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Understanding the Creative Mechanisms of Design Thinking: An Evolutionary Approach


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In this article, we analyse the concept of design thinking with its process, the team structure, the work environment, the specific culture, and certain brainstorming rules and techniques. The goal of this work is to understand how the creative mechanisms of design thinking work and how they might be improved. For this purpose, we refer to the idea of creativity as an evolutionary process, which is determined by generation (i.e., recombination and mutation), selection, and retention of ideas. We evaluate the design thinking process in terms of its capabilities to activate these mechanisms, and we propose possible improvements. This paper contributes to a better understanding of creative design processes in general and the design thinking process in particular, and will serve as a foundation for further research about creative mechanisms.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Katja Thoring
Department of Design
Anhalt University of Applied Sciences
Seminarplatz 2a, 06846 Dessau/Germany
+49 (0) 340 5197-1747
Roland M. Müller
Faculty of Business and Economics
Berlin School of Economics and Law
Badensche Str. 50/51, 10825 Berlin/Germany
+49 (0) 30 85789-387
In this article, we analyse the concept of design thinking
with its process, the team structure, the work environment,
the specific culture, and certain brainstorming rules and
techniques. The goal of this work is to understand how the
creative mechanisms of design thinking work and how they
might be improved. For this purpose, we refer to the idea of
creativity as an evolutionary process, which is determined
by generation (i.e., recombination and mutation), selection,
and retention of ideas. We evaluate the design thinking
process in terms of its capabilities to activate these
mechanisms, and we propose possible improvements. This
paper contributes to a better understanding of creative
design processes in general and the design thinking process
in particular, and will serve as a foundation for further
research about creative mechanisms.
design thinking; evolutionary creativity; innovation
methods; creative education
Although there exists a substantial amount of literature
about the working mechanisms of creative design processes
in general and about the evolutionary theory of creativity in
particular, no detailed analysis of creativity in the design
thinking process has been conducted thus far. Design
thinking [4] is a specific design process that has become
more and more popular among companies around the world
and is being implemented into the curricula of engineering
and business schools [16]. The aim of design thinking is to
foster innovation by generating concepts for new products,
services, or digital applications, and to develop solutions to
so-called wicked problems [5, 37].
Since generating creative concepts is one of the core aims
of design thinking, we try to analyse how this is actually
achieved. The first part of this article presents a short
overview of the design thinking process, as well as the
involved artefacts and team members, and the underlying
principles and guidelines for the process. In the second
section, we present an overview of the evolutionary theory
of creativity. Both sections also cover the analysis of
existing literature in each area. The third section describes
the used methodology, while in the fourth section, the main
part of this article, we draw a comparison between the two
concepts by mapping the evolutionary theory of creativity
to design thinking. Here, we do not only refer to the design
thinking process itself, but also to the role of the work
environment, involved and created artefacts, the role of
teams, the importance of a specific design thinking culture,
and a set of rules and rituals. Finally, we conclude by
providing a summary and an outlook to further research.
Design thinking, originally introduced and shaped by the
design consultancy IDEO [27], is a specific design
methodology with the aim of fostering creativity. Brown
[4] provides the following definition of design thinking:
Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses
the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s
needs with what is technologically feasible and what a
viable business strategy can convert into customer value
and market opportunity.”
The following aspects and principles are meant to support
the creative process in design thinking: a) the design
thinking process itself with its different process steps and
ideation techniques, b) a multidisciplinary composition of
teams, c) the setting of the work environment, such as the
work space and certain involved and produced artefacts,
and d) the specific culture and atmosphere. Although these
elements are crucial to every design thinking project, they
might differ among institutions or companies. In this
article, the focus is on the design thinking process in an
educational context, as it is practiced at the HPI D-School
(see Figure 1).
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DESIRE'11, October 19-21, 2011, Eindhoven, the Netherlands
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Figure 1: The design thinking process at HPI D-School [34] (used
with permission from HPI Potsdam, Germany)
In this model the design thinking process consists of six
steps, which are visually connected by curved lines to
indicate that these steps can and should be performed in
iterative loops, if it appears necessary to go back to a
previous step. This model is quite rough and bears
resemblance to the typical design process as it is known in
the design community since decades. The concept of design
thinking, however, is to transfer designerly methods, tools,
and processes to other areas. Even if these elements are
well-known and well-established in the design area for
years, still, there are several aspects in design thinking that
are usually not covered in classical design. Specifically,
design thinking focuses on solving wicked problems [37],
and is not limited to classical design problems (such as
designing an ergonomic chair). Moreover, the participants
in design thinking projects are multi-disciplinary and not
designers only. Design thinking uses a certain design
methodology with tools and processes that have been made
explicit and available for non-designers. However, this is
not supposed to mean, that anybody can be a designer. The
scope of design thinking is different: Since it is the main
goal of design thinking to create innovations (instead of
classical three-dimensional design), it involves designers
with their unique skills, but also experts from other
disciplinesworking together on projects that aim at
creating innovative solutions to wicked problems. Those
characteristics of design thinking are not visible in the
process model provided by the HPI D-School (Fig. 1),
since it is not showing the multi-disciplinary approach nor
is it describing what is actually happening in each
respective step of the process. Thoring & Müller [42]
suggest a more detailed model of the design thinking
process that describes what is actually happening in each of
the six steps. We provide a short summary, here.
