Design Thinking: A Human-Centered Approach to Problem-Solving

By Joanne Norell

As today’s organizations become ever more complex and the problems they face become increasingly multifaceted, approaches to problem-solving and innovation must also evolve to meet the moment. In recent years, that has led to the widespread adoption of design thinking, or what Cregg Family Director of Collaborative Innovation Tim Morton of Notre Dame’s Department of Art, Art History and Design calls “an iterative approach to problem-solving that is deeply rooted in empathy and making.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a consensus definition of design thinking, though most agree it is not a process so much as an approach to problem-solving, with humans at the center. Process implies the existence of strict steps and rules leading toward a predetermined or proven outcome. Design thinking does not assume what the outcome might be but seeks to understand what opportunities exist to provide value based on the beliefs and values of people.

“We always begin with people,” says Morton, who in addition to overseeing Notre Dame’s collaborative innovation minor also maintains a consulting practice based in the areas of innovation, ideation, and design thinking. “If you think about it, everything we do is in some way connected to, impacted by, controlled by, or merely involves people at some point. When the problem is a ‘wicked’ one with no clear entry point, starting with people can help us progress to possible areas and opportunities to improve situations where if we wait for a defined starting point to take action we will rarely get off the launchpad.

With the speed of innovation today, organizations are progressively finding existing best practices become obsolete more quickly. Additionally, more traditional methods rooted in quantitative data and analytics often fail to provide an adequate picture of the values and beliefs that drive people to act the way they do. 

This understanding has led to the growth of design thinking as an area of study. Morton’s class Design Matters: An Introduction to Design Thinking, is open to all students and is the gateway class to the collaborative innovation minor at Notre Dame. The focus of this program is on amplifying the ability of students to be human-centered, creative, and collaborative; to think critically; and to enhance their communication skills. 

Morton notes that many students struggle at the outset as their mindsets have often been shaped by the promotion of rigid processes that have — to that point — contributed to their own success. 

“For the most part, once students enter high school ... the focus is on standardized testing, right, wrong, and recall of data,” says Morton. “Yet the way we make sense of the world — truly learn, explore and grow — is through exploration, interpretation, and experimentation.

“(Students) find the notion of observing people, testing rough prototypes early, and failing to learn counter to many other classes they have taken before. By mid-semester, however, you can clearly see how students embracing the class begin to change and become more curious.”

This curiosity lies at the very heart of design thinking, while failure simply becomes an opportunity to learn and adjust on the way to ultimately identifying solutions that bring the most value.

As a working professional, what skills can you hone to implement design thinking into your own work?

  • An ability and willingness to listen, observe, and experiment
  • A willingness to try, test, and learn, even in the absence of a clear path
  • An ability to view the world through multiple lenses to navigate ambiguity
  • An openness to others’ points of view about the world in order to build empathy

Tim J. Morton is the Cregg Family Director of Collaborative Innovation and Professor of the Practice in the Department of Art, Art History and Design at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to joining the University, he was the Director of Industrial Design at Newell Brands, which owns category-leading brands including Rubbermaid, Calphalon, Yankee Candle, Graco, and Mr. Coffee.

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