What is Design Thinking? Definition and Examples.

Design thinking is a process that has been used by institutions and businesses for years and continues to stimulate innovation and creative thinking for artists and innovators alike.

If you’re new to design thinking and want to learn more about how it works, this is the guide for you. We will begin by defining design thinking and talk about how to best apply it using online whiteboards. If you are interested in learning more about other boards, you can check out our template guides for kanbans, swot, and customer journey maps here.

Teams using design thinking to find new solutions.

Design Thinking Definition

What is Design Thinking?

In our article about design thinking and virtual workshops, we define design thinking as: “design thinking is a process in which teams attempt to understand their customer, reimagine problems, and brainstorm solutions previously out of reach. By doing this, teams can creatively define new possibilities to find solutions.”

Design thinking poses a creative solution-based method of problem-solving. This allows teams to focus on the problem’s manifestations and symptoms without losing sight of the end goal.

Much of the solution-driven power of design thinking comes from an empathetic connection with the customer. The customer’s problems and needs will eventually determine the solutions that are deployed, so an empathetic connection with them is vital to the success of your design thinking process. With this in mind, let’s think about some advantages to design thinking.

Design Thinking Advantages

There are many applications to using design-based thinking that apply outside of typical artistic fields. These advantages often arise because design thinking breaks a common brainstorming pattern called ingrained thinking.

Ingrained thinking occurs when people develop patterns of thought based on their routine and familiar situations. These patterns of thought help the brain in everyday life but end up narrowing our ability to creatively find new solutions that exist outside of our traditional thought schema.

Design thinking is a strategy that helps brainstorm solutions outside of that bubble and push people to ideate in places that they might not traditionally find. Being able to apply a fresh mind to a new set of problems is much more likely to find new and innovative solutions, which is one reason that design thinking is heavily used in team brainstorming. These are some of the reasons to emphasize design thinking, and here are a couple of distinct advantages.

The winding path design thinking takes to get solutions.

Allows for new perspectives/creative solutions

The core advantage of design thinking is to build new perspectives and solutions from a place they were not previously accessible. This is enabled by the creative and visual method of ideation, which is inherently different than other brainstorming and problem-solving strategies.

By grouping fresh minds and asking them to visualize the user-identified problems, you will promote innovative solutions that would not have been easily reached before. This is a capability that is inherent to this train of thought, making this strategy a huge advantage to teams that brainstorm with regularity.

Addresses Root Problems

Design thinking exercises are geared toward creating sustainable and lasting solutions. To create sustainable solutions, they have to address the root causes of the problems at hand.

As we will discuss later, there are many different phases to the design process, and some of the first steps involved interviewing users and researching the problems they experience. This step is often overlooked in simple brainstorming exercises and is critical to establishing solutions that properly target the customer’s needs. By doing first-hand research and taking time to both understand the problems and needs of the customer, design thinking guarantees an informed and scalable solution that will sustainably meet the needs of your customer.

Expands the entire team’s knowledge

Design thinking is a process that works to expand the knowledge of everyone involved. It hinges on the team working together to think outside of the box and develop solutions outside of their previous experiences.

Just like other brainstorming activities, bringing people together to ideate allows them to transfer knowledge between them, effectively doubling their intellectual capital. This collaboration makes design thinking incredibly effective and exposes everyone involved to new and innovative ideas. Being able to not only visualize the products of someone else’s brainstorming but seeing how their thought process evolves can also stem innovation in teams working on design thinking exercises.

Design Thinking Best Practices

In order to establish a design thinking strategy within your team, it’s important to understand each phase in the design thinking process and their best practices. It’s important to emphasize, however, that the following phases are not necessarily done in sequential order. Some teams might only work through them linearly, while some might bounce back and forth between multiple phases before arriving at a final product. Whichever style you choose, here are the breakdowns of each design thinking category.

The design thinking cycle.


The very first step is to blend primary and secondary research into creating empathy with your customers. This means that not only should you construct persona maps to identify all of their needs and pain points, but you should conduct actual interviews with them to gain the most direct information possible. Every point should be based on real problems experienced by customers, rather than problems that you think they might encounter.

Creating empathy helps direct solutions towards the customer’s needs rather than creating solutions catered towards the possible pitfalls of the program. These reasons help inform why design thinking is so important to the creative problem-solving process and the greater health of your business.

Defining Needs

Defining ideas, needs, and problems start with organization and prioritization. There needs to be a system in place that allows you to prioritize the different needs and problems that your users might be experiencing, and getting this right helps move the most important ideas forward. 

One of the best ways to prioritize ideas is using the Moscow board. Moscow serves as an acronym for the four sections that the board groups ideas into: Must Have, Should Have, Could Have, and Won’t Have. Traditionally this board is used for creating guidelines for a product release and determining what features will be included. It can be adapted to fit the design thinking definition, however, and is a simple organizational tool that helps prioritize needs and problems that users experience.


Ideation begins with the prioritization of the customer’s problems and needs. It’s useless to ideate solutions that won’t be important to the customer. After you begin focusing on these solutions you can start the ideation process.

Ideating during brainstorming is all about creative expression and brainstorming new ideas. These sessions should be overloaded with new ideas, and you should try and incorporate visual elements as much as possible. Visualization works twofold to help promote brainstorming. By creating visual aids along with new ideas, it allows others to better understand and piggyback off of these ideas and also allows for a greater range of creative expression when creating new ideas.

Visualization and ideation are two of the most important parts of the creative process, but can only be done effectively if the proper groundwork has been laid.

Fresco's Design Evolution Board.
Design Evolution board is a great place to use design thinking.


Prototyping is where teams really start to experiment with the implementation of their ideas, and this is usually where most of the visualization happens. This step should push teams out of their comfort zone and should force people to create new visualizations that are not only accurate but also experimental.

This prototyping process is generally a method to emphasize the small-scale applications of the solution to see if it is worth implementing in reality. For some solutions as far as this needs to go is a paper prototyping method, but with others, it might go as far as a structural creation or small-scale implementation. Whichever way you decide to prototype, it will always be a point that the brainstorming process hinges on. 


The testing phase is where you effectively put your prototypes to the test. This will be where real decisions are made to see if any of the solutions previously created are sustainable options, or if they are just good in theory.

Regardless of the order that the steps occur in, testing will almost always be the last step in the process because it’s where the ideas and prototypes come to a tipping point and will either become actual implementations or will be relegated back to the previous stages.


Design thinking is a problem-solving process that is gaining popularity, so hopefully, this guide has been helpful in understanding its phases and definition. If you are interested in learning more about online whiteboards or virtual workshops, you can check out our comprehensive guides by clicking the links, and you can also take a look at our recent blog post about online whiteboards on the Ideascale blog.


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