While in the first step, Understand, existing information
about the topic is gathered through secondary research, the
second step, Observe, is based on a qualitative research
approach that includes interviewing and observing
techniques. The goal of this step is to collect insights about
problems and the users’ needs, of which they are usually
unaware but must be identified by the design thinker. These
insights are then shared among the group through
storytelling and then synthesized into a visual framework
called Point of View (POV), which is like a microtheory
about the problem and reflects the user’s perspective (could
be a persona, a mind map, a two-axes-matrix, a Venn
diagram, a causal graph, etc.). Next, the Ideation phase
begins with creating a brainstorming question related to the
Point of View. After the team brainstorming is complete,
the best ideas are selected by team voting. During
Prototyping, the selected idea is built very quickly; e.g.,
with Legos, cardboard, or existing objects; by paper-
prototyping (for digital applications); or performed as a
role-play (for service concepts). Finally, in the Test phase,
the prototype is taken back to the users to gather feedback
on the concept. Issues revealed during testing are then fixed
in one or more iteration loops in which either the prototype
is revised or the whole concept is reconsidered. In some
cases, it might even be necessary to go back to the research
phase (steps 1 and 2 of the process) to gather more insights
or to interview different target groups [42].
Besides the design thinking process, there are several more
aspects in design thinking that add to the effectiveness of
the process, such as the team constellation. Design thinkers
should be so-called ‘T-shaped people, which means that
they have a strong expertise in one area (the vertical bar of
the T), but at the same time they have a broader knowledge
in neighbouring fields and strong communication skills (the
horizontal bar of the T). This enables them to connect to
other design thinkers. An ideal team consists of five to six
people with different backgrounds. For instance, teams
could include one designer, one technical engineer, one
software engineer, one businessperson, and one person
related to social sciences or psychology. One of the D-
School mindsets is called “teach teams with teams”, which
means that in this educational context, the design thinking
student team is supervised and guided by a team of teachers
who also have different backgrounds.
The specific design thinking work environment and
equipmentfurniture (whiteboards, tables, and sofas) that
are on wheels to be moveable and flexibleare also an
integral part of the design thinking process. Additionally,
there are certain artefacts that support the design thinking
process, such as a ‘Time Timer’, which counts the time
backwards and indicates the amount of time left in a
particular phase (such as the brainstorming). The
substantial use of Post-it notes to capture insights from the
research or ideas, which are stuck to whiteboards and allow
easy rearrangement, provide organizational support for the
process. For inspiration, there is a D-School library with
related books and a shelf with boxes containing different
materials for prototyping, such as Legos, cardboard, pipe
cleaners, etc. See Figure 2 for examples.
Figure 2: Examples of the D-School equipment: Time-Timer,
Post-it notes, moveable furniture, bookshelf, boxes with materials
The specific D-School culture is also integral to the design
thinking process. Each day starts with a warm-up exercise
to enforce team spirit. At the end of each day there is an ‘I
like, I wish’ session, which gives every participant the
opportunity to critique or to suggest improvements to the
process. Additionally, the whole atmosphere at the HPI D-
School is determined by playfulness. A music station in
every work space, free drinks, regular get-togethers, and
many toys and games on hand enhance the creative spirit.
The entire approach is guided by some work principles or
mindsets, such as “think user-centric” and “fail early and
Rules and brainstorming techniques are another essential
component to the design thinking process. Of course, there
are also rules that are immanent to almost every kind of
ideation technique, such as brainstorming rules. In design
thinking, there are usually seven brainstorming rules, which
include “be visual”, “defer judgement”, “build on the ideas
of others”, “stay focused on topic”, “one conversation at a
time”, “encourage wild ideas”, and “go for quantity” [27].
Specific creativity techniques are also used from time to
time. Two examples are ‘negative brainstorming’, in which
only ‘bad’ ideas that make the problem even worse are to
be generated and then reverted to create a positive solution,
and the ‘dark horse’, in which one of the wild ideas is
developed and prototyped.
In the main section of this article, we describe all of these
aspects in more detail and present our assumptions about
their possible influences on the capability to foster
creativity. We also offer suggestions on how the whole
design thinking process could be improved based on some
deficits that we have identified.
