For a long time now, design has been perceived as a means to solve problems – to create solutions, in the form of a product, space, a system, a model, an experience, and so on. Likewise, for years, design thinking has only been used in the realm of creative fields and domains where the expertise of designers is used to create a tangible end goal. 

During a time and age as now, design has a viable scope to step out and make actual change in fields beyond the usual: the largest, most significant problems that need solving do not lie in the creative fields, but in the real world. Problems of pertinence to society and the environment are looming over humanity more strikingly than ever, and design is in the most suitable position to solve such issues. 

Design Thinking, in simple words, refers to the problem-solving approach imbibed in design processes adopted by creative professionals; the same, when applied to real-world problems have a great potential in making this world and society, better, more inclusive, and in general, happier places to live in. 

Let’s deliberate further to understand Design Thinking and how it could be the tool to help solve larger social problems.

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The stuck truck made to move by deflating its tyres: a simple application of design thinking – Copyright Wystan, Flickr

What does Design Thinking entail? 

As a problem-solving tool, design thinking involves assessing the known aspects of a problem to identify the more ambiguous factors, in an attempt to redefine the existing conditions with which a problem is interpreted. It aims to understand the problem iteratively, to venture beyond preconceived notions, and analyze its multiple facets to identify the root causes of the problem. By challenging the assumptions made about an issue, design thinking transgresses existing patterns of thinking, to give way for new means of thought and action

A key idea behind this strategy is its user-centric approach to solving problems: by understanding and analyzing the conditions that govern how users interact with existing solutions, their shortcomings are discovered, and through a series of iterative steps, newer, more improved design solutions are created.

Design thinking is normally associated with multiple phases/stages/modes; the most common ones are the following five:

Empathize: To empathize with the users means to understand the needs and demands of the user; to put oneself in the users’ shoes to come close to what they experience, and what they would expect from a design solution.

Define: To define is to fully identify the problem to solve, and to analyze it iteratively with the insights obtained over time.

Ideate: Ideation revolves around challenging existing assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions.

Prototype: Creation of solutions and materializing them occurs during prototyping.

Test: The solutions prototyped are introduced to real-life conditions to test them for practical relevance and compatibility.

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Phases of Design Thinking – Copyright Interactive Design Foundation

What sets Design Thinking apart?

The design thinking strategy differs significantly from normal methodologies of providing solutions, in that the process is hardly linear and sequential. Each of the aforesaid modes overlaps with one another to such extents that there is frequent going back and forth; this puts the designer in a continuous state of learning, un-learning, and re-learning, to better understand the design problem at hand. 

Further, doing so enables designers to comprehend user behavior wellwhen designers shadow their users with a goal of ideation in mind, it becomes more efficient to craft design solutions based on precisely what they need. Alongside, crowd-sourcing data from the users inherently makes the solution more informed and relevant; consequently, the process becomes bottom-up rather than a top-down one, further localizing the design solution, enabling it to function efficiently for everyone involved. 

The outside-the-box approach undertaken makes sure that the solution provided is far-sighted and is inclusive of everyone involved in the problem; they are holistic answers to multiple, subjective issues, provided based on rational and analytical research. 

Besides, it is becoming highly popular to directly involve the users in the design processparticipatory design makes sure that everybody knows and understands the issues profoundly, and that there is an active contribution from the users in problem-solving.

Design Thinking for social problems

Two areas outside creative fields where design thinking could make revolutionary change are social issues and environmental concerns. True, the degrees to which such strategies go close to users and stake-holders could be effectively made use of to rectify issues pertaining to society. Plus, the design thinking methodology being inherently human, could go a long way in emancipating contemporary societies from irrelevant status quos.

When applied to social problems, design thinking can be used to craft product-service combinations that are intended to create an experience to do away with such issues. In doing so, the social problem is identified as a design problem that could be solved by creating services, models, or experiences. There have already been multiple such instances and projects done around the worldthey either aim to gradually better and optimize the pre-existing conditions within which they operate, or create newer frameworks for a redefined means of function. 

Further, design thinkers for social issues usually hail from different backgrounds and domains, that when they collaborate to solve a problem, it is possible to perceive the same issue through multiple lenses and angles. Likewise, design thinkers for social problems are expected to possess distinctive skills in their own domain to effectively contribute to the outcome, as well as possess empathy for people, disciplines, and domains outside their ownthis is represented by openness, curiosity, optimism, and a tendency for progressive learning through doing and experimentation. 

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Design Thinking for social problems – Copyright PRObono Australia

Case Example – The Positive Deviance Method | Design Thinking

A highly noteworthy example, an early one at that, for design thinking employed in a real-world socio-economic problem, was the Positive Deviance Initiative by Jerry and Monique Stermins, with the Government of Vietnam. They were asked to develop a model to decrease malnutrition amongst children in around 10000 villages; it was during the early 1990s when around 65% of children under age 5 in the country were undernourished. Existing solutions relied on supplements provided by a few UN agencies: they were regarded as outsider solutions that hardly achieved the desired results.

Alternatively, the Stermins employed a methodology, called Positive Deviance, which looked for localized solutions, that already existed within such communities. After researching existing food supply systems and surveying local communities, it was found that parents belonging to extremely poor families added in the meals of their children, shrimps, crabs, and snails that were found in the paddy fields, along with the usual rice, greens, sweet potatoes, etc… After identifying the same pattern in multiple such families, it was found that such children were considerably healthier than the rest; besides, such families were only capable of offering smaller meals to children, but they did so multiple times a day. This benefitted the children even further, with their smaller stomachs consuming more food over the day.

The Stermins regarded such factors as “positive deviants”, as they discovered rare behaviors in the local communities that collectively benefitted the children when applied on a larger scale. They conducted cooking classes through a program, employing the positive deviants, and by the end of the first year, more than 80% of the participating children were adequately nourished. 

Projects like these reinforce the potential of design thinking in solving large-scale social problems: a localized solution as seen in this example, after iterating and implementation can significantly yield working, more efficient solutions, than their outsider, top-down counterparts. 

Besides, projects undertaken by the leading design and consultancy firm IDEO highly make use of the design thinking principle in solving social problems. Their not-for-profit wing has been tackling poverty and associated communal issues through multiple projects and undertakings, significantly using such principles. 

New Ways Forward

It was said with truth that every building is constructed stone by stone and the same may be said of our communities and our society. There are multiple layers in every society, and as such, in every social problem that we encounter. Likewise, the most compatible solutions for all such problems, lie with the society – localized, contextual, and relevant. Design thinking can go a long way in solving problems pertaining to society, and in providing functional, efficient solutions that sprout from the society itself.

It all lies in our hands, as designers, as design thinkers, to move beyond conventional problem-solving ways towards more dynamic, more suiting and above all, more necessary means to make the world a better place to be in.


  1. Rikke Friis Dam, Teo Yu Siang – What is Design Thinking and why is it so popular? – Interaction Design Foundation
  2. Jocelyn Wyatt, Tim Brown – Design Thinking for Social Innovation – Stanford Social Innovation Review
  3. Nynke Tromp, Paul Hekkert – A Clash of Concerns: Applying Design Thinking to Social Dilemmas – Delft University of Technology
  4. Whitney Pastorek – Bringing Design Thinking to Social Problems – Focusses on the People in Need – Fast Company

Still a student midway in his Undergrad, Harish interests himself in using the medium of the Written Word and believes in innovation and tech to venture beyond irrelevant status quos in Design and Architecture. He aspires to expand the reach of our disciplinepast just cities, to the non-urbanas well. He feels that the design discourse does not have enough professional critics, and wishes to become one someday!