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Design Thinking as a Tool to Optimise Innovation and Creativity


By Mr Richard Perez

Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town


Complexity (the new normal).

Things can get volatile and complex but they constitute the new normal.
Ours is to make sense out of it.

Albert Einstein

Every era has problems that are typically associated with it and the kind of solutions that would be relevant according to the demands of the time. However, relevant as such solutions might be, they would not necessarily be applicable in solving problems that might occur in the future. To solve problems of the future would require a change of approach and a kind of thinking that is different.

How can this be done?

Design thinking


Design thinking has its’ roots in the design discipline. As with many other disciplines design has been disrupted by technology and has needed to discover new value propositions. Over the past 10 – 15 years design thinking has become a prominent approach to addressing more complex and abstract challenges whilst yielding new ideas, interventions, and solutions.

The evolution of design thinking can best be illustrated using the Danish Design Ladder.  Starting at the base of the ladder are people or individuals that generally have no appreciation for design i.e. they are surrounded by designed objects and experiences on a daily basis but they do not recognise the behind the scenes design activity that went into developing them. The next step in the ladder represents those people whose’s appreciation of design is purely at a styling or aesthetics level, such as colour, shape, and material. The next step in the ladder is where the focus shifts towards the value design can play in developing products and services, for example, the impact of service design in the financial and insurance sector.

As we move further up the ladder the focus shifts towards the value design can play in the more abstract space. Here the focus moves from the design of products and services towards the design of experiences, for instance designing the right customer experience for citizens visiting Home Affairs, i.e. considering the full user journey and all the user touchpoints into the system. The designing of experience is even more popular in the gaming industry, where most of those are young people who value experiences more than assets. This, in essence, represents a massive shift in the economic outlook and should set a trend on where we should focus our design activities.

In the next step of the ladder, design becomes even more abstract, such as adding value to the development of strategies and policies. At this level, we see how design can be used as a way of working, a mindset or a way of co-creating that culminates into impactful and sustainable policies and strategies.

Creativity as a core skill

The World Economic Forum (WEF) from time to time publishes a framework that focuses on skills of the future. In their 2015 publication, WEF listed the 10 most critical skills that would be highly sought after in any workplace of the future. Of these, creativity was ranked number 10. However, for 2020, WEF prediction presented a completely different ranking where complex problem-solving came out at number 1 followed by critical thinking and creativity moving up to number 3.

Creativity is an inherent human quality found in all of us. From an early age, human beings are consistently explorative and experimental. However, this inborn ability is subsequently suppressed by the kind of education system that we are exposed to, as well as the many workplace environments we find ourselves in. Many young individuals go into the creative sector because of their ability to draw, ending up in professions such as architecture, product design and graphic design.

Through their formal education, their creativity is developed and nurtured in a very structured way. Those that do not follow that path miss out on the structured learnings of being creative and typically land up in non-creative sectors. However creativity is a natural ability we have as humans and it is important for us to realise that we all have the ability to be creative  – it is just a matter of unlocking it and gaining back our creative confidence.

The origins of design thinking

Design thinking has existed for many years. However, in 2003, it was popularised thanks to a team at Stanford University in the US who received funding from the founder of SAP (Hasso Plattner) to set up a school of design at the university. They produced a number of innovative programmes and numerous writings to popularise design thinking, explaining that the real value of design is found in the thinking process to get to the solution rather than the end solution itself.

The current value of design is now in considering what role it can play beyond simply developing products or services. This means going beyond the end object or service to focus on the actual thinking and mindset that delivered the end result. Anchored on the concept of empathy, design thinking is the journey that begins with understanding and exploring the problem space, knowing who your user is and what their needs are and then moving through a journey of sense-making, idea development, idea building and then idea testing.

Design thinking and diversity – the African perspective

With the establishment of the School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town (d-school), design thinking took on a broader dimension based on the African context. It seeks to leverage the rich diversity we have on the continent which is a characteristic of African society. Fundamentally, innovation and creativity is located in the diversity of thinking and in the African context, there is multi-layered diversity in culture.

A lot of research initiatives corroborate the fact that Africa stands at a unique and advantageous position because of its diversity. Africa has the potential to lead from the front in design thinking because of the extra layers of diversity that it brings to the creative process. This diversity brings with it the unique ability to develop ideas and concepts that cannot be found anywhere in the world.

However, it is important to note that while thinking diversely is of critical importance, the most important is the environment in which the thinking and activity take place. The University of Cape Town’s School of Design Thinking has made it a point to create the kind of teaching and learning environment that makes everyone feel that they have a licence to think differently and explore without any fear of judgment. The d-school is fully interactive with a learning environment that fosters creativity and co-creation.

The d-school runs numerous programmes, where students from various backgrounds and disciplines are taught the design thinking mindset and frameworks over a period of time. Core to the learning experience is the focus on a challenge for the student to work on. It is through finding a solution to these complex challenges that the students are taught the design thinking mindset resulting in innovative solutions that demonstrate the importance of diversity.

Design thinking also emphasises the importance of action over words. It may be called “Design Thinking” but it is really “Design doing”. This bias to action results in the development of rapid prototypes in the form of physical models to help the students understand whether they are addressing the right problem or not. However, this does not rule out the importance of critical thinking and rigours discussion and debate.

One of the greatest importance in design thinking is the value that it attaches to co-creation and collaborative thinking. Accordingly, design thinking promotes the notion of ‘we’. It is about bringing together teams of people in a true trans-disciplinary space – where the key words shift from the egotistic ‘I’ to multi-discipline, inter-discipline, and transdisciplinary. We move from the ‘silo’ effect towards resource combination, interaction, and trans-interactive spaces that accommodate diversity.