Since design thinking is usually performed by a team of
diverse people, instead of a single genius designer, the
whole concept of evolutionary creativity seems to be
interesting for analysing the creative mechanisms of design
thinking. Evolutionary creativity is well established as an
analysing framework for the evolution of ideas and theories
[6, 7, 18-21, 25, 35, 36, 38-40]. It can explain creativity not
only in one person, but is also able to explain and describe
creativity in teams and systems. Therefore we adhere with
this concept and will later use it to analyse design thinking
in terms of its capability to foster creativity.
The theory of universal Darwinism [14] claims that the
evolutionary theory [12] is applicable not only to biological
species, but also to all complex systems that have the
characteristics of variation (or generation), selection, and
retention. Several streams of research apply evolutionary
ideas to nonbiological fields. According to Memetics, the
evolution of mental ideas can also be defined through the
evolutionary theory [13]. Hereby, memes, which are
analogous to genes, represent the mental or cultural
content. Memes are hosted in human minds, replicate from
one mind to another, and compete with other memes. The
evolutionary theory of economics tries to understand
innovations and economic growth by Darwinian concepts
[31]. Evolutionary epistemology explains the growth of
scientific knowledge with evolutionary concepts [7, 35]. In
computer science, evolutionary algorithms try to mimic the
evolutionary process with software for diverse optimization
problems [23].
In this paper, we use the evolutionary theory of creativity
[6, 19, 21, 38, 40], which compares the creative processes
with the biological evolutionary model [12].
In all these evolutionary theories, the three steps
generation, selection, and retentionare crucial. The
working mechanisms for these three steps can be very
different between fields:
1) Retention. A pattern of information is stored and
reproduced. In biological evolution this is accomplished by
inheritance and breeding. In the creative process, ideas are
retained, either in the mind, written down, or otherwise
captured, and communicated.
2) Generation. There are two mechanisms that can produce
variation, and thus generation, in the stored pattern:
mutation and recombination. In biological evolution, this is
achieved by genetic mutation or genetic recombination (by
chromosomal crossover). In a creative process, new ideas
can also be generated by idea mutation and idea
3) Selection. There are some selection mechanisms that test
the performance or fitness of the pattern in a context. In
biological evolution, this is done by natural selection on the
phenotype, as well as by sexual selection. In idea evolution,
this happens through idea selection and idea testing.
In biology, the genotype is the genetic information of a
creature (DNA), while the phenotype is the actual
representation: the animal. Analogously, an idea in the
creative process can be described as the genotype, and
some instantiation of the idea, like a prototype, can be
described as the phenotype.
In literature about evolutionary theory of creativity, two
different evolutionary models were distinguished:
Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution [6, 20, 28, 38]. The
Darwinian evolutionary model can be described as “blind
variation and selective retention” [6]. That means that the
variations are ‘blind’ for anticipated results. Also, learnings
from the phenotypes will not be stored (inherited) in the
genotype. In the Lamarckian model, however, learnings of
the phenotype are supposed to be passed on to the next
genotype. The evolutionary process can be seen as one
heuristic optimization strategy that tries to find a (global)
optimum in a very large solution space (see Figure 3). This
evolutionary optimization is less likely to be stuck in local
optima than other heuristic methods like greedy (‘hill-
climbing’) methods [23]. This can be explained by the fact
that evolution is not always a linear, smooth process but
can include jumps. These so called punctuated equilibria
[17] can help to break out of a stable local maximum.
Quality of Ideas
Figure 3: Optimization problem with a large solution space
Our article is mainly based on case studies from the HPI
School of Design Thinking at the Hasso-Plattner-Institute
in Potsdam, Germany (HPI D-School). We map these
observations to the theory of evolutionary creativity and
condense them into a theory about the working mechanisms
of the design thinking process in terms of its capability to
foster creativity. Therefore, this work can be considered as
a theory for analysing (Type I theory) according to Gregor
Over a period of three years, we observed five student
projects of different lengths in a design thinking education
context and analyzed them in terms of their creative
outcome. Specifically, we observed how patterns were
memorized (retention), how ideas were created
(generation), and how ideas were selected (selection)
among the student teams.
We chose five specific projects for our case study (see
Table 1), according to the following criteria: 1) experience
of the students, 2) involvement of industry partner
institutions, and 3) diversity of the design challenges. The
selected cases were scheduled at an advanced stage of the
study program, when the students already had some
experiences with short design thinking exercises. The
selected 6-weeks projects were scheduled at the end of the
first semester, and the 12-weeks project were taking place
over the entire second semester. Both types of projects had
external project partners involved who acted as some kind
of client. This realistic setting allowed for a better analysis
of the role of knowledge than mere test exercises. And
finally, the selected cases were representing a broad
diversity, both in scope, cooperation partners, and also in
the results (partners were NGOs as well as industry
corporations, or governmental institutions; results ranged
from physical products to digital applications). This
diversity suggests that specific observations concerning the
creative output were independent from project topics or
scopes. All projects were conducted by a team of 5 to 6
students. The 6-week projects were conducted by two
teams who worked simultaneously on the same challenge in
a competitive manner. This provided the possibility to
crosscheck the observed results. We analyzed 5 projects
conducted by 8 different teams (see Table 1).
