What is Design Thinking? - By : Cédric Coquelle,

What is Design Thinking?

Cédric Coquelle
Cédric Coquelle Author profile
Cédric Coquelle is a master student in Innovation Management at ÉTS, where he studied the design, development and management of products. He is a member of the Numérix laboratory and is in the committee of Les 24 Heures de l'Innovation.


This article explains what Design Thinking is about. You’ll then understand how this is a very easy process to use and integrate when you need to create, which when we think about it, happens on a daily basis!

You don’t need to be Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Walt Disney to be creative. Proof of this is found in start-up companies like MeYou Health, social organizations like The Good Kitchen in Denmark or even large companies like IBM, that were not waiting for “the Messiah” to implement ground-breaking solutions. To highlight your creativity and develop innovative solutions, Design Thinking is an innovative process to get to know and try out whatever your type of organization, where you are on this planet, on a day-to-day basis or in challenges, like the 24 heures de l’Innovation (24 Hours of Innovation), an international innovation contest organized by the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) in Montreal, on May 26 and 27, 2015.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an innovative process whose origins lie in designers’ practices, which differ from classical innovation and business development methodologies. Jeremy Alexis, designer and professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology (ITT) and member of the IIT Institute of Design, explains that there are two types of problems: There are mysteries/wicked and there are puzzles/tame. Puzzles are problems where when you have the right level of data disclosure, when you have the absolute number, the problem can be solved. The other category of problem called mysteries is when there is no single piece of data, there is no level of data disclosure that will actually solve a problem. In fact, there might be too much data and it’s about interpreting all the date that’s there. And that’s a richer, harder problem that requires more system thinking, that requires prototyping and piloting. It’s about trying different things and experimenting and trying to move forward toward a solution.

Although Design Thinking comes from designers’ practices, it isn’t exclusively reserved for them. Instead, this approach is based on multidisciplinary and multicultural collaboration which encourages people to explore alternatives which previously didn’t exist. Design Thinking’s success comes from the fact that this process concentrates on the user’s needs taking into consideration the context and the culture of stakeholders.

design thinkin process

Jeremy Alexis defines Design Thinking:

“We believe that design should be human centered and improve organizational performance. By human centered, we mean that design should be based on observed, real user needs, not the whim or personal belief of the designer. When we say improve organizational performance, we mean that design should create and deliver value for its stakeholders… We also believe that design should not operate in a black box: We are working to document design methods in order to make them more repeatable, predictable, and scalable” (Klinker and Alexis (2009), p. 54).

Design Thinking’s approach 

Design Thinking’s approach allows for the development of empathy, creative confidence and the ability to visualize with the aim of bringing innovative solutions to difficult situations.

1. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in somebody else’s place with curiosity, optimism and respect. This means recognizing the client as being a separate person with their own problems instead of carrying out targeting or segmenting based on classic business analysis.

This implies the development of your understanding of the client’s rational and emotional needs and wants. As stated by Jonathan Ive, Vice President Design at Apple: “We are humans beings; our first reponses are dominated not by calculations but by feelings. […] if you have an object in your pocket or hand for hours every day, then your relationship with it is profound, human, and emotional”.

2. Creative confidence

Many people associate creativity with artists and for this reason, they keep away from it, as if having ideas applies only to a certain category of people. But, humans have a natural ability to generate ideas. However, being creative by simply having ideas isn’t good enough; you also have to have the courage to act and put them into practice.

Creative confidence shows the ability to present an unfinished work and to participate in something which doesn’t form part of your initial qualifications. This is something that everyone develops in childhood but which, as we grow up, loses its importance due to fear of failure or of being judged.

Yet, failure is an integral part of the innovation process. The sooner you experiment with an idea, the quicker it is to determine its strengths, its weaknesses and then know if it will work, or if it has to be improved or abandoned. To do this, you have to be able to overcome your fears to try and capitalize on the experience, whether it has been positive or negative. As an analogy, you can compare this situation to high level skiers, who need to know how to “pick themselves up” many times to find the best way to go down the “mountain of problems” awaiting us when we want to innovate.

3. The visualization

Visualizing is the ability to form a mental image of an idea, a concept or a physical object. This can be the image of something that may or may not exist. Visualization is the ability of an individual to communicate a mental image to another individual or to a group of individuals. The ability to make your ideas visible leads to more effective collaborative work.

Explaining an idea literally allows everyone to form their own mental image and risks alienating the person you are speaking to from the original idea, who had never found themselves in a situation where they had to say, “This is not what I was saying”.

Here are a few tips to solve this problem:

  • Keep it simple: make your visual presentation as simple as possible;
  • Break down your idea using the following adverbs and relative pronouns: who, what, how much, where, when, how and why. Each part of the idea can be visualized and discussed in groups;
  • Think in metaphors and analogies: this is about connecting two similar things which are not linked in order to open the discussion with others and to have an in-depth exchange about a series of relationships and possibilities. This approach is also defined by the term “bisociation“;
  • Use photos: they help capture information, to make it real and transmissible to others;
  • Experiment with storyboarding which is defined as a series of panels, of scenes capturing the sequences of an event (like in film sequences);
  • Create personas: according to Wikipedia, a persona is a fictional person who is assigned a series of attributes to enrich their profile in order to express the characteristics of the target group.

The ability to communicate a mental image of an idea makes it possible to obtain better involvement from colleagues to create a solution together.


Adopting a Design Thinking approach allows you to develop ideas and to share them with the view of building innovative solutions in a collaborative way. Empathy offers a deep understanding of the parties involved and in this way allows you to see every problem as an opportunity. Creative confidence leads to the development of your ideas, learning from your mistakes and capitalizing on experience resulting in being more innovative. Finally, visualization allows us to transmit our ideas as we imagine them with the aim of integrating a maximum number of people within this mental image, to give it the chance to be enriched and to lead to an innovation. If Leonardo Da Vinci became one of the greatest inventors, it is first and foremost thanks to his mastery of visualization – his ability to observe, perceive and communicate his vision. Leonardo said it well, “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”

So, we will be back on May 26 and 27, 2015 for the international challenge competition Les 24 heures de l’Innovation (24 Hours of Innovation) to do Design Thinking?


Cédric Coquelle

Author's profile

Cédric Coquelle is a master student in Innovation Management at ÉTS, where he studied the design, development and management of products. He is a member of the Numérix laboratory and is in the committee of Les 24 Heures de l'Innovation.

Program : Automated Manufacturing Engineering  Innovation Management 

Research laboratories : P2SEL – Products, Processes and Systems Engineering Laboratory 

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