Design Thinking: Human Centered Design for Innovative Problem-Solving

Design Thinking and innovation

What Is Design Thinking? 

Design Thinking is a human centered approach to innovative problem-solving. 

Design Thinking seems to be a hot buzzword these days. You’ve likely heard it mentioned in meetings or hallway talk around the office. And you may be thinking that it’s something best left to engineers or the R&D team.

But Design Thinking is a valuable problem-solving and design approach that can be used by many different teams. It allows you to solve problems by focusing on the real needs of people. It’s an approach that looks at problems and solutions from the perspective of people experiencing those problems.

Design Thinking is for Anyone Solving Problems

I met with Michael Graber, Managing Partner at Southern Growth Studio in Memphis, TN, to talk about Design Thinking. His company works with clients to successfully solve problems using innovation and Design Thinking approaches.

He helped me understand that Design Thinking is an accessible problem-solving approach that can be used by anyone.

It’s been used successfully by both startups and large companies.

Airbnb was stagnant and couldn’t figure out why they weren’t growing, until they looked at the issue with the eye of potential customers.

Bank of America’s Keep the Change program was inspired by looking at the way many people round up purchase amounts simply to make the math easier and using that approach to help customers save money.

But Design Thinking isn’t only for startups and large companies. Anyone can use a Design Thinking approach.

It’s a wonderful way to shift the way you think about problems. Anyone who wants to solve a problem can use Design Thinking to find innovative solutions.

5 Phases of Design Thinking

The Design Thinking approach consists of 5 steps. Though there are 5 steps listed and numbered here, it’s actually an iterative approach that allows for moving through the steps as needed. You may get to the end and go back a few steps to adjust based on your findings.

But these steps will give you structure to move through for innovative and human centered problem-solving.

Design Thinking is a collaborative and creative process. It encourages participation from everyone and values diverse perspectives.

These are the 5 steps to design thinking:

1. Empathize

Empathy is foundational to Design Thinking. It’s critical to human centered design.

Many problem-solving approaches start with defining the problem. But you have to make sure you define the right problem. Human Centered innovation and design focuses on people. Talking to people, and understanding their perspectives, gives you a much better understanding of the problem.

Getting the perspective of the person experiencing the problem helps you see the problem differently.

They’ll see things you won’t because they have different lenses and will take you on the journey to help you gain a deeper understanding.

2. Define.

The next step is to make sure you’re solving the right problem.

You need to assess your information and observations made about your users in the Empathize stage. Think about your experience, the information you gathered from it, and what you can now bring to the problem with different perspectives.

From here you’ll form a problem statement. This will help you and the team focus on a specific challenge or needs.

A problem statement is important to a Design Thinking project, because it will guide you and your team and provides a focus on the specific needs that you have uncovered. The problem statement should be framed around the people you’re trying to help. It should also allow for many possible ways of addressing the need, rather than defining any specific approach or technology. Begin your problem statement with a verb to make it action oriented. Words such as “Create” or “Produce” help give the team movement.

3. Ideate

Now is when you start to generate as many possible solutions as you can. You understand the problem from your users’ perspective and have a clear problem statement. Encourage the team to think outside of the box to come up with creative ideas to meet the users’ needs.

The team generates ideas through brainstorming.

Once the team has generated ideas, evaluate and discuss them. The group will then determine which to move forward with and prototype. This may be one or more of the ideas generated during brainstorming.

4 Prototype

Now that you’ve narrowed down your target solution(s), come up with a low-cost way to create the solutions. The team can whiteboard them or come up with inexpensive ways to quickly build prototypes for others to try out and give feedback.

Don’t put a lot of money or time into creating the prototype, because you’ll be changing it. Expect it to change based on feedback you’ll get.

The goal is to get a prototype or mock-up that you can get feedback on.

5. Test

Once prototypes are created, the team and users can test them. This stage is more about the experience around it. It’s not only focused on the item or solution, but the user is giving feedback to make adjustments and changes. 

The feedback provided during this step allows the team to iterate and make changes and adjustments to the prototype as needed.

This allows the team to make modifications to develop and even better product or solution.

Mindset for Successful Design Thinking Results

Graber shared with me that the right mindset is critical for successful Design Thinking.

When Graber or his team are working with a client, they first work to shift the client’s mindset away from constraining thought patterns and approaches. People’s instinct is often to take an analytical or linear approach. Michael’s team focuses first on mindset to help clients think more creatively. 