People Trusting
How might we establish trust
between friends in lending
1 team
Airport Security
How might we assure the
security standards at passenger
airports and increase efficiency
and convenience of passenger
handling during check-in?
1 team
How might we help
inexperienced internet users to
make meaningful contributions
to political debates and
Modern Office
How might we design an
office system to handle mail
management processes that
facilitates the every day
communication activities of
office employees?
Book Recom-
How might we help readers to
discover those 50 personally
relevant book releases each
tainment +
Table 1. Overview of selected Cases
For each step of the design thinking process, the following
data sources were observed and analyzed: the behavior of
individual team members as well as interactions within the
team (group and teambuilding activities), verbal
expressions, written output (such as ideas on post-it notes
or texts in the project wiki), visual output (such as
diagrams, sketches, photos etc.), prototypes, and the use of
the environment (such as whiteboards or post-it notes) as
knowledge repositories, etc.
We conducted the case study based on two independent
data analysis methods: one researcher acted as a coach and
was therefore involved in the project and was able to
extract first hand insights from the team (participatory
observation). The second researcher acted as an external
(independent) observer. He checked the results afterwards
and was therefore able to act as verification. Any possible
bias caused by the involvement of the first researcher could
therefore be compensated to some extend. This research
procedure was split and cross applied: one researcher was
the main teacher for one half of the projects and
additionally acted as an external observer for the remaining
projects, and vice versa.
In this section, we present a comparison of certain aspects
of design thinking as described in the first section and align
those with the three main concepts of the evolutionary
theory of creativity (generation, selection, and retention of
ideas) as described before. We then discuss the possible
impact of the design thinking mechanisms on the creative
Brown [3] describes design thinking as the sequence of the
diverging and converging of solutions. In the diverging
phase, choices are created, while in the converging phase,
choices are made (see Figure 4). This phenomenon is also
described, for example, in Plattner, Meinel, and Leifer [33].
Create Choices Make Choices
Figure 4: Diverging and converging in design thinking, adapted
from Brown [3].
Comparing this image with the concept of evolutionary
creativity, we consider diverging as a generation of ideas
(creating choices) and converging as a selection of ideas
(making choices). If we look at the design thinking process
as a whole, we can see that there is actually a constant
alternation of generation and selection of ideas. We call this
the possibility space (see Figure 5).
Collect Source
Possibility Space (Amount of Variation)
Select a
Select Ideas
by Voting
Selection by
User Feedback
Figure 5: Alternation of generating and selecting in the design
thinking process.
In the first two steps of the process (Understand and
Observe), information and insights that can later be used as
a source material for mutation and recombination are
gathered. Ideas rarely emerge from nowhere. As in nature,
a substantial amount of source material (background
knowledge, insights, and experiences) is necessary in order
to enable the generation of ideas. The possibility space is
expanded, which means that as many options as possible
are opened up.
In the Point of View step, the possibility space is reduced
again. The insights from the research are condensed into a
formal problem statement that determines the future focus
of the project.
In the Ideation phase, ideas concerning this problem are
generated by recombination and mutation of the previous
insights, usually in the form of a brainstorming session.
This is actually the ‘creative step in which the ideas are
produced and the possibility space is expanded again. Part
of ideation is also the selection of those ideas that seem to
have the most potential. In design thinking, this usually
happens through a vote by all team members. The team
decides on a few ideas to be developed further. Sticking to
the evolution metaphor, this type of voting for ideas can be
considered a kind of ‘artificial’ selection. The idea at this
stage can be compared with the genotype in biology; in
other words, it is the DNA of a possible solution. Voting
reduces the possibility space again and focuses on specific
solutions. Those solutions are then visualized in the
prototyping phase. A prototype can be e.g. a physical
model, a photo story, a role-play, or a video. The possibility
space is then opened up again (even if only slightly), since
the team is now considering details and alternatives. If time
allows, more than one prototype should be developed. In
the testing phase, the users evaluate the prototype(s) and
give feedback. Here, another concentration of the
possibility space takes place. This kind of selection closely
resembles evolutionary selection in nature, since the
selection is applied to the prototype, which in the
evolutionary metaphor is the ‘phenotype’, or actual
representation of an idea instead of the conceptual
information. Finally, in the iteration phase, the space is
expanded again since alternative solutions and
improvements have to be figured out. Iteration also means
going back to previous process steps and rethinking
decisions that have been made there. This may even mean
starting from the beginning in order to gather more
information. Therefore, the possibility space is widened
As shown in Figure 5, there are at least three steps within
the design thinking process in which some kind of a
selection takes place (once the process is iterated, there
might be even more). However, these steps are not
explicitly indicated as a selection, and it is assumed that
many design thinkers are not fully aware of the significance
of specific decisions. Selection is crucial, since the problem
in design thinking is usually not the development of a lot of
ideas, but rather the selection of the right one.
