The Non-Designer’s Guide to Design Thinking: What a Marketer Learned in Design School

by Kunitake Saso

“The design thinking process is not a collection of steps… [It] is characterized by switching between four different modes as needed, and advancing work through short cycles… You go back and forth between the phases again and again, slowly raising the quality of your output; therefore, it is better to think of it as a compass than as a map.”

The Four Modes of Design Thinking:

  1. Research
  2. Analysis
  3. Synthesis
  4. Prototyping

The author says that 80% of the value is created in the synthesis and prototyping stages.

RESEARCH. The subjects of design research interviews are often “extreme users with strong preferences, or experts in the field and very familiar with the trends” rather than average users.

“In order to gain empathy, it is necessary to settle with a research flow that can extract emotions during the research phase. You must also hold a genuine interest in your research subject as a person, and find ways to ask questions that encourage them to share.” One technique is Appreciative Inquiry, to “draw out people’s strong points in interviews. One example is to ask questions such as ‘What is the best educational experience you have had?’ a so-called high-point interview. Talking about their best past experiences will make the interviewee excited, their best experiences will tell you what they value highly, and the resulting positive atmosphere will naturally prompt them to enthusiastically share with you other things that they find important.”

ANALYSIS. “One framework to help you empathize with the user and for summarizing thoughts and reflections from a user interview, is the empathy map. It is suitable for summarizing insights from the perspective of human emotions, and is used to summarize the most important lessons learned after conducting several interviews. In particular, while what an interview subject says is simple enough to grasp, what he or she is really seeing, hearing and thinking may be less obvious.”

SYNTHESIS. “Synthesis is an incredibly important step for prioritizing by narrowing your focus and discarding everything unnecessary… In this step, you use the findings and insights that you gained in the analysis phase to piece together the user’s lifestyle, unknown to you before the research, and specify the area of opportunity for improving that lifestyle.” The framework for synthesis includes the use of personas and a customer journey map. “Asking ‘How might we…?’ makes the designers themselves the subject, thereby making it easier for the team to put part of themselves into solving the problem.”

“After taking in a range of inputs, from the obviously important to the seemingly irrelevant, we must advance to the next process: making our ideas take a conceptual leap to discover new and unique perspectives… This process can be roughly divided into the following three design thinking methods: new synthesis by connecting different kinds of combinations; analogical thinking by finding similarities between seemingly different things; and flipping orthodoxies by changing rules that are taken for granted.” Flipping orthodoxies means clarifying the implicit rules or assumptions, then considering what can be accomplished on the opposite end of these axes.

“When trying to make a conceptual leap, rather than thinking using words, it is more effective to search for similarities in pictures from magazines, or other methods that force you to think visually.”

“Given a lot of trials, many new perspectives will spring from completely unexpected combinations.”

PROTOYPING. “The prototyping process lets anyone temporarily become a craftsman and give shape to his or her ideas. For this process, the mindset of thinking while working with your hands (as opposed to thinking first and then starting to work with your hands) is very important… Create prototypes quickly, and criticize constructively… Once you have an idea, make it into something concrete, get feedback, update it and repeat the process… When making prototypes the participants need to be excited about the process, so criticism cannot be too strict. But at the same time, praise alone will not improve the idea. In this sense, while it is important that the team creates new prototypes quickly, it is equally important to create an environment for giving high quality constructive feedback.”

“Design thinking originated from human-centered design. This means… imagining a lifestyle which is even more suitable for people, and using the power of design to realize the vision… If you have this attitude it is much easier for others to accept your solution presentations, and it is a major premise for conducting creative problem solving, the foundation of design thinking.”

Collaborating with people who have different backgrounds is an important skill. Having “H-shaped skills is when you have one strong vertical specialty in addition to a horizontal line with which you can connect to other people’s vertical specialties… An important skill for future designers will be the ability to connect several people with strong specialties (vertical lines), using the designer’s power of visualization and ideation of the future.” In the afterword, Waseda University business school professor Akie Iriyama uses the term “boundary spanners” to describe people with H-shaped skills.

The author quotes John Maeda, who wrote in Wired in 2012: “The innovation now needs to occur elsewhere. Outside the design. Into, quite frankly, the world of art… Designers create solutions—the products and services that propel us forward. But artists create questions—the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way ‘forward’ actually is.”

Saso, Kunitake. The Non-Designer’s Guide to Design Thinking: What a Marketer Learned in Design School. Tokyo: Biotope Publishing, 2017. Buy from

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Related reading:

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (2019)
The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by (2015)
Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley, founder of IDEO and Stanford creator (2013)