5 essential attitudes for design thinkers

My handwriting is terrible. My five-year old can better draw princesses than I can. My handyman skills are extremely limited. And also: I think very differently about color combinations than the wife and daughters I live with. Still, I am sort of a designer.

I am not talking about design in an artistic way. I am talking about human-centered design or design thinking. I am talking about the methodology one can use to solve the most complex problems in business and society.
(In that sense, I wrote previously about design thinking and creating a Patient-centered experience in healthcare.)

Dozens of design courses and tons of experience won’t be enough to become a design expert. You need a design attitude.

To embed design-thinking in your work and life, you can learn some methodologies and tools, and of course you need to practice a lot. But is that enough to be successful? I don’t believe so. You can attend dozens of courses and have tons of experience but it won’t make you a true design expert. What you really need is attitude. More specifically, you need a design attitude.

In this story, I’ll explore the origin of design attitude, 5 essential attitudes for design-thinkers, and I have some good news for anyone new in the design field.

Origin of design attitude

The idea of a design as an attitude dates back to the first half of the 20th century. In 1937, the Hungarian painter László Moholy-Nagy founded a school for design in Chicago in 1937: the New Bauhaus. Just like the original Bauhaus in Germany, the school in Chicago combined crafts with the fine arts. Nowadays, the school is known as the Institute of Design (ID) and part of the Illinois Institute of Technology (ITT).

László Moholy-Nagy, A II (Construction A II), 1924 (Guggenheim New York)

Just before Moholo-Nagy’s death, he described the school’s curriculum in his book Vision in Motion (1946) and discusses there design as an attitude:

Designing is not a profession but an attitude. Design has many connotations. It is the organization of materials and processes in the most productive way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function. It is the integration of technological, social and economic requirements, biological necessities, and psychological effects of materials, shape, color, volume, and space. Thinking in relationships. (source)

And also:

The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community. (source)

Moholo-Nagy describes design in a very holistic and systematic fashion. He looks for a harmonious balance of all elements and puts the needs of the individual and community in the heart of design. One could see this as human-centered design avant-la-lettre. Of course, the design field matured significantly since the 1940s. That’s why I asked myself what design attitude would look like nowadays for a design-thinker.

Design attitude in design thinking

Usually the design thinking process is described as a series of steps. Take Stanford’s framework for example (see visual). Each step is a mode in which so-called design-thinkers demonstrate a desired behavior during their work. Since attitudes influence behavior, what attitudes matter most today?

Design thinking process according to Stanford University

To empathize, be unbiased

At the start of a design project, you need to understand your audience and the environment in which those people operate. You will observe closely what people do currently, but that’s not enough. You should know why they do the things they do, what do they believe, how do they experience their situation etc.

In other words, you need to get under people’s skin. That requires that you put your own beliefs and prejudices aside. That’s much more difficult than it sounds. Everyone has their own frame of reference. But, an unbiased attitude is critical to observe and describe people’s perspective on the world objectively. Some needs are never articulated explicitly. It’s the designer’s role to find needs that people may not even be aware of. That’s why they say that if Henry Ford would have surveyed people, they had asked for faster horses, not for a motorized vehicle.

To define, be focused

After your field research, you will have a thorough understanding of people’s needs, but watch out: observations are rarely uni-directional and will steer you into many directions. (What would my life be easy if all people said the exact same things.) Now is the time to synthesize your observations into a clear problem definition.

A problem definition should articulate a real, practical problem. At this point, a focused attitude will help you to paint a clear picture of the situation. Don’t try to solve too many problems at a time. Even if the problem is highly complex, you should tell a simple story of the problem that you want to solve.

To ideate, be optimistic

Once you have a clear problem definition, you can explore solutions and ideas. While brainstorming do not limit yourself, but jot down as many ideas as possible. At this point, there are no bad ideas. So defer your judgement about those ideas.

Also, true innovation often comes from wild ideas. That’s why an optimistic attitude will allow you to dream about an awesome solution. If Elon Musk’s ambition is to start manned missions to Mars as of 2022, that’s because he optimistically believes that nothing is impossible. So see the opportunities, not the hurdles. There’s plenty of time to bring your ideas back to earth before you start building your spaceship to Mars.