There are two types of selection errors: selecting a bad idea
and not selecting a good one (equivalent to type I and type
II errors in statistics). Choosing the wrong idea is not ideal;
however, while the idea is tested by users, the problems
will quickly become evident, thereby allowing the
possibility to go back within the process to iterate the idea.
Not choosing the right idea, however, might have severe
consequences. If the potential of an idea was not realized in
the first run, the idea might get lost. This indicates the
demand for the good communication of ideas, since some
ideas might just not be understood by everybody, and also
the need for some time to recapitulate the concepts. Also,
the ability to store the ideas that were not chosen for
possible later use is crucial to ensure retention.
In design thinking, the emphasis lies on the voting
mechanism. In the evolution metaphor, this mechanism is
an ‘artificial’ selection determined not only by democratic
parameters, but also by the subjective and personal tastes of
the team members. In nature, however, the selection occurs
differently: it is determined by the environment. The
“survival of the fittest” [12] means that only those species
survive that are best adapted to the environment. In design
thinking, this could be compared with the testing phase.
The prototype that receives the best feedback by the users
is going to survive. In fact, the users, not the design
thinkers, select the prototypes. The selection of prototypes
is actually better than the selection of ideas since it is
difficult to judge raw ideas instead of real products.
Therefore, the ideas need to become more tangible (or
turned into the actual representationthe phenotype) in
order to be judged by the environment, i.e., the users. The
testing of prototypes leads not only to a binary survival
decision, but also qualitative feedback about why a
prototype is not satisfactory is gathered. This feedback can
be used in the next idea iteration. Therefore, design
thinking can be described as a Lamarckian evolutionary
process. The whole concept of selection of the prototype,
however, is not consciously thought through in design
thinking and could be given more emphasis.
As described earlier, there is a third important aspect in
evolution: retention. In the design thinking process, there
are several steps in which knowledge is being stored or
transferred to other team members. During storytelling
(which is part of the Point of View phase), insights and
findings from the research are shared among the team
members. These insights are then condensed into a
framework or a persona, which presents a compressed and
codified form of knowledge, making it easier to store and
transfer this information and increasing retention. The same
applies for prototyping, in which knowledge about a
possible solution is stored into the physical form of a model
(or video, or role-play, etc.) [29, 30, 41], which can later be
recalled by other team members or users.
One of the core elements of design thinking is the
multidisciplinary nature of the team members. This could
be compared with different species in biology. Only
animals from the same species are able to reproduce, but
not with a lot of variation, resulting in monocultures. For
the most part, animals from different species cannot
reproduce at all, or if they can, their offspring are unfertile
(like the mule as the result of the reproduction of a horse
and a donkey). If this metaphor is applied to design
thinking, it means that experts from different areas are
needed in order to avoid monocultures that will not
generate enough innovative diversity. However, we also
need people that are able to communicate and exchange
ideas. If everyone thinks and talks in his or her own expert
terminology, the communication might fail.
This is where the T-shaped people come into play [2]. As
described in the first section, T-shaped people are experts
in one specific field, are very open-minded and have strong
communications skills, and also possess some basic
knowledge in adjacent fields. Therefore, they can connect
with other experts and exchange their knowledge to create
new ideas. This means that T-shaped people are able to
recombine their knowledge better than other experts. This
fact not only adds to the generation of ideas, but also
fosters retention since these communication skills allow for
a better knowledge transfer. See Figure 6 for an illustration.
are able to combine
their knowledge
no interconnection
Figure 6: T-Shaped People vs. One-Track Experts
Another concept of the HPI D-School is to “teach teams
with teams”, which means that not only the student teams,
but also the supervising teachers are supposed to be T-
shaped experts from different fields. This ensures the
inclusion of even more different perspectives that can add
to the possibility of recombination and mutation, as well as
improve the variation of the outcome.
As described in the first section, several interesting and
special aspects about the D-School’s work environment and
equipment contribute to design thinking, such as furniture
on wheels, sofas, different model-making materials, a
library, Post-it notes, and the Time Timer. While a direct
relation to creative mechanisms is not evident for some of
these, we offer suggestions on the functioning principles of
the following items.
The library offers a wide range of inspirational books about
design-thinking-related topics as well as other relevant
societal topics. These can be utilized as external influences.
In natural evolution, some influences activate mutation,
such as radiation or toxics. Books are a means to activate
mutation, since they provide external inspirations.
