Design Thinking Models

Tim Brown, of global design and consulting firm IDEO, defines design thinking as a ‘human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success’ (IDEO 2021.: para 2). Arising with post-war activist origins and the emphasis on creativity practices, design thinking has gained wider traction globally in recent years in an attempt to solve what Rittel and Webber termed (1973) Wicked social and cultural problems which require continual redefining (cited in Hitchens 2016:49).Here are a few little games and quizzes to illustrate the most well-known human-centered design thinking models.

Wicked social and cultural problems which require continual redefining (cited in Hitchens 2016:49).

The solutions sought (see Figure 1) are not only desirable to end-users but also technically feasible and sustainably viable (IDEO 2021, Hitchens 2016:49).

The design thinking process (Figure 2) generally consists of five stages (Hitchens 2016: 47): empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test after the model (Yu Siang T n.d.). Although there are now many iterations and models most generally contain an ethnographic enquiry, problem reframing, ideation and a combination of convergent and divergent thinking but resist the temptation of ridged rules (Yu Siang T n.d.:Para 1).

Stanford University model

David Kelly opened a design agency in 1981 which designed the first Apple mouse. Since 2005,, which later became known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design in 2016, continued to implement, develop and spawn iterations of design thinking across the university and innovation sectors as a thought leader formalizing approaches (Stanford n.d.:para 1).

The 5 phase sequential approach (Figure 2) moves from problem (emphasise, define) to solution (ideate, prototype, test) allowing for iterations.

This is a quiz I created using the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford Model.  Adapted from D.School, Retrieved 15 March 2021

The model relies on a radical culture of collaboration, divergence, and convergence, and is well suited to solving wicked problems with heterogeneous teams by first understanding the problem space well and then having the freedom to fail often and early in prototyping (Efeoglu et al. 2014:242). The has continually promoted the idea that creativity is for everyone ‘and achieved systems-level change’ with multidisciplinary design applying empathy, creativity, and rationality (Leifer in Hitchens 2016:57, Stanford n.d.:para 1).

IDEO 5-step Design Thinking Model

Although Tim Brown popularized the phrase design thinking in 2003 in a meeting with Kevin Kelly, literature shows it has been in use since the 1980s and the concept itself much longer (Brown 2008, 2009, Hitchins 2018: 49). The IDEO (2021) history page acknowledges design thinking ‘been unfolding for decades’ and IDEO itself has been ‘practising human-centred design’ since 1978 (IDEO 2021:para 2). 

Through experimentation with methodologies and a corporate merger, David Kelly formed the global design company IDEO in 1991 and modelled its first design processes on work done at the Stanford Design School in the 1990s (Hitchens 2014:55).  However, it is Tim Brown who now heads IDEO which is widely recognized as an originator and formalized design thinking (Hitchins 2018). The IDEO model iterates through inspiration, ideation and implementation (Figure 3).

The IDEO Model

In this quiz match the somewhat equivalent levels of the D.School and IDEO, International Design and Consulting Firm Models

The D.School Model

The process is ‘about cultivating deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually, putting your innovative new solution out in the world’ (IDEO n.d.:‘FAQ’: para.2). The highly collaborative process differs from other approaches in that the inspiration step is not only solving a problem but looks for market opportunities, helps designers fail earlier to succeed sooner, and emphasises prototyping, heterogeneity, optimism and creative confidence (Brown 2008 in Boer:243).  

Professor Jeanne Liedtka Model

Jeanne M. Liedtka is a professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia where she works with executives and MBA’s on design thinking and innovation and former chief learning officer at United Technologies (Hitchens:62).  Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie’s book, Designing for Growth (2011), outlines an easy to follow 4w’s which asks four questions and has 10 tools (Figure 4):

  • What is? Explore the current reality.
  • What if? Envision alternative futures.
  • What wows? Make tough choices with users.
  • What works? In the marketplace.

Figure 4: Liedtka Model

Source: Liedtka et al. 2011:208

Source: Liedtka et al. 2011:208

The approach sees the complementary characteristics of Business and Design as a match made in heaven (Figure 5).

Research shows as little as 10 per cent of the promised returns of new strategies of business are delivered hence the need for design and the Liedtka Model is beneficial in this regard.

Google Design Sprints

Google Design Sprints follow a five-day process where user-centred teams ‘build and test a prototype’ (Google Ventures n.d.).  Jake Knapp, a Google Ventures partner pioneered devised the process in 2010 inspired by Google’s own product development culture and IDEO (Ibid).  Google is quite explicit they are looking to see how ‘customers react before you invest all the time’ and the sprint is all about finding market solutions in a condensed timeframe (Ibid: para 2).

The Design Sprint plays out over five intensive days where users ‘map out challenges, explore solutions, pick the best ones, create a prototype and test it’ (ibid) over a series of phases and is great for agile development (Figure 6 ).

