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alternatives to design thinking

5 Alternatives To Design Thinking

Over the last decade or so, alternatives to design thinking has become a buzz word.

Design thinking is now a common term heard in creative or design circles and corporates and startups across the world.

It is a design methodology that centers its solutions on the people that are experiencing the problem you are attempting to solve.

You can approach many different problems with this way of thinking.

From business models to product design to even how you structure your own life, design thinking works for these.

It’s likely that you’ve heard of this methodology and have even wondered whether it can benefit you.

But you might be wondering if there are any alternatives to consider.

In fact, in more recent years, there have been many critiques made of design thinking with critics suggesting alternate ways forward.

It’s clear that design thinking has some weaknesses, from involving too many stakeholders to not creating scalable solutions.

Even leading to too many copycat solutions has become one of the problems.

If you that there are other methodologies available to you, you are in the right article.

We listed five alternatives to design thinking that could help you even more!

Human-Centered Design

Human-Centered Design is a creative methodology for solving problems.

It focuses on building a deep understanding of and empathy with the people which a solution is being designed for.

This shares a lot with design thinking, and can even be used in tandem.

However, this methodology keeps people in the center of the design process and ensures that solutions are relevant.

It is lauded for being able to produce a large volume of ideas and prototypes while allowing the designer to share their designs people.

The designer can also get a feedback from the people the solution is aimed at.

The process begins by deciding who your user is.

And is finished once you’ve found and produced a solution that has been created for them.

Simply broken down, the Human-Centered Design methodology follows three steps.

Inspiration Phase

This is the phase in which you listen to the individuals you’re designing for and learn from.

In here you can even go as far as to immerse yourself in their lives.

You can join them on their commute or tag along while they do their grocery shopping or take their children to the park. 

Ideation Phase

You distill what you’ve learned from your research, look for opportunities to design, and then create prototypes.

You continuously iterate, refine, and build your solution until it’s ready in this part.

Implementation Phase

You make your solution into something tangible and either bring it to market or begin distributing it.

Through the entire process, you keep the people you’re designing for involved.

By consistently seeking feedback from them, once you have a final design, you can be sure that it indeed solves the problem.

This methodology believes that it is more impactful to create a tangible thing rather than develop a theory.

As you follow these stages, you shouldn’t be afraid to break out the glue gun, scissors, or web program to help you create your solution!

Creative Intelligence

Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design, published a book on Creative Intelligence in 2012.

He developed this conceptual framework as an alternative to design thinking after previously being a severe proponent to the methodology.

So, what is it, and why did he decide to move away from the methodology?

His main criticism for design thinking was that when used by businesses and organizations, it gets stripped back to process improvements.

He argued that creativity can’t be created by merely improving processes.

Creative Intelligence, also known as Creative Quotient (CQ), is the ability to understand problems in novel ways and to make innovative solutions.

Rather than being a psychological approach, it’s a sociological one whereby group activity produces creativity.

The method can be used to devise solutions as well as to simplify complexity.

Creative Intelligence is a skill set that gives its users the ability to create rather than being a set of steps.

Central to these skills are five creative competencies that Nussbaum has devised: Knowledge Mining, Framing, Playing, Making, and Pivoting.

Knowledge Mining 

This encourages you to focus your creative activities on things that you have the most knowledge and experience in.

it advises you to submerge yourself in the new area that you’re interested in.

This should be done by reading, listening, and asking as many questions as possible to gain a rich and deep understanding quickly.


This is how you understand and interpret the world around you.

In the Creative Intelligence method, you should question how you and others see things and look past the status quo.

By understanding your current perceptions and questioning them, you can create innovation by re-framing and changing how you recognized a problem.


This encourages using gamification and plays to think about new possibilities without any judgments.


This focuses on the importance of manufacturing things ourselves rather than outsourcing this step.

Nussbaum encourages us to use low-cost manufacturing methods such as using our own hands or 3D printing.


This means that once we’ve created a solution, we should change our field of focus to see if we can apply our creative solution elsewhere.

For example, if you’ve created a solution applicable to healthcare, could it also be used in education?

Or, if you’ve created a product, could this be pivoted into a startup?

Overall, Creative Intelligence puts more emphasis on developing a certain mindset rather than following a set of steps in design thinking.

This can make it more accessible and easily applicable to challenges, however big or small, that we encounter in our lives.

Interaction Design

Interaction Design, at its purest, focuses on the interactions between a product and its users.

In general, the products tend to be digital.

But the principles of interaction design can be applied to analog things as well.

This methodology is aimed at creating products that help the user to reach their goal most appropriately.

To drill down into the interactions between a person and a product, you need to assess sound, motion, aesthetics, space, and other factors.

There are five main dimensions of Interaction Design.


