Building a Creative Pipeline With Design Thinking

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023

The concept of Design Thinking has been around the block, surviving many hype cycles. It’s universally known in design circles, yet still hasn’t fully permeated mainstream business culture.

Flexible yet programmatic, Design Thinking’s iterative approach to innovation seems well-suited for contemporary companies in the lean startup world, for whom delivering working products quickly takes precedence above all else.

While the practice doesn’t have all the answers, it does offer some powerful tools for getting your startup on the road to surviving and thriving.

IDEO and the 60s roots of Design Thinking

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

— Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

In 1991, American designer/entrepreneur David Kelley founded the innovation agency IDEO in Palo Alto. In the intervening decades, IDEO has become an iconic global company, primarily responsible for bringing human-centered design methodologies into organizations of all shapes and sizes.

By “designing behaviors and personalities into products,” IDEO have managed to deliver consistently useful innovation. They’ve also dramatically altered thinking on the impact of company culture and innovation.

Kelly and his co-conspirators have been responsible for developing market-making products like the first Apple mouse and the first laptop computer. In 1999 they famously re-designed the common shopping cart on ABC News, a viral moment that launched Design Thinking into the public consciousness.

Kelly also works in a teaching context; he’s the founder of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known to most as the The highly influential program reflects Kelly’s overall design philosophy, promoting human-centered design and creative confidence, as well as Design Thinking, which is the means of building said creative confidence—a form of project-based learning that’s designed to clear mental blocks and allow creativity to shine through.

It’s easy to get caught up associating this mode of thinking with Kelly and IDEO, who have done so much to popularize it, but Design Thinking was actually first proposed way back in 1969 by influential social scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon who mapped out the first design process theory in his book The Sciences of the Artificial.

Simon described the cognitive processes associated with creativity, striving to create a scientifically sound basis for good design. His seven-step decision making cycle was meant to be logically coherent and allow for an iterative design cycle.

If you really want to deep dive on the genealogy of design theory, there’s some fascinating research on the Cold War roots of design theory and the ‘systems building movement’ of the 60s. Simon actually worked for the RAND Corporation, a think-tank launched by the US Air Force, from 1951 to 1976, and it is within this context that his design process theory took root. During the 1960s, as a wave of social unrest hit the western world, systems for social and political problem solving took on new urgency in academic and government circles.

In the 1980s, Donald Norman’s user-centered design theory shifted this line of thought towards empathetic product design, tailored towards creating the best user experience.

But since the 90s, it really has been Kelly and the IDEO squad leading the Design Thinking charge. For Kelly, creativity is a means of navigating the ever-increasing complexity of doing business, and Design Thinking is the technique for practically expressing it. For him, human-centered, prototype-based iterative design is just what the 21st-century company needs.

The Five Modes of Design Thinking

So you’ve done your philosophizing about human-centered design, wandered in the Mojave desert for a while, and decided to embrace a design model based on empathy and iteration. Now how do you define the process you need to take in order to actually generate a working product?

Enter the five-part model of Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is not a linear set of processes, and indeed some or all of the five elements of the technique may be running in tandem. For instance, the testing of one iteration of a product may generate new and unexpected insights that will feed into a new round of user outreach, which may then generate new insights that completely re-orientate the project.


Starting from scratch, the first thing to do is reach out to the people you’re going to design for.

This step is all about collecting information on user needs and the problems they face.

Before you spend a penny on developing something, you’ll spend time with potential users and identify how they use products, what they like, what they’re annoyed by, and so on, giving you the ability to develop a solution from their perspective.

Apart from getting insights on how to meet individual needs, empathetic discussion with prospective users can generate unexpected answers and opportunities, which can end up re-orientating the entire project around a previously not-thought-of issue and/or market segment.


After finishing up a round of hardcore empathizing, you will likely be left with a broad range of disparately articulated concerns. The key will then be to figure out the basic essence of the problem that the majority of users are facing.

Defining a problem is absolutely imperative because it refocuses the project towards addressing a real, elemental need as opposed to an abstract, self-centered one like “we have to get 10% more people to subscribe to the enterprise-level version of our app.” In this way, the product design process is made ‘honest’ in its goal of creating actual, observable value.


Now that you have a user and a defined problem, it’s time to start thinking of ideas. Easier said than done, as we know.

One exercise for brainstorming good ideas is, ironically, the ‘Worst Possible Idea’ technique. It’s exactly what it sounds like; everyone thinks of what the crappiest solution would be to the prospective problem.

The point of doing this is that it loosens the ties up, as everyone starts seriously researching the absurd and ridiculous. The ice breaker exercise allows for uninhibited brainstorming without fear of judgment. And beyond that, much like how a ridiculous joke always contains a dose of deep truth, the worst idea very often contains the seed of the best idea.

Another technique, primarily aimed at innovating existing products, is SCAMPER. That caps-lock is no mistake; the term is actually an acronym for a seven-part lateral thinking technique:


Find an existing product, process, service, etc. and identify one or more parts that you think you could change to make it better.