Source: Google Ventures (N.D.)

Figure 5: Google Design Sprints

AC4D Model

The Austin Center for Design (AC4D) was founded in 2010 by Jon Kolko to have more of a focus on social entrepreneurship.

Figure 6: AC4D Model

The stated mission of AC4D year-long program is to offer scholars an opportunity to ‘transform society through design and design education. This transformation occurs through the development of design knowledge directed towards all forms of social and humanitarian problems’ (Austin Center For Design n.d.:para1).

Frog 2

The roots of the global design firm Frog were established in 1969 by Hartmut Esslinger in Germany before eventually making its way to San Francisco, California. In the initial 1982 renaming, only lower-case letters were used to illustrate the companies democratic leanings (Esslinger 2009:4). Frog worked with the likes of Sony, and Apple in the early ‘80s and have continued to grow (Ibid).

The Frog process is described as “the frogThink® Toolkit is a flexible set of creative collaboration methods for aligning teams, generating innovative solutions and escaping workplace cultural paralysis through the stages of Imagine, make, and scale” (Frog n.d.). The model iterates between imagine, make, and scale phases (Figure 9).

Figure 7: Frog 2 Model

Frog describes itself as wanting to ‘disrupt the status quo, win hearts’ which sounds like quite a social agenda. Their model is admirably about ‘creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive working environment for all frogs’ to ‘move markets’ (Ibid).


While Jennifer Brundel (2016) was working with communications design thinking company Harken, she looked at the problem of news stories getting created without meaningful involvement from the audience.  Working with Curios City which is an NPR news source responsible for shows like This American Life and All Things Considered, the traditional journalism cycle was disrupted (Figure 8 and 9).

Source: Brundel 2016

Each new episode began with emphasizing, using a question from the audience. The audience then helped define shape the story. In Ideation, the audience brainstormed and decided on a medium to publish. And in the prototyping phase audiences co-shaped the broadcast.

Harken has been able to build a competitive advantage with the strategy and ad clients like the BBCand the Seattle Times (Ibid).


IDEO’s Co-Designing Schools Toolkit for educators addresses unequal outcomes for students of colour and those in poverty through systems change with five essential building blocks (Figure).

The toolkit aims to build the capacity of school communities through a change framework using six steps (Figure 13).

Source: IDEO, Design thinking for educators n.d.

The programs have led to substantial growth in efficacy, and a 14 per cent increase in participants saying student-centred learning increased (Ibid).

Designing Your Life

Tim Brown claims, ‘There is a big difference, though, between planning a life, drifting through life, and designing a life’ (IDEO, 2012). Of all the areas that design thinking has influenced, it is the self that has been most transformed and from where real change is emerging (Figure 11).

Life doesn’t always pan out the way we planned, and design thinking offers us a way to stay agile and construct new selves along the way joyfully we change directions and perspectives depending on circumstance.

As designs change our environment, the self does also, bringing forth a new iteration and the iterative relationship between ourselves, institutions and the things around us also continue.  


Austin Center For Design (n.d) What is AC4D? , accessed 25 March 2021.

Brandel J (2016) ‘Design thinking and journalism go together. Here’s how’,, accessed 22 March 2021.

Boer H (2014) Design thinking: characteristics and promises, [conference presentation] CINet, Nijmegan Netherlands,  accessed 18 March.

Brown  T (2009) Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation, Harper Business, New York.

Brown, T (2012) Start designing your life, accessed 22 March 2021.

Esslinger H (2009). A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business. John Wiley & Sons, accessed 25 March 2021.

Frog Design (n.d.) Design Systems 101, accessed March 25 2021.

Friis Dam R and  and Teo Yu Siang T, (n.d.) Design Thinking: Get a Quick Overview of the History, accessed 06 April 2021.

Google Ventures (N.D.) The Design Sprint, accessed 25 March 2021.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (n.d) Stanford D School, accessed 1 April 2021.

Hitchins, S (2018) Transform your ideas into action : learn through experience how to think creatively & demystify the design thinking process. [Australia] : Stephan Hitchins, Australia.

Macdonald P / IDEO (2012) Start designing your life, [picture], accessed 22 March 2021.

IDEO (2021) What’s the difference between human-centered design and design thinking? IDEO FAQ, accessed 18 March 2021.

IDEO (2021) History? accessed 18 March 2021.

IDEO (n.d.) How do people define design thinking? accessed 1 April 2021.

IDEO (n.d.) Design Thinking for educators, accessed 06 April 2021.

Liedtka  J and Ogilvie T (2011), Designing for Growth : A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers, Columbia University Press, New York. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [15 March 2021].

Liedtka J (2021) Why Design Thinking Works, accessed 25 March 2021.

Yu Siang T (n.d.) The Design Thinking Process [Image],  Interaction Design Foundation, Accessed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0