Modern-day challenges are more complex and thus cannot be solved through single disciplines alone. But rather through the interaction of multi-disciplinary teams that work together. Besides the innovation that comes from the process team effectiveness and co-creation is another key outcome. However, the main challenge is to ensure proper training to function at that level.

As part of the learning journey students training at the d-school are given a variety of problems or challenges to work on, e.g. How might men contribute towards stopping violence against women and children? All problems in design thinking are treated and framed as design challenges. The students spend their time at the d-school working in teams on these challenges whilst at the same time building their competencies in design thinking. Design thinking leads to identifying tangible innovative interventions into the problem space that ultimately lead to a shift or change in the norm.

While many people understand design thinking to just be a process it is, in fact, requires a much larger ecosystem to be fully effective. This ecosystem does comprise of the need for a process i.e. some sort of structure/ framework to follow, however also critical is the adoption of multi-disciplinary teams (to ensure diversity of thinking) and finally, a physical and flexible space in which to practice the work. This is not an approach that can be done in traditional meetings rooms and using incorrect spaces can prevent the creativity, collaboration, and co-creativity in a team.

Seeing the world through a design lens

Designers frame a challenge through three distinct lenses. The first lens, which is typically where people limit their thinking is the “viability lens” i.e. How much is that going to cost us to design?; What will the intervention cost us?; What would be the return on investment?; How much money is it going to save?

The other lens that people often get caught in is the “feasibility lens” i.e. the technology lens – limiting their solutions by asking the questions such as What is the type of technology to be used, whether new or pre-existing, as well as cost implications? In design thinking, we recognise these as being important constraints when identifying a solution however we enter the problem space firstly through the “desirability lens” i.e. asking the question What is the need that we are trying to solve for? Who has this need and in which context does it exist?  Using the desirability lens, we uncover the need behind the need, pain points, challenges – but at a human level.  This is typically what is called the human-centred component of design thinking.

The human component is one of the most important since it determines the kind of ideas that will address the needs and aspirations at a human level. The other two lenses are important constraints but brought into the process a little later. Too much preoccupation with addressing constraints often results in the deployment of solutions which do not meet the need of the end-user. Billions of Rands often get spend on products that never see the light of day as the never addressed a real need.

When addressing real needs it is important to move from the explicit to the meaning. That is, forming a conclusion based on a deduction from an observation, which is usually inferred. Design thinking encourages engaging with the end-user, developing insights and empathy to really understand the need behind the need. This will ensure the design of a solution that takes into consideration a comprehensive context about the person and the real need that they have.

Design thinking is also about striking a balance between reflection and action. It is important to “bathe in the problem” and take time to explore and reframe the problem space before jumping into solution mode. However with its focus on bias to action we should not waste too much time but move as fast as we can into building and testing hypothesise – as the sooner you build and test something the sooner you are really going to learn whether you are on the right trajectory to solving it.

Divergent thinking and convergent thinking

Divergence and convergence are key concepts in design thinking. During the process, you will follow both a divergent thinking process as well as a convergent thinking process. Divergent thinking is about exploration and discovery, whilst convergent thinking is about synthesis and making choices. Each person has their own inherent comfort zones and as such, it can feel like an uncomfortable journey for many. For example, with its’ bias to action, we often need to make decisions based on incomplete or conflicting data which is a very uncomfortable experience for many people.

The design thinking journey can be messy to start with where one needs to have patients as the solution emerges over time. The journey emphasises the importance of embracing failure as a key strategic factor that contributes to eventual success.

Design thinking as a mindset

Design thinking is about a different way of working. There are many tools and methods and, of course, action. But of greater importance is developing the correct mindset, which ultimately takes on board the issue of culture applicable to both the individual and the organisation. It advocates for a culture change from siloism to collaborative working. The key benefits of design thinking include:

  • Design thinking promotes collaboration and working together. It enables different departments and disciplines to come together and work collectively on common problems.
  • It tolerates ambiguity and failure. Design thinking embraces failure as part of the learning and understanding journey.
  • It encourages and stimulates visualisation as a platform for co-creation, communication and sharing.
  • It has a very strong user-centred component and involvement. It promotes engagement to accommodate different views and inputs, particularly in the public sector where citizen participation is critical.
  • It drives creativity and innovation. By embracing divergent thinking it allows us to think creatively and in unconstrained ways.
  • It supports iteration and experimentation where the solution is allowed to emerge over time. Where each step of the way you are derisking the ideas and testing assumptions in a risk-managed environment.
  • Design thinking also promotes intensive analysis at critical times of the process.
  • Design thinking promotes a holistic systems view. This is primarily about looking at a problem within its’ context and understanding the interrelationships with the various parts.

Design thinking in organisations

In order for design thinking to thrive in an organisation, one should look at it from a balanced perspective. Accordingly, organisations are typically viewed through two lenses, i.e. those that are more attuned to analytical thinking and those that a more attuned to intuitive thinking.

Organisations that, according to their internal culture are too analytical in thinking, are very linear, very rational, very structured, and convergent; making sense of things using the inductive and deductive logic.  These are organisations that are built for optimisation and reliability. In addition, they are tuned for exploitations i.e. how to get more out of the available resources. Such organisations have a lot of individual-based incentives, meaning, people are rewarded for their individual excellence (the concept of IQ).

Conversely, there are organisations that are more intuitive in their approach. They are more holistic and systemic in terms of their view. Such organisations are more divergent in their thinking, more system in their approach and focus a lot on abductive logic. Such organisations are built to create, to explore and experiment. Their work environments are mainly team-based and function along the ‘we Q’ i.e. the importance of the collective intelligence rather than the individual. In such organisations, much attention is diverted towards the creation of a culture that is about being innovative, creative and explorative.


Key to an organisation is to find a balance between these two states where a culture of both can live in harmony with each other. What we refer to as an ambidextrous organisation.


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