Any term used in interactions to communicate information to the user fall under this.

For example, this could be the text on a clickable button online or the writing on an instruction manual for flat-pack furniture.

Visual Representation

This looks at all graphics such as images, icons, and typography.

Physical Objects Or Space

These are physical parts of a product that the user interacts with and the place in which they interact.

When using a digital product, this could be a smartphone, a mouse, or a laptop.

With a physical product, it refers to the product itself.

The space part of this dimension refers to the place in which a user interacts with a product.

For example, is the user looking through an app while lying on the sofa or while walking to work?


This can be understood as any component that changes as time progresses.

For example, they are animations and sounds that help the user to understand the information they are being presented.

Equally, you should assess the time that your user uses the product, how long it takes them, and whether they can pause and return to using it later.


This focuses on the mechanics of the product.

Questions you can ask to understand this dimension include how individuals functionally use a product or perform specific actions on your app.

This is a strongly targeted methodology if you want to have deeper understanding of how a user interacts with your product.

Whether your product is digital or physical, this will help answer your questions.

Life-Centered Design

Life-Centered Design is an evolution of Human-Centered Design.

In this methodology, instead of focusing on the individual, you’re designing a solution, focusing on the collective.

Often, the focus is on designing for all life on our planet!

While this may seem a little daunting, the objective is to create solutions that are beneficial for all life rather than one individual or one subset of people.

This way of thinking can also be described as a systems mindset.

It is where we see everything as connected and impacting each other.

Proponents believe that this methodology is better suited to tackle broad topics like poverty, climate change, and racism.

These are areas in which design thinking may have made small innovations to help specific problems but failed to make an impact on a larger scale.

There are some general principles to follow when using a life centered design approach.

What You Need To Follow

You should design while thinking about the whole of our economic, production, and ecological systems.

Instead of designing sustainable packaging for a take-out food restaurant, you should think about how we can create a systemic change that reduces our overall need for plastics.

Life-Centered Design solutions shouldn’t just solve a problem in the here and now.

This means we need to think carefully about how a product will be used in the future and ensure that it is still a solution even as it degrades.

Life-Centered Design solutions are aimed at everyone.

As such, everything you design should solve a real and severe problem, rather than being something created for a fleeting moment of happiness or luxury.

This is a type of minimalism that focuses on using as little of the Earth’s resources as possible while helping the planet and its inhabitants to thrive.

Indeed, this type of thinking may not be useful for you if you’re considering a tiny and specific problem.

But it could give you a perspective to ensure that your solution is helpful and doesn’t cause damage to the planet.

Equally, if the problem you’re looking to solve is a systemic one, this is a very appropriate methodology to follow.

Strategic Design

Strategic Design is a methodology that focuses on using design tools to find solutions for business goals or public sector challenges.

Similar, to Life-Centered Design, this method is well suited to focus on significant systemic issues.

These issues include climate change and inequality but can also be used for commercial organizations.

Strategic Design works by aiming the critical parts of a modern design approach.

These approaches include agile development, user research, co-design, and iterative prototyping.

These are design practices that steer the development and implementation of strategies that result in innovative solutions.

In all cases, solutions are future-oriented.

They should make an organization or system more innovative and competitive.

These solutions should consider economic, human, and environmental considerations as well as any other relevant factors.

Proponents of this theory believe that without considering all these factors, you will not have a good design.

The method has four stages, as described in the Strategic Design Book.

First Stage: Setting Objectives

This stages focuses on ‘envisioning’ and ‘inspiring.’

Envisioning allows organizations to integrate a long-term, future-oriented outlook into their goals.

Inspiring means creating confidence in relevant stakeholders so that they can think and behave differently.

Second Stage: Configuring

This stage is about ‘simplifying’ and ‘structuring.’

Simplifying relates to breaking down the complexity of a strategic project.

Structuring deals with defining and completing each part of the process.

Third Stage: Orchestrating

This stage deals with ‘aligning’ and ‘translating.’

Aligning means ensuring that the strategic goal is in step with the organization’s strategy.

Translating focuses on knowledge sharing between stakeholders.

Fourth Stage: Embedding

This stage includes ’embracing’ and ‘educating.’

Embracing means gaining broad organizational commitment to your goals.

Educating means teaching the design methods and building design capacity in the organization.

Through these steps, Strategic Design can zoom in and out on both the macro and micro issues of a problem.

The critical difference to design thinking is that Strategic Design considers all elements, including whether people want the solution, whether it is scalable, and beneficial for the environment.

Final Thoughts

We’ve laid out the alternatives to design thinking which you can choose from if you want to use a different methodology.

By considering the type of problem you’re focused on solving, you should be able to pick the method which will have the most significant impact.

We’d love to hear all about which method you choose and the solution that you create!

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