Design Thinking and the Design Process - What's the Difference?

January 22, 2019
Andrew DiMeo

Design Thinking vs. Design Process

I had so much fun writing “Design Thinking and Human Centered Design - What’s the Difference?” that I decided it would be fun to take it a little deeper.

I’m compelled to start with a great lesson illustrated in the book, The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. That lesson: If you take the manufacturing process developed by Toyota (better known as the Toyota Production System or TPS), and implement that process in your manufacturing facility - it won’t work.  “Process” is great for implementation in a specific setting for an individual organization.  It does not work well to try an existing transfer a process to another company, even if you are doing the same thing.  Factors such as workplace culture and other nuances of your business hinder success via a process that has been implemented by copy/paste.

The Goal masterfully takes the reader through a wonderful story of a manufacturing manager balancing life and work to save his plant and ultimately save a town.  The story serves as a metaphor which teaches a lesson that the Scientific and Socratic methods of thinking are the building blocks for creating a lean and mean manufacturing process, specific to your facility.

In much the same way, a design process can be created by one organization, work great, only to be copied and fail in another organization. The process of design is not a cut and paste activity.

Here’s a fun exercise: in your Google browser (or search engine of choice), type the search term in quotes “Design Process” and then click on the “Images” tab. All of the resulting images are Design Processes and they may all work great… for whoever crafted them. But as mentioned above they aren’t going to fit in just right anywhere but for the circumstances they were intended to serve.  Now try these in the image search bar:

“Medical Device Design Process”

“Consumer Product Design Process”

“Engineering Design Process”

“Medical Device Design Process” Results
“Medical Device Design Process” Results

Go on and try any industry or area of interest to see what the results look like. Some of the things that I note: within each search, there are themes and there are differences within each category and even bigger differences between different categories.

This is all an illustration to say this: There is no one single right design process.  Just like there is no one single right production process (of which, TPS is just one, one that works great for Toyota.) And I can’t say it enough: Copying the process doesn’t work.

Processes are indeed critically important. I used to teach Biomedical Engineering Design at NC State. By the time I’d started teaching there I had already started and worked for multiple Medical Device companies, each using a unique design process tailored for their business operations. I didn’t copy any of those processes, but rather, implemented one intended to meet the needs of: 1) teaching new concepts, 2) meeting accreditation criteria, and 3) preparing students for industry, all while following the best practices of Design Thinking. The students got to see examples of dozens of processes, just to make the class aware of them. After that we strictly followed one process, with a caveat: The process we followed was open for improvement.

What we had in the end was a stable process that kept order and efficiency, a process that was relevant to the needs of the class, and a process that was not carved into stone, but was allowed to improve over time by the key stakeholders, the students.

At Trig - We have a process. It’s Explore - Prototype - Build. We use that process to be creative, to be on the same page, to be efficient, and to be true to our core values. It works well because it is relevant for the work we do for the clients we serve. It’s a stable process, but also a process that is undergoing continuous improvement by the team. It’s a process that was built using best practices of Design Thinking and other best practices from Innovation and Human Centered Design.

So, Design Thinking and The Design Process - What’s the difference?

Design Thinking is to The Design Process what Scientific and Socratic methods are to the Toyota Production System as elaborated on in The Goal.

Design Thinking is the underlying philosophy of design. The confusion is this: If you put the term “Design Thinking” into the images search tab on Google you get results that look like processes.  This may be due to a difficulty in describing a philosophy (aka “thinking” or “mindset”) in the form of a picture.

Design Thinking is the “mindset” of a Designer.

What is the Mindset of an engineer?  I think it’s that of a Problem Solver

What is the Mindset of a scientist?  I think it’s that of an Explorer

What is the Mindset of a nurse?  To be caring.  A firefighter? A public servant. Police/Military? Protector.

Designers are pragmatic creators, (aka inventors). Design thinking is a mindset to come up with something new and useful (which takes creativity and pragmatism).  It’s also “the goal” for an invention.  In patent law: the bar for invention is to be novel, non-obvious, and useful.

In summary, my take on this exploration is as follows:

Design Thinking is a mindset. A mind that is set on creating new and useful things.

The Design Process is a set of steps one follows. It is a collection of steps that are specific to an individual or organization and its unique needs and built to increase the production of invention.

Andrew DiMeo
Innovation & Design Coach

Dr. Andrew DiMeo is a 20 year seasoned expert in the Biomedical Engineering industry. He is founder and former executive director of the NC Medical Device Organization, which became an NC Biotech Center of Innovation. He also co-founded and became VP of Business Development for the design and manufacturing company EG-Gilero.


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