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Design Thinking


In the business world, a new approach to innovation called “design thinking” is rapidly gaining attention.  Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation activities that is motivated by an understanding of what people want and need in their lives.  In other words, design thinking is a problem-solving tactic that relies on local expertise to uncover local solutions.  Monique Sternin, director of the Positive Deviance Initiative, explains:  “Solutions are relevant to a unique cultural context and will not necessarily work outside that specific situation.”(1)  Because of this reality, design thinking is holistic, observant, flexible, and addresses the needs of the people who will be directly impacted be the intervention.

“It is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”.(2)

Businesses are adopting the practices of design thinking because it “helps them be more innovative, better differentiate their brands, and bring their products and services to the market faster.”(3)   In addition, nonprofits are embracing design thinking to better understand and anticipate the unintended consequences that may be fueled by their interventions.  Design thinking blurs the traditional boundaries between public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors which encourages a collaborative environment and allows the lessons learned in the business world to freely diffuse to other sectors.

The formal process of design thinking process can be thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.  There are three spaces: 1) inspiration, 2) ideation, and 3) implementation.  Inspiration is the problem that motivates the search for solutions.  Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas, while implementation is the action that brings the project into people’s lives.

Historical Approaches to Design

Traditionally, design has been treated as a last step in the development process— the point where designers focus their attention on improving the look and functionality of products.  This approach has worked well as it made new products and technologies outwardly attractive and therefore more desirable to consumers.  In recent years, however, designers have broadened their approach, focusing on the creation of entire systems to deliver products and services.  Rather than making an already developed idea more attractive to consumers, designers are creating ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and desires.  Innovation’s terrain is expanding, which has important implications for the developing world.

“Its [innovation’s] objectives are no longer just physical products; they are new sorts of processes, services, entertainments, and ways of communicating and collaborating—exactly the kinds of human-centered activities in which design thinking can make a decisive difference.”(4)

Examples of Design Thinking in Action

One example of design thinking in action is the Aravind Eye Care system in India.  Aravind calls itself an “eye care system” as it goes beyond the delivery of pure eye care to address barriers to accessing care. The company faces the challenge of how best to deliver eye care to populations far removed from the urban centers where Aravind’s hospitals are located.  To address this concern, Aravind has focused its innovative energy on bringing both preventive care and diagnostic screening to rural underserved populations.  For example, Aravind has held “eye camps” in India’s rural areas to register patients, administer eye exams, teach eye care, and identify people who may require surgery or advanced diagnostic services. (5)

Furthermore, the Aravind Eye Care Hospital system has standardized and streamlined cataract surgery to lower the cost so that everyone can afford the procedure.  The system relies on intensive specialization in every part of the work flow to generate efficiencies.  A surgeon, for example, typically performs 150 cataract surgeries every week, six times the number common among Western specialists.  To further lower costs, Aravind has created a sister organization, Aurolab, to manufacture intraocular lenses locally at prices one-fiftieth of U.S. prices, as well as the sutures and drugs used in surgery. An important part of this business model is cross-subsidization: fees from paying patients range from $50 to $330 per operation, including the hospital stay, but it performs 65% of its operations free of charge—for those who cannot afford to pay.(6)   Thus, despite the constraints of poverty, ignorance, and unmet need, Aravind has built a systemic solution to a complex social and medical problem.


The notion of impact is at the center of design thinking.  Impact is a change in the state of the world brought about by an intervention. “It is the final result of behaviors (outcomes) that are generated by activities (outputs) that are driven by resources (inputs)”.(7)  Many social enterprises already use some aspects of design thinking, but most stop short of embracing the approach as a way to move beyond today’s conventional problem solving methods.

This move is essential, as no matter where we look, we see problems that can be solved only through innovation.  Such problems are especially dire in the developing world where unaffordable and inaccessible health care leaves millions in poor health, where billions live in poverty and struggle to obtain an education.   The global problems require a human-centered, innovative, and practical approach to finding solutions.


(1)What Is Positive Deviance?” Positive Deviance Initiative.

(2)Tim Brown, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, New York: HarperBusiness, 2009.

(3) Brown, Tim and Jocelyn Wyatt. “Design Thinking for Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review 2010.  Accessed on 14 February 2011. Accessed 25 January 2010.

(4)Tim Brown, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, New York: HarperBusiness, 2009.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Case study adapted from http://pdf.wri.org/n4b_chapter2.pdf, pp.39