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design-thinking model

All human beings have an innate ability to design (Cross, (2011)) and design thinking can be learned and practiced by people with all sorts of disciplinary backgrounds. Design thinking is an approach inspired by the design practices (Lawson (2005), Cross (2007)), which entails a non-linear process consisting of a holistic analysis of the problem as well as an exploration of many different possible solutions before implementation of a final solution. A process which requires an ability to deliberately shift between divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Another essential element is curiosity about and insight into human needs, behavior and context as a mean to qualify both problem understanding and the development of new meaningful and valuable solutions.

Visual and tactile representations (eg. sketches, prototypes, diagrams, models, etc.) are crucial elements in design thinking for communicating, evaluating and qualifying knowledge and ideas, because verbal and written communication does not suffice in supporting dialogue and development work in this type of process. (See also Brandt (2007) and Carlile (1997))

Design thinking is particularly suitable as an approach for solving “wicked problems” (Rittel (1973), Buchanan (1992)), i.e. open-ended problems which are ill-defined and often leeds to new problems when someone tries to solve them. In this type of problem solving it is necessary to incorporate and utilize knowledge from many disciplines both in order to qualify better understanding of the problem and also to enable the development of innovative solutions .

Design thinking was brought into a commercial context in the early 00’s when the consulting firm IDEO caused attention to the potential of using design thinking as a strategy to create innovative products and services based on insight into human behavior, technology and business opportunities.

Principles of design thinking:

  • Explore the problem from many different perspectives and determine whether you are actually focusing on the right problem. The problem will probably need to be reframed several times during the process.
  • Qualify and assess  ideas for solutions continuously with potential users, customers and other relevant stakeholders.
  • Work with visual and tactile representations of knowledge and ideas.
  • Build prototypes and use them to communicate and test your ideas for solutions with relevant stakeholders.
  • Be curious and seek out new insights that might change your ideas and set off new directions for your project.


Course plan with design thinking in the course Thematic Course in Food Innovation and Health, FOOD, SCIENCE, UCPH, 2016.

Workshop description with design thinking as an approach in the course Introduction to Consultancy, IFRO, SCIENCE, UCPH, 2015.

Read about the course Entrepreneurship and Innovation 2013/2014 (IFRO, SCIENCE), which applies design thinking.



Design thinking can be used as an approach to innovation in teaching by applying the principles from design thinking for problem solving as described above.

There exists many different types of process models for design thinking. Here a process model defined by Stanford (2010)  is presented, which consists of the five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Each phase contains a specific focus and mindset and throughout all phases the students are to work with physical representations of information and insights in order to ensure optimal knowledge transfer between each phase and between the students.

You can choose to let these phases represent themes for your teaching and select appropriate methods for each phase as a structure for the process. This can be done by letting the students present or hand in preliminary results from phase activities in order to get feedback from you as a teacher and/or e.g. external lecturers, academic experts, users or other relevant actors. Even though the process model consists of five phases it should not be used as a rigorous management tool for a chronological development process, but should allow iterations along the way in a flexible manor. You can also leave it up to the students to organize their process based on these five phases to allow for more iterative and independent work on their projects.


In some academic contexts design thinking can be perceived as somewhat different from the typical academic teaching due to the divergent thinking and iterative, open-ended processes. Therefore it may be a good idea to communicate this issue in class and generally make sure that divergent thinking and iterative processes do not contradict with the learning objectives of the course.

If you are to create student teams the teams should be composed in a way that ensures a diversity in academic backgrounds. If you have students from the same discipline please make sure that the students include other disciplinary perspectives in their projects e.g. by doing field work, expert interviews and other relevant research.


In the Empathize-phase the students begin their projects with a brief – a challenge – which forms the basis for their project. This challenge they are to examine and explore from different angles.

The main focus of this phase is to gain insight about the user context of the project challenge. Therefore, the students must create empathy for the users and try to understand their everyday lives. It’s about being curious about what concerns the users, what makes sense for them and the interests and values of the users. It can be quite difficult to gain insight into the users’ behavior, since the type of knowledge often is tacit and thus difficult for the users to communicate. Observations of and interviews with users are therefore important methods for “diving” into the user’s everyday life in order to elicit knowledge and new insights. This observational research should preferably be done within the user’s own environment in order to gain a deeper understanding of issues that cannot be explained in words.

This phase also entails academic research, where the students apply their disciplinary knowledge and skills to interpret and discuss the challenge. The students may also conduct expert interviews with e.g. university researchers about relevant topics for their project challenge.

Documentation is a crucial part of this phase and the students will need to document insights from their field work and academic research. It’s a good idea to remind the students about this, because it may be impossible to obtain data after they finished conducting their field work and also because the process can be hectic and difficult to recall without having documentation during the process.

Below you can find suggestions for methods suitable for the Empathize phase.


