The Design Thinking Process for Innovation

Introducing Design Thinking process models from IDEO,, Nielsen Norman Group, Design Council, and more.

Successful designers and innovators like Steve Jobs or James Dyson have proven the value design can bring. Ever since, design has been increasingly recognized as a way to solve problems and achieve innovation, both at the product and strategy levels. People ask the question, “Can we design like designers?”. If so, “How”

Designers’ creative process has been viewed as a mystery. However, people are eager to describe a design process and develop a design framework for various good reasons. One of the reasons is to educate non-designers about how designers work in an attempt to replicate this process to develop innovative solutions. Designers also benefit from having a visualized design process to inform their clients and also keep everyone in the design team on the same page during design projects. Moreover, design educators use the framework to teach design students how to design. 

Now that we agree on the importance of a framework describing a design process, let’s investigate the design process models. 

A design process is typically known as a Design Thinking process. As the name infers, there is something special about how designers ‘think’ - something interesting enough to be given its name. While design thinking was recently popularized in the 2000s, the concept of design thinking can be traced back many years earlier. In 1982, Nigel cross clarified and developed the concept of design thinking as a unique discipline. In his article, Designerly way of knowing, he compared three types of disciplines - science, humanities, and design.

Nigel cross contrasting science, humanities, and design. Source: Menezes, 2019

Today, design thinking is connected to business value and is known outside the design domain as a secret means of innovation. Tim Brown, the former CEO of IDEO, a global design & innovation company, demonstrated how design thinking could transform organizations and inspire innovation in his book ‘Change By Design’ (2009). He argued that design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that uses the designer’s tools to integrate people’s needs, technological possibilities, and business success requirements. This concept originated from IDEO and described the sweet spot for innovation when all three criteria- desirability, feasibility, and viability - are met.

Innovation sweet spot. Source: IDEOU

Today, the Innovation sweet spot has been modified by adding the sustainability aspect. Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should. The sustainability aspect used to be a nice-to-have feature, but now it is increasingly recognized as a must for business innovation. 

The four lenses of sustainability-oriented innovation. Source: Santa-Maria et al., 2022

Sustainable Innovation Model. Source: Explorer Lab

We now understand that innovation can be achieved through design thinking, which considers desirability, viability, feasibility, and sustainability. So, what does this design thinking process look like? The human-centered design process from IDEO consists of three phases: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. The inspiration phase is when you get to know the people you are designing for. This includes design research, like observations or interviews. In the ideation phase, you make sense of what you learn and generate ideas. Here you test and refine your idea with prototypes. The implementation phase is when you bring your solution to life. This is the time when your design is making an impact on the real world.

IDEO Design process (2015) . Source:

IDEO design process is not the only design process out there. Here is another process developed in 2005 by, a design thinking institute based at Stanford University. The purpose of the program is for other disciplines, such as business, law, medicine, science, engineering, and humanities, to create innovative solutions to complex challenges. In other words,’s design methodology is developed for non-designers to be able to think like designers. These five phases include Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.  You learn about your audience and emphasize with them. Then based on user needs and insights, we define the problem. Ideas are brainstormed, built into prototypes, and tested with users for feedback. design process (2005). Source: Stanford d-school

The HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam developed the model further. The process consists of six phases: Understand, Observe, Point of view, Ideation, Prototype, and Test. In contrast with the Stanford model, this model split the Empathize phase into two distinct phases. Although not depicted in the model, we could see that the first three stages are in the ‘problem’ space, while the last three are in the ‘solution’ space., Potsdam design process (2007). Source: HPI academy

As you can notice,’s design process lacks probably the most important part of design thinking: the implementation phase. Nielsen Norman Group, a UX consulting firm, proposed a design thinking framework based on Stanford’s model, consisting of 6 steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Implement. The framework falls into three key phases: Understand, Explore, and Materialize. The arrows represent the idea that the process is not always linear, and hat you can repeat the steps when necessary. 

Norman Nielsen Group’s Design Thinking Framework (2016). Source. NN group

Among the existing design process models, the most widely known one is perhaps the double diamond, developed by the British Design Council in 2004. The Design Council was founded to promote design in the UK. The 4D or Double Diamond model consists of four distinct phases: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver. In the Discover phase, you identify user needs through research. In the Define phase, you make sense of the findings and create a design brief that clearly defines the challenge. In the Develop phase, solutions are developed, tested, and refined. Lastly, in the Deliver phase, a single solution is selected and prepared for launching.

The Double Diamond model is named after its shape. The two diamonds distinguish two parts of the design process: problem definition and solution-finding. Unlike other models mentioned above, the double diamond model shows significant importance in designing the right thing before moving on to designing the thing right.

The Double Diamond model by British Design Council (2004). Source: Design Council

About 15 years after the Design Council’s design methodology was launched, the new double diamond model was proposed. While the main idea, including the 4D phases, remains the same, the arrows in the diagram emphasize that the process is not linear. As we go through the stages, we can go back to the beginning and constantly improve the idea. Moreover, a few elements, including the design principles, method bank, and success culture, were added.  The Evolved double diamond shows that the design process is rather complex than what has originally been visualized.

The Evolved Double Diamond (2019). Source: Design Council

So far, several design thinking process models have been introduced. However, in real-world practice, there are many more variations. Some models are developed by companies such as SAP Enterprise Design Thinking, IBM Design Thinking, and Google Design Sprint. Each company may adopt a design process that fits its workflow and environment. That being said, each designer or design team may have their design process. Although they may look different, they all have fundamental concepts in common. The key concepts are empathizing with users and iterating ideas. In other words, designers must involve users in the design process, whether at the beginning, during, or the end.

Design Thinking Process Models. Source: Traction on Demand

It is important to note that the original intention why these models were developed was to train non-designers on the design process in short workshops; thus, these processes are oversimplified. In reality, design is rather a complex thinking process. The model may not be a correct visualization of the design process, nor does it guarantee innovation even when strictly followed.

After all, if design were a step-by-step recipe, it would already be automated.

To read our thoughts on Design Thinking, check out our publication on Design Thinking is not a Recipe: Common Misconceptions in Design Thinking Practice