While the exact description of the design thinking process may vary depending on whom you ask, the overall principles have remained roughly the same since the beginning. And while it may seem abstract on first glance, it's actually a powerful framework for generating truly innovative ways to solve real-world problems.

Design thinking phases

The Stanford d.School's design thinking methodology, perhaps one of the best known, describes five phases of design thinking as follows:

  • Empathize: understand the human side of the problem
  • Define: bring clarity and focus to the problem
  • Ideate: develop new ideas and potential solutions to consider
  • Prototype: quickly turn theory into action with rough-but-usable examples
  • Test: gather real feedback on prototypes from users

There have been various other design thinking phases proposed as part of an overall design thinking process, but in reality they all tend to be restatements of the same basic process using slightly different words or divisions between the stages. However, the battle-tested Stanford model is probably as close as we'll get to a generally-accepted model of design thinking phases, so I tend to use it as the de facto standard.