design thinking

From Edison to Tim Brown: Some ideas about Design Thinking

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Design Thinking is defined as a method that allows us to generate innovative solutions based on the needs of users. It was created in the classrooms of Stanford University and popularized by Tim Brown and David Kelley, founders of the multinational IDEO.

Over the past decades, Design Thinking has proven to be an effective tool for innovation in both products and processes and services.

In the following text I will try to synthesize three of the ideas presented by Tim Brown in his article “Design Thinking”, published in Harvard Business Review in 2008. I will try to answer the following questions: What is innovation in Design Thinking? How is this methodology different from other forms of service or product development? In what way is it carried out?

What is NOT Design Thinking

Talking about “Design Thinking” is talking about Design. In relation to this it is worth starting with a disambiguation of the term “design”. Since the rise of the discipline in the 50s, design has traditionally been understood as the way to beautify the products, make them more attractive by appealing to the user’s emotions. It is assumed that the choice of the characteristic red-Coca Cola-is the work of designers. Also the design of the Nike logo or the composition of certain flyers like those of the Pachá nightclub. Outside of the purely graphic, industrial designers are responsible for making the products launched on the market have an attractive shape, such as the characteristic “polished” of Jonathan Ive in Apple products. In the words of Tim Brown:

Design has been treated as a downstream step in the development process –the point where designers, who have played no earlier role in the substantive work of innovation, come along and put a beautiful wrapper around the idea” (Brown, 2008: 86)

This purely aesthetic conception of design is overcome by the Design Thinking methodology. While traditional design works on an idea already developed, the goal of Design Thinking is to create ideas that better satisfy the desires and needs of consumers. Therefore, Design Thinking addresses from the research process prior to the development of the idea (empathy), the definition of the problem, the ideation of a possible solution, the prototyping and the testing, even developing implementation strategies and sale. Design Thinking is a process that addresses all stages of innovation, both in processes and in products, services, ways of communicating and even personal lives.

People centered design

One of the characteristic features of Design Thinking is its “people-centered” thought. The design processes do not come from an idea pre-configured by a “creative genius”, but rather from the drives and latent needs in the groups on which they intend to act, channeled and codified by an interdisciplinary group. To carry out Design Thinking projects it is essential to “get close to the field” and to know in depth the realities of the different users and agents (stakeholders) involved in the innovation process:

Along with business and technology considerations, innovation should factor in human behavior, needs, and preferences. Human-centered design thinking – especially when it includes research based on direct observation – will capture unexpected insights and produce innovation that more precisely reflects what consumers want” (Brown, 2008: 90)

User-centered design requires a deep understanding of them. That is why Design Thinking uses methodologies from social anthropology, such as ethnography, in-depth interviews, netnography, life history or the focus group. Through fieldwork, Design Thinking tries to understand why it’s of people, assimilating human reality in all its complexity.

Interdisciplinary, collaborative and experimental

As outlined above, Design Thinking is not a one-person process, or a single discipline or way of understanding the world. Both Tim Brown and the multinational IDEO take as reference ethos the famous Menlo Park laboratory designed by Tomás Edison:

“Indeed, (Edison) broke the mold of the “lone genius inventor” by creating a team-based approach to innovation. Although Edison biographers write of the camaraderie enjoyed by this merry band, the process also featured endless rounds of trial and error” (Brown, 2008:86)

In addition to its user-centric approach, the diversity of profiles and ideas involved in Design Thinking processes is one of the major points in favor of the methodology. The active participation of heterogeneous agents allows obtaining a greater perspective of the projects carried out, breaking completely with the idea of the “unique expert” and giving way to a “polyhedral” approach to the problem. For example, in the case of the project carried out by IDEO for the medical service provider Kaiser Permanente, which sought to improve the overall quality of the experiences of both doctors and patients, a working group was created consisting of nurses, strategists, specialists in organizational development, technology experts, process designers, union representatives and members of the IDEO team. The methodology obtained excellent results, so much so that Kaiser Permanente itself created the Garfield Innovation Center, a kind of internal consultancy integrated by the original team of the project, whose mission is to look for innovations that improve the patient experience and design the “hospitals of the future”.

It is systemic

As indicated above, Design Thinking is a process that has different phases and that addresses the full cycle of innovation. It is based on a deep understanding of the lives of consumers and rapid experimentation to create value and transformative solutions. In this sense, it is important that Design Thinking is integrated from the beginning of the project, given the importance of Thick Data research to establish the foundations of the project. In addition, it is advisable to involve external people who bring a foreign thought, out of the box (and therefore “estrangement”) to the innovation team. Completed the ideation phase it is important to start prototyping as soon as possible:

“Prototypes should command only as much time, effort, and investment as are needed to generate useful feedback and evolve an idea. The more “finished” a prototype seems, the less likely its creators will be to pay attention to and profit from feedback. The goal of prototype isn’t finish. It is to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the idea and to identify new directions that further prototypes might take” (Brown, 2004: 87)

In short, Design Thinking is a methodology that comes from design but is not limited exclusively to this field. It is characterized by its focus on people and its experimental, collaborative, holistic and interdisciplinary nature. It is the contemporary materialization of the methodologies of Tomás Edison, a visionary genius who knew how to understand the importance of holism anticipating the needs of users. Decades later, Tim Brown and the IDEO team would rescue a revolutionary methodology capable of putting people at the center of innovation.


BROWN, T. (2008) Design Thinking, Harvard Business Review

Co-founder and CEO in Antropología 2.0 I contribute to the development of innovative business strategies by providing in-depth knowledge of human complexity. As a social anthropologist, I am qualified to conduct ethnographic research based on empathy and a holistic understanding of social phenomena. I collaborate with multidisciplinary teams providing valuable insights on which to build unique and differentiated strategies. My passion for people-centred innovation has led me to train in fields such as Business Anthropology, Design Thinking and Customer Experience (Cx)

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