The Business Value of Design Thinking

You may be wondering why in 2020 you need design thinking?  Maybe you’re working on a team full of qualified professionals and resources like website analytics and infinite market research available at the click of a button – So how can a practice rooted in sticky notes and  observations benefit you and your brand?

Where does it all start?

Let’s take a step back and break down what design thinking is and how it works. The practice can be traced back to the 1960s (see a full timeline of its evolution here). Developments like the Design Science course at MIT in the mid 50s and Scandanavian Cooperative Design in the 60s are the starting foundation of what we call design thinking.

At MIT an inventor, Buckminister Fuller,  formed design teams from different experts in order to solve key problems. While Scandanavian cooperative design was centered on bringing together experts, workers and ordinary citizens to design products and services. Their first project developed platforms for Iron and Steel workers to influence the use of computers at work. These initial attempts brought together diverse people – one focused on groups of experts and the other also on ordinary people. They used design to create social solutions, rather than just physical objects. 


What’s it about?

So this gives you an impression of the starting point but what does it look like today? Now, it has been turned into a clearly defined and researched process, that has been promoted by different groups and institutions.

At its core it consists of:

  • 5 key principles: user-centered, collaborative, ideation, experimentation, action oriented
  • 5 key steps:  empathize > define > ideate > prototype >  test

This is not a linear process and you can jump between the different steps:

  • maybe at the ideation stage you realize that you haven’t sufficiently empathized 
  • or at the testing stage, test subjects make you realize that your problem needs to be further defined

The emphasis is on working in groups, asking a lot of questions and developing a lot of ideas. As a group you develop low fidelity attempts that allow you to test your assumptions, fail early and see what ideas survive. This can mean sketching out ideas for a website or using sheets to form walls in a hospital (add link for this). These early attempts should be tested repeatedly and overall it is a process that favors action.  Instead of thinking about what a user could want, you should go out and ask real people. This helps you avoid making high cost mistakes later on in the process. 

*You should also be aware of some of the limits of the process and pitfalls to be aware of like over brainstorming


The Results

Clearly, the practice can encourage your team to work together and explore a wider range of solutions, but does it actually lead to outcomes? A 2018 IBM survey showed that companies that used design thinking saved time and money and felt they improved their ROI. While a Forrester study revealed that on average design thinking implemented at scale delivered an ROI of 85%. 

Focusing the lens on South Africa, the big 4 accounting firms have all adopted the practice for their research departments. They also regularly have staff participate in workshops led by organizations like the D school. Similarly, at the Allan Gray Orbis foundation’s yearly national Jamboree, participants go through the design thinking process to hone their ideas (

There are also some cool case studies of design thinking in practice:


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