Solving complex problems with design thinking

Murphy Trueman
4 min readJul 27, 2022

Design thinking is a problem-solving process that uses creative methods to overcome complex challenges. It allows for new perspectives and innovative solutions by embracing change and uncertainty.

Design thinking has been used in various industries, from healthcare to finance to manufacturing. Here we’ll explore how design thinking solves complex problems in any field.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking, first and foremost, puts the user first. Rather than starting with the business, product or service requirements, design thinking begins by understanding the wants and needs of those using it; this user-centric approach allows for empathy and a deep understanding of the problem.

Design thinking also relies on collaboration; by working together, diverse teams can share their knowledge and create a solution that embraces diversity.

The four rules of design thinking

According to Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer, there are four rules to design thinking:

  1. The human rule: all design is social in nature
    Designers work with one another, are constantly iterating on the work of past designers, and in collaboration with users, while developing products. All design is social in nature, with collaboration at its core.
  2. The ambiguity rule: embrace ambiguity
    Problems are enigmatic and open to interpretation. It’s easy to narrow focus too soon, eliminating ambiguity in search of questions that are easier to answer. By removing ambiguity, creativity becomes stifled.
  3. The redesign rule: all design is redesign
    As humans, we’re often looking for new ways to solve the same problems.
  4. The tangibility rule: make ideas tangible
    Communicating design ideas is easiest when done through tangible ideas and products, allowing for improved dialogue, understanding and problem-solving.

To compliment these four rules, there are also five key phases of design thinking, which really go hand-in-hand.

The five phases of design thinking

Although the names of these phases can vary, and it’s never a linear or one-size-fits all process, the following phases are key when it comes to design thinking:

  1. Empathy
    The first step in design thinking is to put yourself in the shoes of those using the product or service.
    The problem or issue that needs to be solved is done through interviews, surveys, and other research methods — it’s essential to understand the needs and wants of the user, alongside any pain points they may experience.
  2. Definition
    After empathy comes definition. At this stage, the problem should be clearly stated, and a target user identified.
    Setting the purpose helps to focus the team’s efforts on finding a solution that meets the user’s specific needs. Here is where a problem statement and definition are created.
  3. Ideation
    Once the problem is defined, it’s time to start generating ideas.
    Definition discovery is typically done through brainstorming sessions, both individually and as a team. The goal is to develop as many potential solutions as possible, no matter how crazy they may seem — all ideas should be welcomed at this stage.
  4. Prototyping
    Once a few potential solutions have been identified, it’s time to start creating prototypes.
    These can be rough and don’t need to be perfect, and the goal is to test the concept. Prototypes can be made using anything from cardboard to code.
  5. Testing
    The final step is to test the prototype with actual users.
    Testing helps us understand how well the solution works in practice, and identify areas that need improvement. After making any necessary changes — and retracing some of the phases outlined above — the product or service is ready for launch.

How can you apply design thinking when solving complex problems?

Design thinking is used to solve complex problems in any field, as it is a flexible and user-centred approach. Although we primarily focussed on the end-to-end product design process above, taking the time to understand the situation and the impacted person’s needs, allows for innovative and effective solutions which can be used in any number of industries and applications with great success.

Several factors make design thinking a successful problem-solving approach:

  1. It is user-centric, meaning that users’ needs are always kept in mind. This allows for empathy and a deep understanding of the problem.
  2. Design thinking relies on collaboration, as noone has all the answers. By working together, diverse teams can share their knowledge and create a solution that embraces diversity.
  3. The process is flexible and can be adapted to any industry or problem.

With this in mind, here are a few, simple ways to begin applying design thinking:

  1. When you’re faced with a problem, take the time to truly understand it. Empathise with those affected by the problem and try to see it from their perspective.
  2. Brainstorm possible solutions with an open mind — encourage wild ideas, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
  3. Create a prototype of your potential solution — the prototype can be anything from a rough sketch to a working model.
  4. Test your prototype with those who will be using it — see how well it works in practice and make any necessary adjustments.
  5. Launch your solution and continue monitoring, iterating and improving it over time.



Murphy Trueman

Design lead, specialising in design systems. 13+ years of driving digital transformation through data-driven, human-centred design & systems thinking.