In the Define phase the students must qualify their problem understanding by making sense of the information they got from the previous phase to determine what the problem is and whether it actually is the right problem that they focus on. For this analysis the students must surround themselves with their data material from the Empathize phase, so that it is visual, tangible and accessible to them for example by using the walls of a project room. This may seem like a minor detail, but it is very important that the data material is presented in this way because verbal and written communication in itself is not enough to support the analytical activities of this phase.

The Define phase entails multiple iterations where the students must revisit their problem statement several times as they learn more about the context of their project and the potential directions for solutions. Instruct the students to formulate their problem definition in a manner where it “calls for” ambitious solutions based on thorough understanding of the users’ context and academic research. This can e.g. be ensured by having the students present their problem definition to you as a teacher and possibly to external clients (e.g. a private company, public institutions, NGOs), academic experts, users or other relevant actors.

If the students are collaborating with an external client they can engage in dialogue (or perhaps negotiation) in order to agree on a problem definition that can make the basis for their further project work.

Below you can find suggestions for methods suitable for the Define phase.


In this phase the students must apply divergent thinking to explore their challenge and develop many ideas for potential solutions.

The students probably already have a favorite idea, but it is important that they explore many different types of ideas – even the less obvious ones – in order to push their notions about what is possible. This is not always easy in an academic context, where the students are trained in critical thinking. To support this process you as a teacher can assure the students that all ideas (also the bad or silly ideas) contain an interesting aspect and that there will be plenty of opportunities to criticize and analyze the ideas later on in the process.

The ideation process works best when the students alternate between divergent thinking for example by brainstorming activities and convergent thinking by assessing the ideas, e.g. in a clustering exercise. The right conditions must also be in place in regards to the requirements and criteria for the solution and of course a clear formulation of the project challenge / problem definition, which was prepared in the Define phase.

You can usually spend a few hours on ideation before you need a break and possibly repeat the process again. It is probably in the breaks when you are not focusing on developing ideas that the best ideas will emerge.

Below you can find suggestions for methods suitable for the Ideate phase.


In design thinking you can make prototypes of products as well as services, experiences and processes. In this sense a prototype should be understood as a physical representation of the idea, which can communicate selected features to relevant stakeholders in order to get feedback. In the early stages of the innovation process you work with lofi, cheap prototypes and only when approaching the final solution, you spend more resources on your prototypes.

There are many advantages of prototyping:

  • Prototyping allows you to develop and test your ideas in a tangible way.
  • Prototyping save resources when you use prototypes to develop and test the ideas from the early stages and continuously before implementation.
  • Prototyping takes an iterative approach to idea development in which the students continually develop and change their ideas concurrently with the testing of prototypes. This way prototypes can reveal aspects of the ideas that might not be realized otherwise.
  • The method is very useful in terms of communication and collaboration within project teams and externally with stakeholders as the physical representation of the idea enables a common framework for understanding what the idea actually is about.

In this phase the students will need material for building their prototypes and they also need data material from the previous phases as a source of knowledge and inspiration. It is important that the students have chosen a target group for the prototype and a specific hypothesis or question that they need answered in the test of their prototype.

Prototype processes are inherently iterative so make time for several test runs and follow up on them in the process.

Below you can find suggestions for methods suitable for the Prototype phase.


It is important that the students carefully consider how prototyping should be integrated in their innovation process. Prototypes should be tested and reviewed – many times – during the innovation process and this process must be incorporated in the students’ project plans. In addition the students should concurrently develop and test several prototypes that can be compared with each other during the test period in order to maintain a divergent view of possible solutions.

It is demanding to manage a well-organized test process because the students must be able to handle many challenges related to prototyping tests. They should e.g. be able to:

  • keep an open mind and not try to influence the users, who are testing the prototype, in a certain direction.
  • be able to find balance between instruction and observation of the users and possibly involving users as co-developers.
  • organize and set up tests in an engaging and lifelike manner which also elicits realistic and honest feedback from the users on the prototype.
  • incorporate insights from the tests into new ideas for solutions
  • handle iterations in the process and possible frustrations related to this. Perhaps the prototype tests lead the students to the realization that they must reframe their problem definition.

When does the Test phase end? This depends on the course framework such as the course timespan and learning objectives. In addition, it’s up to the students to assess when in the process they can start to converge towards a final solution based on feedback from prototype tests and how their solution solves their problem definition and fulfills the criteria for the solution. This process can be supported by the teacher by having feedback sessions, milestone presentations and a final presentation where the students can communicate and discuss results from tests of their prototypes.

Below you can find suggestions for methods suitable for the Test phase.



Nigel Cross (2011). Design Thinking: Understanding how designers think and work. Berg/Bloomsbury.
Lawson, Bryan. How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified. London: Architectural, 1980
Rittell, H and Webber, M, (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’, Policy Sciences, 4, 155-69.
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design issues, 8(2), 5-21.
Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design, How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Harper Collins Publishers.

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