in the meeting don’t get lost or forgotten later.

Here are some helpful tips for whiteboarding effectively:

  • Don’t start with the whiteboard for idea generation: Avoid the problems of group brainstorming by starting your meeting with a brainwriting session. Then move to the whiteboard for next steps.
  • Start in the middle: Put your big idea front and center, not up in the corner. This gives you room to have ideas literally off-shooting from your central theme. If you’re working on a product, sketch it in the middle of the board. If you’re designing a website, draw the general layout of the main screens in the middle.
  • Keep categories of thoughts organized in columns: When a particular part of a challenge gets addressed, give that part its own column or section to help keep your board organized.
  • Erase as you go: If your meeting changes course or you decide to take a new direction, don’t be afraid to erase all or part of what you have to keep everything on the board relevant to the discussion. Just be sure to take pictures as you go so the things getting erased are all catalogued for later use, if necessary.
  • Write clearly: Nothing derails a whiteboarding session like illegible notes. Make your sketches and writing as clear as possible while still moving at a quick clip -- there’s no need for perfection, just readability.
  • Don’t judge ideas, just write them down: Being selective about what you write down in a whiteboarding session is counterproductive, can hurt morale, and can inadvertently exclude minority voices. Let everyone speak, encourage them to be bold, and don’t judge anything until you have a chance to look at all the ideas.

When Generating Ideas, Remember These Core Principles of Design Thinking

No matter what method of idea generation your team finds most helpful, remember to keep the core principles of design thinking in mind:

  • Empathize first and foremost. Never forget the human element in your problems, your solutions, and your company goals.
  • Focus on solutions, not problems. Problems are dynamic -- they change depending upon how you approach them. Always try multiple approaches to multiple solutions rather than letting the problem limit you.
  • Get dirty. Brilliant ideas don’t arise in a vacuum. You need to take a hands-on approach to ideation, one that flexes all the parts of your brain and helps you see things with fresh eyes.
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