And it’s particularly important to make sure that management is on board and understands this, in order to create an environment that supports it.  Michael shared, “We work with them first and then help them work more creatively.”

Mindset and management support are critical for successful Design Thinking sessions. Create a culture and environment that encourages creative thinking and you’ll get much better results.

Risks to Productive Design Thinking

Fear kills creativity.

There’s a lot going on in your brain when you experience fear and stress. The amygdala sends distress signals to your hypothalamus. This is the command center that sends signals to the rest of your body telling you to shift into fight or flight mode. It activates the sympathetic nervous system tells your adrenal glands to flood your bloodstream with adrenaline.

This is when your heartbeat increases, blood pressure rises, you sweat, and with all that going on, it’s hard to open your mind to new and creative ideas.

And if the work culture is fear-based, teams aren’t encouraged to think outside of the box or try anything different.

Fear of judgement can shut a team down from sharing new ideas. If the culture is fear-based, team members can shut down if management or executives are present during idea generating activities.  

I asked Michael about the impact of having management in the room during innovation activities.

The key to success is having leadership support and have them modeling the desired behavior. It’s important that management support creative idea generation. You’ll get far better results if management is on board and supports the activities.

Benefits or Value of Using a Design Thinking Approach

A Design Thinking approach can be extremely valuable. It saves waste. Teams can generate ideas quickly. They can test and iterate dynamically.

This ties into business agility and organizations delivering value faster.

The Design Value Index Study found that “Design-driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219%.”

Design-driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219%.”

Design Value Index Study

If you give your R&D team $50,000 and they take 8 months to try something and get it to market, your competitor beats you to it. 

It’s also motivating and increases morale.

Graber pointed out that a Design Thinking approach looks at people as subjects and human design. Human centered design looks at that spark of creativity that’s in humanity and gets to those forces around creativity. It humanizes the workplace and galvanizes a culture and liberates people to bring their highest and best self to the organization.”

You get more value from your employees by tapping into their creative spark, inspiring them to apply it to real problems, come up with creative solutions they can test and iterate, improve, and have real impact.

READ: The Importance of Creativity in Business and Work

Human Centered Design for Project Managers

These creative approaches are valuable for project managers, too.

I asked Graber specifically about how this applies to project managers.

He shared that project managers can certainly add value by using these approaches to help teams think more creatively, innovate, and come up with new ideas. 

Project managers are often in a perfect situation to be able to do this. The facilitation, leadership, and other soft skills that project managers leverage are strong assets in this type of work. 

Project managers can use these skills and lead teams in human centered innovation practices to get great outcomes. 

As a facilitator you can ensure the team is aligned and in tune with the problem they’re solving. Make sure the team has the support and authority to reframe the problem. Make sure they have the mindset and psychological safety to be able to harness the power of collaboration.

Then the team can have more loyalty and trust and responsibility and shared ownership for the project. Everyone addresses the problem with shared goals and metrics. 

Human centered innovation methodology helps the team cement around the problem so you can come up with more solutions and value. 

Advice to Project Managers to Try Human Centered Design Approach 

Here’s Graber’s advice to project managers who want to try Design Thinking.

If you want to try human centered design, pick a project that scares you. Pick a problem that seems vexing. A problem without a solution. 

Then get a small, cross functional team and apply these methods and compare it to a traditional project management structure. 

Run radical experiments and see what you come up with.

And at this point my may be thinking, “But I don’t have formal training!”

Graber’s response to this: Everyone is human and has full rights and authority to use these methods.

You have your own agency and authority.

And there’s lots of training and resources available to you on how to use this approach if you want to dig deeper.

You might also be thinking, “I can’t sell this to my executive!”

Go to your boss and let her know you’d like to try to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved. Pick something that has been vexing the organization and tell her you want to run a lean experiment and give it 10% of your time. Pick a team to work with. Give it a try and see how it goes.

You may find that as a result you solve a difficult problem, develop your Design Thinking skills, develop your leadership skills, get positive attention for it, raise morale for your team, and truly help someone and deliver value.


There are many problem-solving approaches you could apply in your workplace.

But using a Design Thinking approach lets you approach problems from a human centered perspective and use innovation and creativity. This can inspire teams to not only be more empathetic, but to generate solutions quickly and get value faster to those who need it.

Michael Graber is the Managing Partner at Southern Growth Studio in Memphis, TN. He helps clients successfully solve problems using innovation and Design Thinking approaches.

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