Post-it notes, which are also known as sticky notes, are
very flexible tools and are widely applied in design
thinking. They are used to verbalize or visualize ideas or
insights, which helps to communicate insights or ideas and,
therefore, fosters retention. Sticky notes also support the
recombination of ideas, since they allow for the easy
combining of separate notes and the building of clusters.
Finally, they also help to select ideas, because they can be
arranged and grouped according to specific requirements
and priorities. Hence, Post-it notes are a very powerful tool
to enhance the creative process on all three levels of
evolutionary creativity: generation, selection, and retention
of ideas.
The value of the Time Timer is somewhat ambiguous. In
natural evolution, time is a very important factor. New
species emerge over millions of years. Of course, the whole
comparison of evolution and creativity is only a metaphor,
and the two are characterized by totally different conditions
and prerequisites. However, ideas also need time to grow.
Everyone working in creative areas knows that ideas
sometimes do not come in brainstorming sessions, but
rather during a lunch break after the completion of the
brainstorming session, or even on vacation when the entire
project is already completed. Also, research shows that a
specific state of relaxation can support the creative “flow
[10, 11]. Therefore, reconsidering time management in
design thinking, in particular scheduling systematic
thinking breaks, is necessary. On the other hand, the Time
Timer may also have the capability to activate the above-
mentioned ‘flow’a strict sequence of focused cycles,
followed by a specific amount of relaxation time, might be
the perfect time frame to get into the creative flow.
However, better understanding of the impact of time
management in design thinking in order to be able to
systematically apply the Time Timer more purposefully is
still needed.
The purpose of the moveable furniture seems to be mainly
practical. Since the demands for the work space change
from day to day (depending on the presence of visitors, the
working schedule, or occasional presentations), the
furniture needs to be carried away from time to time in
order to clear the space. Nevertheless, the sofas allow a
space for the occasional break from work in order to find
some time to relax. This is very helpful concerning the
creative flow, as described above. Interestingly, at the
School of Design Thinking in Stanford/USAa partner
institution of the D-School in Potsdam/Germany
designated thinking and relaxation spaces have been
implemented, which have given the design thinker even
more space to withdraw from the busy D-School
atmosphere, if needed. Allowing more time for breaks is a
very promising concept and warrants further development.
The design thinking workspace contains moveable
whiteboards where pictures, drawings, and Post-it notes can
be attached. These whiteboards serve as a knowledge
repository where ideas and findings are stored in a visual or
verbal form and can later be accessed by other team
members. That way, the retention of ideas and concepts
(genotypes) is ensured. Moreover, the presence of
visualised material in the workspace might activate
inspiration and ‘cross-pollination’ between different teams.
The specific culture described in the first section is not
immanent to design thinking in general, but more to the
specific atmosphere at the HPI D-School. However, it is
worth to analyse how this culture can support the
generation of ideas in the context of evolutionary creativity.
The warm-up exercises at the beginning of each day are
perceived very differently among design thinkers. For
some, it is the highlight of the day, while others feel
uncomfortable by the pressure to act in a strange way.
Besides the fact that these games allow participants to get
‘creatively warm’, these exercises have the additional effect
of getting rid of the concern about feeling foolish [26]. This
allows participants later in the ideation phase to be unafraid
to express ‘wild ideas’ or to make mistakes. Therefore, in a
way, warm-up exercises foster mutation. The same applies
to games, toys, and music. They lower the barrier for
expressing wild ideas and act as external influences that
may also foster mutation.
The ‘I like, I wish’ session at the end of each day is a kind
of ritual that aims for reflecting on the process and
suggesting improvements, which may help to iterate the
whole design-thinking process. This is a kind of
metaevolution (the evolution of the process).
Finally, specific mindsets in design thinking deserve a
closer look. For example, the slogan “Fail early and often”
aims at accelerating the whole cycle of the design thinking
process. The sooner an idea is prototyped and tested, the
sooner the (eventually negative) feedback can be
considered and turned into an iteration of the concept. To
continue the evolution metaphor, the selection is being
conducted at an earlier time in order to identify those
concepts that will not survive. Interestingly, in school and
at the job, people are often taught not to make mistakes.
The problem with this mindset, however, is that it reduces
the willingness to take risks. Those who are afraid to take
risks are less likely to come up with something new and
“Think user-centric”, on the other hand, is one of the core
principles of design thinking. The goal is not designing for
oneself, but rather solving the problems of other people.
The constant attempt to put oneself into the position of
somebody else generates new findings and allows for the
recombination of ideas. Also, the feedback from the users
is valuable information and is used as a basis for the
selection of concepts.