To prototype, be confident

In a next step, you will convert your wild ideas into a design that can work in real-life. That does not mean you should build your product with all bells and whistles. Instead, start with lo-res designs, e.g. on paper or in cardboard, or as a role play or a storyboard. As long as it makes the idea tangible for the intended audience, you are on the right track.

When transforming an idea into a prototype, experienced design thinkers know that it will take many more prototypes before they will be satisfied. That’s why you must take a confident attitude and truly believe that your idea is the right one. You also know that failing and taking risks are essential parts of the process. So despite any uncertainty about your prototyping attempts, be confident. Sooner or later you will find the right form or shape for your idea.

To test, be adventurous

After prototyping, the moment comes to share your design with real people. Using observations or other feedback methods, you will learn whether your design works in the real world. Every time you share your latest-and-greatest design with real people, you will be put with your two feet on the ground. Often that reality-check is hard, but you should know that there is no other way to improve your design.

Taking your design “into the wild”, makes you sort of an adventurer. Instead of looking for gold or unexplored territory, you search for new opportunities, for what works and for what doesn’t. So, take the attitude of an adventurer when testing your design with people. You will be amazed by new insights and new ideas. That is your gold. That is why Thomas Edison said that he never failed when inventing a commercially viable light bulb. He just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

To iterate, be resilient

Did I say five attitudes? Well, actually I found six and that’s because a design thinking process is iterative by nature. Every time you have shared your design with real people and you want to process their input, you go back to one of the earlier modes.

For someone not familiar with design thinking, this is frustrating. However, it is part of the game to learn about what works in the real world. That’s why design-thinkers have a resilient attitude. You need to quickly bounce back when your design is not working as expected and start working on an improved design. Only by persisting after your failures, you will find success.

What comes first: attitude or behavior?

When it comes to attitude and behavior, you can wonder whether attitudes influence behavior in one way, or whether the relation is more complex. Let’s have a look at myself for that.

A very long time ago, Erwin and Lego were synonyms. I was creating new stuff all the time. I built attraction parks, dinosaurs, robots, cities, giant machines… but I hardly played with them. The fun for me was in designing new stuff and there was no standard manual for that. It was definitely the attitude of a designer.

That’s me in 1986 posing behind my a small piece of my Lego City

Fast forward 30 years later. A lot of the stuff I am dealing with at Johnson & Johnson are wicked problems, such as “How might we embed risk-thinking in compliance training?”, “How might we improve knowledge sharing?” or “How might we increase our compliance with procedural training to 99%?” Ask any of these questions to 100 people in a company and you’ll get 101 different answers.

Wicked problems are usually vaguely defined, involve stakeholders with different perspectives and have no “right” or “optimal” solution. (source) There is simply no standard way to solve them, nor is there an ideal solution. Hence, a design methodology is inevitable.

You are not born as a designer (although I belief that some people were born with a Lego brick in their hand).

So, did I end up into this position because of my design attitude? Or, did I develop the right attitude over time because I was designing things since my childhood? It feels like a chicken or egg question but both answers are right. Rather than being a one-way causal relationship between attitude and behavior, it’s a two-way street. Psychological research has found that attitudes certainly shape behavior but also that behavior influences our attitudes. (source)

Actually, this is great news for anyone entering the design thinking field. You are not born as a designer (although I belief that some people were born with a Lego brick in their hand). With the right design attitude, you will demonstrate the right design behavior. But also: by practicing design-thinking, you will discover what the right attitude is to be successful and solve wicked problems in business and society.


Solving wicked problems is much easier if you are unbiased, focused, optimistic, confident, adventurous and resilient. Demonstrating the right behaviors will help you to develop those attitudes and incorporate design thinking into your work and life. In other words, design-thinking in its most broad sense is a way of dealing with stuff. As a matter of fact, it can be a way of living if you have the right attitude.

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By medium.com

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