Find two or more elements of a product or process, and combine them in a previously unexplored way you think would deliver new value. A good example would be the idea of adding a camera to a cell phone to make it a multi-functional device.


Look at what you already have developed, and see how it can be changed or adapted to obtain a new result. Perhaps you could solve your design problem with existing work, just tweaked a bit and deployed in a new context.


Magnify, minify, distort or re-arrange your design problem, and also your product, process, or service. This process is all about changing the product and/or the situation to see how everything looks in a new light.

Put to another use

Just like it says on the tin, this part is all about figuring out how your product can be used in a situation it wasn’t originally intended for. A good example is how Kotex’s super absorbent surgical wadding, used in World War I, was successfully re-developed as a women’s personal hygiene product.


Figure out what you can eliminate in your existing product offering. By cutting the fat from the bone, you can see what part of a feature is really important.


Try everything again, but backward! Do everything against the original purpose it was intended for. No, this exercise isn’t just to blow off steam at the end of the SCAMPER-ing, but rather to see what happens when you turn things upside down, upending any and all original assumptions.

Apart from the aforementioned couple of methodologies, there are many, many more. Some other common ones include mindmapping (including software like Canva or Coggle), provocation, crowdstorming (soliciting feedback from social media and other public-facing channels), and good ol’ fashioned brainstorming.

Whichever ideation technique(s) you choose, the one sage wisdom that cuts across all of them is this:

Seek quantity, not quality.

Raw ideas are always better than polished ones at this stage.


Now it’s time to build a prototype, which can be done with whatever ad-hoc materials you’ve got handy. Never forget the first Apple mouse prototype was just a modified butter tray with a rubber ball, after all.

Experiment with scaled-down, simplified prototypes that demonstrate a feature of a product or a problem it will face. During this phase, the concept of the product can be approved, rejected, or re-examined and re-calibrated.


Finally, the stage where the complete product—built according to the best solutions arrived at in the prototyping phase—is tested. Modifications and refinements may or may not be suggested. Given the non-linear nature of the five-part Design Thinking model, testing is often deliberately used to redefine the problem and increase user understanding in anticipation of beginning a new round of iterative design.

Designing your own Design Thinking: the practical perspective

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

-Herbert Simon

Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—rinse-repeat until you have a breakthrough.

Of course, the reality of design is always a bit more chaotic.

With that in mind, one criticism directed at Design Thinking is its supposed calcification into a kind of dogmatic program, and with that its marketing as ‘knowledge from on high’ by IDEO and Stanford.

It’s certainly true that IDEO is making money off promoting the process. They have an introductory online class called ‘Hello Design Thinking’ for $199, designed to get you trundling down the righteous path, with pointers on gathering inspiration, generating ideas, making ideas tangible, building rough prototypes, and crafting a human story to inspire others toward action.

They also have a heftier 5-week ‘Insights for Innovation’ class encapsulating human-centered design and Design Thinking for $399.

Stanford’s, meanwhile, has a four-day Design Thinking Bootcamp for an eye-watering $12,600 (!).

But those cynical digs aside, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the process of Design Thinking itself. As always, one shouldn’t trust it as a fundamental truth. Because, of course, the real value of this methodology is found not in following the above processes to the letter and expecting magic beans to sprout, but in assimilating its ideas to improve the existing strengths of your team, augmenting and beefing up your organization’s collaborative skills and innovation culture.

A lot of startups fail (something like 90%), and most of the time within their first year. Such premature failure is often down to building a product for a market that doesn’t exist, and that cannot be brought into existence through sheer tyranny of will.

Design Thinking can help prevent the creation of a non-saleable product by virtue of its “go to the user first” ethos. That makes it extremely valuable at the beginning of the innovation process. Later on, when the product is launched, it can also be used to go back and iteratively tweak the offering.

Then there’s the holistic benefit of fostering creative confidence throughout a small team.

Startups are fundamentally kind of anarchic; given the small team size, there’s often role overlap—a strong counterpoint to the classic, departmental office structure. That means everyone has to be aware of everything going on, and ready to give their two creative cents.

Design Thinking can help establish everyone’s comfort in their creative abilities, especially among team members not conditioned by professional training and work experience to ‘act creatively’ or voice left-field ideas without fear of reprisal. This is psychological safety in action, which is a prerequisite for building a high performing team because markets are never moved without someone sticking their neck out and saying something new and maybe a bit odd.

Design Thinking can bring psychological safety because it is not a theory tied to an abstract result, but rather a process meant to produce an observable result within the world. Plus, seeing one’s ideas become things builds creative confidence.

In any event, the point is that Design Thinking isn’t so much a kill-em-all-and-let-god-sort-em-out tool as it is a strong binding glue. It can be harnessed as a great supplementary tool for driving your organization towards best practice, a force for re-visiting where the value lies for users and product offering alike.