Design Thinking, or d-thinking for short, is an innovation in Josef Schumpeter’s original sense of the word. Like so many things that help us solve problems nowadays, d-thinking has to come to us from California. Here, about 20 years ago, Terry Winograd (a professor of computer science at Stanford), Larry Leifer (a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford) and David Kelley (founder of the iconic IDEO design studio in silicon valley and also professor at

D-Thinking in the D-Forge
Stanford) put together a practical process for team-based innovation. Drawing on a wide range of thought, theories and practices -- well beyond their own three home disciplines -- the three assembled a practical and highly effective toolbox for generating innovative solutions to real-life problems.

When Hasso Plattner, one of the partners of SAP, first encountered d-thinking at Stanford, he was so impressed that -- much like Victor Kiam of Remington -- he bought the company. Hasso Plattner has sponsored both the D-School at Stanford as well as establishing a School of Design-Thinking as part of the HPI Institute for Software System Research in Potsdam.

But what does d-thinking actually help us do?

Prof. Uli Weinberg, the head of the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam, says it best. When we think of the amazing things that extraordinary entrepreneurs such as Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, or Richard Branson have accomplished, it becomes clear that these people have an amazing gift for recognising and pulling together diverse and contradictory forms of knowledge. We mere mortals have to cheat: we need tools and processes that enable us to emulate what obviously seems to be going on within these geniuses‘ heads. That’s precisely what d-thinking is: a way of effectively pooling our individual talents and targeting these capacities to real problems that real people face. In d-thinking, the user is at the centre of the innovation process.

d-thinking consists of three basic elements. First, d-thinking requires diverse and trans-disciplinary teams. Typically, teams consist of about 5-8 students from as diverse backgrounds such as engineering, architecture, social science, art and design. Global diversity is also very important: international and transcultural teams generally do better than culturally homogenous teams. Second, d-thinking requires a variable workspace that can be adapted to the needs of the team as well as the requirements of the challenge at hand. Last, the d-thinking process (depicted in the figure below) provides an iterative design process. This process is fundamentally and radically output-oriented. Student teams are not only encouraged to apply a wide panoply of research methods -- taken from the humanities and social sciences -- to really understand user needs but also to design, prototype and test actual solutions. The process enables students to embrace anything that contributes to meeting user needs and put aside anything that distracts from solving design challenges.

This also implies a different approach to learning and teaching. Student teams are given autonomy but are also expected to take responsibility for designing the innovative solutions. Significantly, d-thinking courses so far depart from the conventional academic reward systems in that, as a rule, students do not receive a grade or a degree. Students at the D-School in Potsdam are intrinsically motivated to immerse themselves into this method of generating innovation. Most importantly, student-teams are expected to learn independently through entrepreneurial problem-solving. Typically, the student-teacher ratio is high. Best results come from keeping the teaching body as diverse as the student teams. While successful d-thinking coaching teams look primarily to diversify academic backgrounds, age, gender and ethnic origin also play a significant role. It is for this reason that many students are encouraged to become d-thinking teachers and coaches. Most importantly, however, is that the boundary between teachers and students is blurred. Often, teachers will be co-opted into teams as extra member or, alternatively, deployed very selectively if at all.

Most importantly, design thinking is a way to boost social innovation. Indeed, the radical user-orientation of design thinking turns any design exercise into a social innovation project. In this sense, design thinking may mainstream social innovation into the organisational cultures of business in general.