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How to follow design thinking

We outline each of the steps in the design thinking process, and offer a great exercise to spark the creative thinking flame.


What is design thinking?

The Design Thinking process is quite straightforward and it can be made clearer when we broaden our perspectives and address functional bias. So, before jumping into how we apply the process, let’s open the mind a bit.

In everyday life, we rarely get to flex our creative psychological muscles as much as we’d like to. Much like having a stretch before exercising, our brains need to warm up before working on a creative project. So, it is always a good idea to find something that can help do this.

Functional fixations

One of the best exercises to spark the creative thinking flame is called ‘Functional Fixations’. this activity was developed by Dr Leyla Acaroglu as a part of her Designers Design Thinking Kit. The aim of this activity is to think of an object, but focus on the alternative functions it may have, instead of what it was intended to do. This helps to unleash innovative thinking skills.

Functional Fixations can be played on your own or with others. As with everything creative, it’s more effective with more than one point of view so if you can grab someone to play it with you, go for it. If not that’s okay also!


1. Choose one object from the list below and note its primary function/s:

* Shoelace
* Broom
* Can Key (can-opener)
* Pen

2. Get some paper and set your phone timer to 3 minutes, and in this time list ways this object could be used to save a life. Try and fill up the page, as soon as something comes to mind write it down.

This exercise helps to overcome a cognitive bias, where we fixate on only one primary function of an object. The more we challenge this bias by pushing past the obvious, the more neurological pathways we open up to view things from a different perspective and boost innovative creative thinking.

Now that you’re warmed up, let’s look at the step-by-step process of Design Thinking as it applies to a real-world problem.

Step 1

Man looks up as water drips from above into bucket in front of him Imagine you’re sitting at home, watching a TED talk when suddenly you feel a cold wet drop hit the top of your head. You look up and see more wet drops propelling towards you from the ceiling. This is a problem!

Now, let’s consider approaching this without a Design Thinking approach first.

Your goal is to finish watching that TED talk, so you move your seat, put a bucket under the drip, and continue watching.

Step 2

Man looks at ceiling with bucket to catch drips You have successfully completed your goal of finishing that TED talk and you’re feeling super inspired. But, whilst you were watching the presentation, the bucket overflowed and is now spilling onto your carpet. The ceiling has swollen and is beginning to crack.

Now your little problem is much bigger.

This is a classic example of Peter Senge’s observation that “Today’s solutions often become tomorrow’s problems”.

Step 3

Man raises hands beside head as water continues to drip into bucket Let’s rewind and take a Design Thinking approach. The water drips on your head, and you realise there is a problem.

Step 4

Legs standing on top of stepladder as person looks through attic hatch Go up into the ceiling and see where the leak is coming from.

Step 5

Water bursts through copper water-pipe Get curious. You ask yourself what type of leak it is, what might have caused it, whether it is connected to any other leaks, what you can afford, and what will ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Step 6

Hand holds wrench tightening water valve Next, get active. Come up with ideas on the best way to fix this leak. Don’t look at just one way, but multiple ways.

Step 7

Man looks up and holds out hand to check if water is still dripping Test the idea. Is it viable? Consider what the impact will be if you apply your solution. Think about how you can make the solution better. If it’s not the best solution, go back and do more research to improve it.

Step 8

Man points finger up to indicate solution is at hand Now that the ideas are tested, implement them, knowing that you’ve considered multiple impacts and approaches, and that there are fewer unknowns about the solution you have found.

You now know you’ve tested the ideas, can fix the leak with little risk that it will occur again, will save on the water bill, will stop wasting water and prevent any water degradation to the ceiling.

Step 9

Diagram shows pathway from Problem to 5-step Solution

Now, we’re not all going to go up into a ceiling and fix our own pipes. However, you can see how a Design Thinking approach might help you to reach a considered design solution for the best outcome and avoid today’s solution becoming tomorrow’s problem.

Additional resources

Papanek, V. J. (1971). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change.

Suri, J. F., & IDEO. (2005). Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.
Hans Hoffman – German-American expressionist painter
© Torrens University
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