Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

Three top tips for design thinkers

Jeremy Myerson
Jeremy Myerson
At the RCA, we teach design thinking, training designers who go on to lead global brands worldwide as creative directors and CEOs. Professor Jeremy Myerson, the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design, has been an academic, author and activist in design for more than 35 years. Here he shares his top-tips for being a design thinker, a process which draws in diverse disciplines and multiple areas of expertise and exploration, starting with the core premise that everything is a design problem. 

'There’s been growing momentum in recent years for non-designers to enter the design space – for entrepreneurs, scientists, civil servants and marketers, among many professionals, to adopt ‘design thinking’.

Design thinking differs from traditional management thinking because it is more democratic and participatory, with divergent as well a convergent thinking.  Design thinking is essentially a people-focused and user-centric approach to innovation. And it moves away from that ‘expert’ mindset - instead of using a neutral, scientific and objective

To shed some light on a much-debated area, here are my three top tips for design thinkers:

1. Look and learn

Blue sky thinking
Blue Sky Thinking, Helga Schmid 2017
Photographer: Kevin Walker

A primary characteristic of design thinking is to be patient, to go into the field, to observe and record in a sketchbook or with a camera, without preconceptions. So much business thinking is based on preconceived ideas, on existing market ‘knowledge’ and an over-awareness of barriers to change. When asked to design a new product, service or communication, designers look at things in a fresh and sometimes naïve way, asking the stupid questions and behaving like participants in a process, not experts. That way, they look and learn. So bring out the inner-anthropologist in you. Don’t be afraid to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes.

2. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate

Thinking Well graphic
Thinking Well

Business managers are often specialist in a particular field – and their thinking is bounded by that field of expertise. But designers tend to take a more generalist approach that means lessons in one sector can be applied to another. One of the central tenets of design thinking is a willingness to cross-pollinate – to take ideas from one area and apply them in a totally different context, rescaling them where necessary.

3. Think visually, not in words

Graphic Facilitation at Thinking Through Drawing Symposium 2012
Graphic Facilitation at Thinking Through Drawing Symposium 2012
Many professionals rationalise or justify decisions by writing long reports with lots of words to wade through. Design thinkers use images. Their way of thinking is visual. Simple diagrams, photo-evidence, development sketches… all of these help to communicate ideas and support effective and collaborative decision-making. I recently participated in a design thinking seminar at 10 Downing Street which advised senior civil servants to put more images and less words into briefings for Ministers, as these had more impact in terms of argument and evidence, and saved time.        

Designing is a professional craft that takes years of training and expertise to perfect. Design thinking is something different – it is, in my view, a useful bridge between designers and those who commission and use design. It provides a shared set of perspectives or values so that everyone is on the same page and pulling in the same direction when it comes to making the project a success. And as a people-centred innovation method, it makes sure that the needs of the end-user is considered in real depth.'

Professor Jeremy Myerson will be leading the next Design Thinking & Innovation Executive Education Masterclass, taking place online, 18-23 March 2021. Book yourself a place.


A version of this article was first published in HR Magazine in May 2018.