Is Design Thinking the Best Creative Process for Business?

Is Design Thinking the Best Creative Process for Business?

Business, Grow Your Creativity


 “In a design paradigm. . .the solution is not locked away somewhere waiting to be discovered but lies in the creative work of the team. The creative process generates ideas and concepts that have not existed before.” – Tim Brown, Change by Design

Is Design Thinking More Than a Buzzword? 

The term design thinking or human-centered design has been gaining steam for at least a decade in contexts as varied as education and finance. Design thinking may conjure up images of a problem-solving elixir, but, like creativity itself, it’s become such a buzz word that most people don’t know what it really means. 

Design thinking is part of a long, solid history of humans trying to harness and maximize the creative thinking that drives innovation. If we are completely honest, we can trace some of the underpinnings back to the famed philosophers of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.  With the growing complexity of problems and increasing rate of change, the twentieth century witnessed a pressing demand for the scientific study of creativity to help define creative process. This demand really took off in the United States after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.

Creative Process Model 1: Creative Problem Solving

Historically, there are two predominant (and incestuous) creative process strands: applied creativity and design thinking. Creative problem solving is an applied creativity model that has its roots in the 1926 Wallas Creativity Process, one of the first known creative process models. Alex Osborn, the “O” of Madison Avenue advertising firm BBDO, followed up with the Osborn Creative Problem Solving Process in 1953.1  There have been many evolutions since then, including the simplified model I use in The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative.

Over the course of its history, creative problem solving has been applied successfully across all industries to complex, strategic problems as a meta, multi-disciplinary model. Companies that use or have used creative problem solving include Disney, AT&T, Kimberly-Clark, Procter and Gamble, Ford, Fisher-Price, Hilton, IBM, Mazda, Motorola, NASA, various U.S. governmental organizations including the U.S. Postal Service, National Geographic, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, GE, Scientific Games, U.S. Navy, Merck, Pfizer, Kraft, Nestlé. Right now one of my colleagues is using creative problem solving to help the government of Myanmar.

Creative Process Model 2: Design Thinking 

One of the earliest design processes was the Mesarovic Design Process Model in 1964. Buckminster Fuller depicted his own in 1967. There were several other models in the 1960s and 70s, but there has been a recent flurry of re-depictions of design thinking, especially after the global design firm IDEO and Stanford d.school popularized the methodology at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Most design process models after 2010 are referred to as design thinking.2 Companies that use design thinking include Airbnb, Capital One, GE, and many more, including some of the companies listed above that have also used creative problem solving. 

As the name implies, design thinking emerged from the field of industrial design and was initially limited to product development. Only more recently has it been applied to broader business challenges. One of the central principles of design is its consideration of the end user. Empathy, or deeply understanding the needs and wants of the end user, is emphasized. Because design thinking emerged from product development, there is a focus on prototyping physical objects or experiences, getting feedback, and making improvements. It is a maker’s process.

In a meta-analysis of 63 innovation processes, VanPatter and Pastor found that design thinking models are traditionally “downstream” methods whereas creative problem solving models are “upstream” methods.3 This means that in most design thinking settings the problem is already given in the form of a brief. In contrast, creative problem solving includes a robust clarification phase, or expansive exploration of the problem to ensure it is correctly pinpointed and clarified.

What’s the Best Creative Process for Business? 

Creative problem solving and human-centered design both have proven track records over the course of at least 60 years in their primary applications. Each has an array of powerful tools that can help to get us to breakthrough solutions. So, which is better? We could certainly get into a debate about that, with design purists defending their side and creative problem solving purists defending theirs. I thought about including a written debate in this article, but the beauty of creative thinking is that it gets us out of the weeds. We can use it to shift away from the us versus them mentality and bring new thinking to the table. 

I propose that the best creative process is sticking to the fundamental principles, like those shared in The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative, No Matter Where You Work. That often includes a combination of the best practices of design, creative problem solving, and other methods, as applied strategically to the situation at hand.

Creative process facilitators are sort of like coaches. We are hired by companies to help make the process of breakthrough thinking more effective and sustainable for individual leaders and teams. We focus on process so you can use your energy to apply your industry knowledge to the challenge at hand. We are called in for strategic planning, visioning, product development, or to work on specific business issues that require new thinking. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find an experienced creative process facilitator who uses tools from only one strand. Those who do probably don’t have enough breadth to be effective. Many creative problem solving facilitators have embraced design thinking’s focus on empathy and iterative prototyping as they’ve learned more about how design thinking is now being applied more broadly. 

Tools like the original Possibility Questions wording and the divergent thinking guidelines from creative problem solving migrated over to design in the mid-1970s. Even if practitioners claim they stick to only one strand, they most certainly are using tools and ideas that have cross-pollinated over the decades. A highly trained creative process facilitator who understands the purpose for each model and has an expansive knowledge of tools can customize an approach best suited to the challenge or organization. 

How to Improve Your Own Thinking Process

When it comes to your own personal creative process, I suggest starting with the approach outlined in The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative and its companion downloadable workbook. It begins with mindset, then adds tools, and finally puts them all together using a simplified creative process that can make your work even more effective and impactful. These strategies easily scale up to complex organizational situations of all types. Tools and principles that I share throughout The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative can be used on their own or sprinkled into problem solving methodologies that are already in place in your organization—design thinking, Lean Startup, Agile, Scrum, and others. 

There’s always a new (often recycled!) concept that trendy magazines and internet sites tout as the “best way ever,” or even a long-used approach they now declare “doesn’t work.” With the fundamental principles in your back pocket, you’ll be able to sift through the seemingly conflicting viewpoints and choose effectively. 

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1 Puccio, G. J. (1999). Creative Problem-Solving preferences:  Their Identification and implications. Creativity and Innovation Management8, 171-178.

2 VanPatter, GK and Elizabeth Pastor (2018). Innovation Methods Mapping: De-Mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design. Humanific Publishing. 

3 VanPatter, GK and Elizabeth Pastor (2018). Innovation Methods Mapping: De-Mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design. Humanific Publishing. 



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Kathryn Haydon helps you maximize your creative strengths so you can do your best work. Through keynotes, workshops, and consulting, she trains individuals, leaders, and teams to find the unique spark that leads to deep engagement and productivity.

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