Skip to Content

Design Thinking for Social Innovation

This month we asked ourselves the question, what fuels effective social innovation? We are pleased to present our featured topic on Design Thinking (DT). Consider this a crash course in the concepts and processes behind DT, as well as in-depth resources that include relevant literature, media, and toolkits for its effective implementation. This article also provides case studies and examples of DT in action to inspire you towards affecting positive social change in an innovative and engaging way.

Big Ideas Summary

"Design Thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning, to explore possibilities of what could be, and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user (the customer). A design mindset is not problem-focused, it’s solution focused, and action oriented. It involves both analysis and imagination."(Creativity at Work, 2014).

Design Thinking… What is it, and how is it different than Design?

In order to understand how DT works, we need to differentiate it from what we traditionally call Design. According to Your Story, Design goes deeper than aesthetics, form, typography, etc. Design is about intention, and realizing that intention. Design is actionable, and based in making something work.

DT is an emerging field that originates from the principles of traditional design disciplines. It is a problem solving mindset that combines problem identification, idea creation, and interdisciplinary contexts into a process that aims to solve complex ideas and issues that affect our society in a creative way. The beauty of DT is that it is not limited to any specific industry of area of expertise. DT is an inclusive process.

Source: Creativity at Work

DT involves practical imagination to conceive of new and better ways of doing something. It uses both the left and right sides of the brain to see the world as not just the result of logical, rational decision-making, but also as an emotional and deeply cultural response to reality. Most changes occur as piecemeal reactions to problems, while DT helps us understand the whole and how the parts fit together (Source: Your Story).

Why Should Social Entrepreneurs Care About Design Thinking?

In a world whose traditional systems of living and thus, overcoming challenges, are increasingly complex and globally interconnected, social innovators and entrepreneurs alike need to adopt new methods of relating to their environment where problem solving is concerned. Interdisciplinary, creative, and contextual thinking is now a requirement in solving societal challenges, and DT has been hailed as one of the most successful models in doing just that. Many professions have utilized DT principles and techniques to successfully realize their goals, as it allows for overarching perspectives of desirability, feasibility, and viability.

We are all stewards of our generation, and as such, we all have the opportunity to create, change, and impact our world through an almost unlimited amount of tools and resources. Implementing the process of DT can be the defining factor in turning social influence into significant, meaningful, and lasting social change.

Relevant articles on Design Thinking

In Fast Company, the world’s leading progressive business media brand, describes the importance of design as an indispensable tool in driving a business or brand forward, and outlines four key elements of design in this article.

This article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, shares a brief background on the rise of DT, and describes how the process of DT can aid in solving complex social problems.

This piece from Your Story, provides an easy-to-read breakdown of the process of DT, and it’s importance.

This toolkit developed by the University of Virginia offers a descriptive inventory of ten DT tools to identify and execute opportunities for growth and innovation.

Creativity at Work has developed a descriptive framework for creativity and innovation, that outlines the process involved when attempting to create organizational, social, and innovative change.

Using an urban case study, this article by Dr. Norman Cameron, Principal of Cense Research + Design, unpacks the complexity of creating social change, and describes the benefits of DT when developing an impactful structure for social innovation.

In this article by Innovation Excellence, it is argued that the concept of DT is limited in it’s approach as a stand-alone strategy for innovative success, and that a more holistic approach that includes Business Thinking is necessary for success.

In his article, "Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment. So what’s Next?", Bruce Nussbaum argues that DT is limited in its approach to innovation, and that Creative Intelligence (CQ), is the evolution of innovative problem-solving.

Books On Design Thinking

Cross, N. (2011). Design Thinking. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Design Council (U.K.) (2013). Design for public good. London, UK: Design Council.

Roger Martin, Opposable Mind, Winning Through Integrative Thinking, Harvard, 2009.

Tim Brown, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, HarperCollins, 2009.

Warren Berger, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People: Inside the World of Design Thinking and How It Can Spark Creativity and Innovation, Penguin Books, 2010

Nussbaum, B. (2013). Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. New York, N.Y.: HarperBusiness.

Websites to Check Out

The Institute of Design at Stanford, has developed a "Virtual Crash Course In Design Thinking", that includes video, handouts, and facilitation tips that will take you step by step through the process of hosting or participating in a 90-minute design challenge.

Censemaking, an extension of CENSE Research + Design, is a social innovation consultancy studio that uses research and design to connect systems thinking and behavioural science together to help organizations learn more about what they do.

IDEO is an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.

HCD Connect provides a comprehensive toolkit and free resources to aid in the process of Human Centered Design.

The Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI), provides a powerful case study of design thinking for social good in action.

D-Rev, is a great example of how the design Design Thinking process is being used to solve health and medical issues globally.

The MASS Design Group is another great example of how Design Thinking has been used to create sustainable, human-based architecture.

Videos to Watch

In the video Design Breakthrough Inventions, Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes profiles David Kelly, the founder of Global Firm IDEO as he explains how he incorporates human behavior into product design -- an innovative approach being taught at Stanford.

Design & Thinking, an award-winning documentary, explores the concept and process of design thinking over a broad spectrum of initiatives, and provides perspectives by well-known subject matter experts in this space.

In this video, Innovation Through Design Thinking, Tim Browne, CEO of IDEO, gives an in-depth account of the concept behind DT, and what it takes to be a “Design Thinker”.

Audio Resources

Check out this five-minute audio podcast (streaming on soundcloud) from the Design Council UK, featuring a number of government representatives, designers and academics sharing their views on how design can help us to deliver better public services, at the launch of the Design for public good report.

In this audio podcast, Dr. Cameron Norman shares his insights on DT and Social Innovation, walks listeners through what design thinking is, the differences between it and systems thinking, and what has drawn him to this field of work.

See More