Ideation+Rules +an d +Te ch niq u es +
In this section, some general brainstorming rules and
techniques that are not limited to design thinking alone are
presented. The brainstorming rules are derived from Kelley
and Littman [27], while negative (also called reversed)
brainstorming [15, 24] and the dark horse concept [8, 9] are
specific creativity techniques. In Table 2, the impact of
these different rules and techniques on evolutionary
recombination, mutation, selection, and inheritance are
Ideation Rules
and Techniques
Be visual
Defer judgment
Build on ideas of
Focus on topic
One conversation
at a time
Encourage wild
Go for quantity
Dark horse
Table 2: Overview of ideation rules and techniques and their
impact on evolutionary creativity
The rule “be visual” addresses the communication of ideas
and findings. Verbal descriptions should be supported by
sketches or pictures. This rule influences recombination,
selection, and also inheritance in a positive way. Ideas and
concepts that are communicated in a better way can also be
combined more easily and quickly, sorted and selected
better, and transferred to other team members.
The rule “defer judgment supports mutation, since it
encourages taking risks and making mistakes, which can
result in exceptional and innovative ideas. On the other
hand, this rule might complicate the selection process
because selection requires judgment. It might be difficult to
distinguish between the ideation process (in which
judgement is forbidden) and the selection step (where
judgment is inevitable), and then to change your position
“Build on the ideas of others” supports the recombination,
mutation, and retention of ideas. The intention of this rule
is to mix different ideas, to take one idea and modify it, and
to pass ideas on to other team members for reinterpretation
and modification.
To “focus on topic” pertains mainly to the selection of
ideas. This rule prevents the group from losing scope. To
keep the focus means to select a specific direction to follow
and to neglect others.
The same applies to “one conversation at a time”.
Additionally, this rule supports the inheritance of ideas
because it ensures that everybody in the group gets a
chance to express their ideas and that no ideas are lost.
“Encourage wild ideas” supports mutation because it
encourages the generation of stupid, crazy, unrealistic, and
even dangerous ideas. However, if ‘sane’ or ‘appropriate’
ideas are the only ideas that are developed, these will most
likely be predictable and ordinary. The wild ideas
especially can offer hooks for something new. Those
mutated ideas might not be applicable immediately, but
they might have the potential to turn into something
“Go for quantity” enhances the mutation and recombination
of ideas. The more ideas that are developed, the more they
can be recombined and modified. As in nature, a substantial
amount of source material is needed for mutation and
recombination. This rule encourages the production of
quantity instead of quality. At the same time, this rule also
influences selection and inheritance in a negative way. An
information overload makes it difficult to distinguish
between important and unimportant information. The more
ideas that are developed, the more difficult it becomes to
select the right one, which also complicates transferring the
good ideas to other team members.
“Negative brainstorming” (sometimes called “reverse
brainstorming”) has a similar impact as the “defer
judgment” rule, since it supports mutation and encourages
taking risks and making mistakes [15, 24]. “Negative
brainstorming” also complicates the selection process
because the resulting (bad) ideas have to be turned into a
constructive solution before they can be selected.
The “dark horse” is a technique that can be compared with
the above-mentioned “encourage wild ideas” rule, as its
main purpose is to foster mutation [8, 9]. However, the
“dark horse” is developed farther than just a “wild idea”. It
is already a more detailed prototype of the wild idea: the
phenotype. Therefore, it can be used for testing the concept,
which supports selection as well.
It is remarkable that the “dark horse” and “negative
brainstorming” are the only variations from the usual
standard brainstorming techniques used in design thinking.
Other creative techniques, such as brainwriting, TRIZ [1],
or Osborn’s Checklist [32], have not been considered at the
HPI D-School so far. Here, we see the potential to improve
the ideation process in design thinking.
Most of the above-mentioned brainstorming rules focus on
the creation of ideas, while there are no rules explicitly for
the idea selection process. Team members often vote for
their own ideas or for those they find most intriguing.
However, these are not necessarily the good ideas. Voting
is usually conducted spontaneously within 30 minutes after
the brainstorming session. There are no rules or guidelines
such as “vote for those ideas that are most useful for the
user”, or “vote for those ideas that can be implemented in
the given time”. Some of the brainstorming rules even
influence the selection process negatively. “Go for
quantity” and “defer judgment” are very important for
generating ideas, but they make the selection process even
more difficult. Still, those rules have their purpose for
generating ideas; however, specific selection rules within
the design thinking process are needed.
Creativity is more than just idea generation. This article
refers to an evolutionary theory of creativity, which is
determined by three main aspects: generating ideas
(through mutation and recombination), selection of ideas,
and retention of ideas. We compare the concept of design
thinkingincluding the process, the team structure, the
work environment, the specific culture, and brainstorming
techniqueswith these three aspects of evolutionary
creativity. Design thinking involves many different
principles, rituals, and artefacts that are somehow adapted
from professional designers and design consultancies, most
notably from IDEO. However, most of the people who
conducted design thinking in the observed case (the HPI
School of Design Thinking) were not fully aware of the
working mechanisms of these principles. The goal of this
work is to analyse how these design thinking principles
function in terms of supporting the creative process, and
how the process can be improved.
