Not long ago, the idea of design conjures up images of stylish objects. Design thinking belonged to the world of architects, product designers, interior designers, and graphic designers. But today a growing group of design practitioners is using their design skills and tools for social good. At the same times, governments, non-profit organizations, and social enterprises are experimenting with design thinking to discover and develop innovative solutions to complex local and global ‘wicked problems’.

What’s the appeal of design thinking? How might design thinking contribute to creating positive social change?

There’s no general definition of design thinking but at the core, design thinking is about:

  • Generating a range of ideas to a problem
  • Testing, iterating, and improving solutions throughout the design process, and
  • Adopting a co-design relationship with the users of design solution.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, the leading international innovation and design company described design thinking as an activity that “encourages consideration of a wide array of solutions, can be applied in the field, and used incrementally. It approaches problem solving from the point of view of the end user and calls for developing a deep understanding of unmeet needs, thus avoiding the pitfall of imposing the wrong solution on a community”.

In terms of social change, there are six ways design thinking can contribute to creating positive change.

  1. Design thinking is humanizing and human-centered. Empathy is a core principle of design thinking. Design requires an understanding of the need and experience people are seeking to fulfill and how people will interact with whatever we are designing. ‘Being on the ground’ and observing the sociological dynamics are fundamental to the design practice.
  2. Unlike traditional analytical thinking, design thinking’s open-ended abductive ap­proach to problems enables social innovators and changemakers to take creative leaps to ideas generation and the realms of possibilities. Design is less about the analysis of existing options than the creation of new options. At times, this means reframing the problem and looking at existing options in new ways. Sometimes, it means creating from scratch.
  3. Design thinking - as experiential knowledge - is grounded in the uncertainty of the processes and embraces the notion of being able to go forward without clarity and without trying to define everything upfront. Design thinking has tremendous po­tential in the achievement of positive social change because the design process is so well adapted to addressing unique and ill-defined problems and dealing with great complexities.
  4. Design thinking is a reflective practice. The trial and error techniques to the design process share a similar approach to the reflective practice proposed by leading social scientist Donald A. Schön (1983), in that the design process revolves around situations rather than problems.
  5. Design thinking is a mindset and a skill. It is an expression of creative intelligence that can be learned. The ‘design attitude’ is the one that acknowledges and embraces the challenge of working with uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information and creating new possibilities.
  6. Design thinking works with constraints, and emphasizes resourcefulness rather than resources. Design thinkers ask: how might we accomplish and deliver our design solution with few resources? 

Design thinking is intentional world-making. So what kind of world do we want to make?


Robyn Lui, Ph.D.
Founder & Principal Strategist at
Social Change Collective & general mischief-maker.
Mission: championing good people to achieve
great things that benefit people and the planet.

Robyn Lui, Ph.D.

Founder & Principal Strategist at Social Change Collective & general mischief-maker. Mission: championing good people to achieve great things that benefit people and the planet.

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