The idea has taken off, according to Kelley. The $35 million Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford is organized around design thinking. Concepts such as agile software, lean start-ups, and 21st-century skills in K–12 education all overlap significantly with the idea.

Design thinking is human centered, said Kelley. What companies really need is to be deeply connected with their customers. Companies may be experts with the products and services they provide, but they also need deep empathy for the people who use those products and services. Recognizing the nonobvious latent needs that lead to breakthroughs can be a “messy” process, said Kelley. But “we do that on a daily basis and it is working.”

Another important aspect of design thinking is iterative prototyping. The idea is to build something in a very tentative and unpolished form. Then show it to people and let them improve it. “It is amazing how they will help you. They’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, and then you can go back and fix it.” Kelley terms that approach “build to think,” in which showing is a way of thinking.

Design thinking is “like fertilizer, water, and sunshine for people who want to create.”

David Kelley

Finally, design thinking uses what Kelley calls radical collaboration. People often say that U.S. students are the most creative in the world, but that is not true, said Kelley. “What we are is more diverse.” By building teams of collaborators consisting of people with different backgrounds, people can build on each other’s ideas and come up with solutions that they never would have created if all the members of the team had the same background.

“I’m a mechanical engineering professor,” said Kelley. “Five mechanical engineers as a team do not come up with the same ideas as a team with a business person, an anthropologist, a social scientist, an educator, and a mechanical engineer…. Putting that diversity to work is a great thing.”

Design thinking is helping students, entrepreneurs, and companies design new products and make better decisions. “Building creative confidence in students and in companies is the way to solve the problems we have about not manufacturing and not innovating as much as we did before…. When you are confident, you come up with a whole different set of choices, so you make a better decision…. That is our ‘change the world’ strategy.”

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