The findings show that the three aspects of evolutionary
creativity can indeed explain the effectiveness of most of
the design thinking principles: the design thinking process
is determined by alternating phases of generation and
selection, the environment and equipment are designed to
preserve knowledge and to foster retention, the teams are
able to recombine their respective expertise, and the overall
culture encourages mutation of ideas and reduces the fear
of making mistakes. The rules and techniques for the
ideation itself are quite elaborate and support the creative
process from different angles, some by stimulating
mutation and recombination, others by providing a basis for
retention or later selection of ideas. Interestingly, the
Lamarckian evolutionary model, which has been proven
false in biology, seems to fit better to the evolutionary
concept of creativity in design thinking, because qualitative
feedback from the prototype (phenotype) is incorporated
into the next ideas (genotypes).
We see the main contribution of this article in providing a
detailed explanation of the creative mechanisms of the
specific design thinking method. Especially in educational
contexts, students tend to apply given methods or execute
specific process steps, without really understanding why
this is important or what the impact of their actions might
be. Since for most of the team members theses processes
are new, it is crucial for them to understand the reason
behind specific rules, rituals, and methods. A thorough
understanding of the working mechanisms would give them
the chance to avoid mistakes, to execute the process better,
and to systematically trigger creative leaps. The work
presented in this article provides this understanding and
might help design thinkers (mainly students but also
practitioners) to enhance their creative output.
In our case study we also identified potential for
improvement. In particular, the time management, the
ideation techniques, and the active idea selection (voting)
need some revision and warrant further research.
Concerning the generation of ideas, we suggest
implementing different classical creativity techniques (e.g.,
TRIZ, Osborn’s checklist) into the ideation step of design
thinking, and then evaluating their impact on generation,
selection, and retention of ideas. The effectiveness of such
techniques, compared with the brainstorming as it is
usually executed in design thinking so far, could be
evaluated in an experiment. Further, the impact of time
management, and especially the effectiveness of breaks and
relaxation on the generation of ideas needs investigation.
Regarding the selection process, we identified a lack of a
controlled voting mechanism in the ideation phase. The
goal for future work is to create such a set of voting rules
similar to the existing brainstorming rulesthat control the
selection process and provide structures to better judge
Moreover, the whole concept of retention seems to be not
very well understood. Further research is needed to analyse
and explain the specific knowledge transfer mechanisms
that are involved in the design thinking process, and how
these support the generation, selection, and retention of
Finally, these findings could help to design collaborative IT
support for the design thinking process by highlighting the
challenges of generation, selection, and retention of ideas.
This article is based mainly on observations within one
institutionthe HPI D-School in Potsdam, Germany
which limits the representativeness of the work somehow.
However, the presented cases are still significant for design
thinking in general, since both HPI D-Schools (in
Stanford/USA and later in Potsdam/Germany) were among
the first educational institutions for design thinking, and the
curricula were developed in coordination with IDEO, who
introduced the concept of design thinking. Therefore, the
HPI D-Schools can be considered pioneers in design
thinking. Still, further research, perhaps in a corporate
context of design thinking or within other educational
institutions, is needed.
Nevertheless, the work represented in this article
contributes to a better understanding of the working
mechanisms of design thinking, which might help
practitioners, students, and researchers to cope with the
requirements of working in the field of design thinking.
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Prototyping has long been a popular method in engineering and design practice. The continued use of physical prototyping is based on its strength in helping teams to make ideas tangible, iterate quickly at a low cost, and develop a shared language. Over the past seven years, our team has used prototyping in an industry-research program focused on foresight engineering—the development of new products and services that are three or more product cycles in the future. Through the discussion of three international cases drawn from India, Europe and the United States, this paper offers insight into the value and application of physical prototypes earlier in the innovation process and before the traditional handoff from strategy to product design. In summary, physical prototypes are exemplary tools for envisioning complex systems; prototypes serve an unmet need in helping teams explore potential service applications; and prototypes help reveal the path of progression from today's solutions to tomorrow's opportunities.
Selection theory requires multiple, distinct, simultaneously-actualized states. In cognition, each thought or cognitive state changes the 'selection pressure' against which the next is evaluated; they are not simultaneously selected amongst. Creative thought is more a matter of honing in a vague idea through redescribing successive iterations of it from different real or imagined perspectives; in other words, actualizing potential through exposure to different contexts. It has been proven that the mathematical description of contextual change of state introduces a non-Kolmogorovian probability distribution, and a classical formalism such as selection theory cannot be used. This paper argues that creative thought evolves not through a Darwinian process, but a process of context-driven actualization of potential.