Notes on Design Thinking Processes: MIT, Stanford, and IBM

The following information comes from my personal / professional experience and research notes. The text is intended to help me, and anyone who comes across it, understand some of the complexities of design leadership and practice. A lot of this knowledge is widely available through experience and education, but this is an attempt to centralize and categorize it for easy reference.

There are some key differences in the design thinking processes of Stanford and MIT. While both institutions are renowned for their contributions to design thinking, they approach the process with some variations. Let’s explore these differences:

Emphasis on Empathy and User-Centered Approach

Stanford’s design thinking process, popularized by the Stanford, places a strong emphasis on empathy and a user-centered approach. It advocates for understanding the needs and experiences of users through methods like observation, interviews, and immersion. This empathetic understanding forms the foundation for ideation and prototyping solutions that address the identified needs. Stanford’s process encourages iterative cycles of empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing, enabling continuous refinement based on user feedback.

MIT’s approach to design thinking, on the other hand, also values user-centered design but may place more emphasis on technology and technical feasibility. MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, for instance, integrates design thinking with a focus on innovation and technological solutions. MIT’s design thinking process may involve exploring cutting-edge technologies and scientific advancements to create novel design solutions that meet user needs.

Problem Framing and Design Challenges

Stanford’s design thinking process emphasizes the importance of problem framing and reframing. It encourages design thinkers to deeply understand the problem space, identify underlying user needs, and reframe the challenge to uncover innovative solutions. The Stanford approach often involves defining a specific design challenge to focus ideation and prototyping efforts.

In contrast, MIT’s design thinking process may have a broader scope that goes beyond problem framing. MIT’s approach may involve tackling complex challenges that extend beyond a specific design problem. It may encourage design thinkers to consider systemic issues, societal impact, and interdisciplinary collaboration to address grand challenges.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Both Stanford and MIT value interdisciplinary collaboration, recognizing that diverse perspectives and expertise lead to richer design solutions. However, the extent and emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration may vary.

Stanford’s design thinking process emphasizes collaboration across disciplines and encourages multidisciplinary teams to work together. The Stanford often brings together students from various backgrounds to foster diverse thinking and collaboration in the design process.

MIT, known for its strong focus on technology and innovation, may emphasize collaboration between designers and technical experts, such as engineers and scientists. MIT’s approach to design thinking may encourage cross-pollination between design and technical disciplines to drive technological innovation and impact.

While both Stanford and MIT have contributed significantly to the field of design thinking, they have nuanced differences in their approaches. Stanford’s design thinking process emphasizes empathy, user-centeredness, and problem framing, while MIT’s approach may integrate technology, innovation, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Design leaders can draw inspiration from both institutions, leveraging the strengths of each approach to suit their specific contexts and design challenges. Ultimately, the key lies in adopting a human-centered mindset, embracing iteration, and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration to drive meaningful design innovation.

It is crucial to understand and appreciate the unique approaches to design thinking taken by different institutions. In addition to Stanford and MIT, IBM also contributes a distinct perspective to the design thinking landscape. Let’s explore how IBM’s design thinking process differs from those of Stanford and MIT.

Design Thinking at IBM: Integrating Business Strategy

IBM’s design thinking process is known for seamlessly integrating design with business strategy. While empathy and user-centeredness remain core principles, IBM places a particular emphasis on aligning design solutions with the organization’s strategic goals. Design thinkers at IBM work closely with business strategists to ensure that the proposed solutions not only meet user needs but also align with market demands and business objectives.

The Enterprise Perspective: Scaling Design Thinking

IBM’s design thinking process stands out for its ability to address complex challenges at an enterprise level. Rather than focusing solely on individual design problems, IBM’s approach takes into account the larger organizational context. It explores how design thinking can be effectively scaled across departments, functions, and even entire organizations. By considering the systemic aspects and organizational dynamics, IBM’s design thinkers aim to foster a culture of design within the enterprise.

Co-creation and Collaboration: The Power of IBM Studios

IBM’s design thinking methodology places a strong emphasis on co-creation and collaboration. The company has established dedicated spaces called IBM Studios, where multidisciplinary teams of designers, developers, and clients collaborate closely throughout the design process. These collaborative spaces foster innovation and enable cross-functional teams to work together seamlessly, combining their expertise to create holistic and impactful solutions.

DesignOps: Streamlining the Design Process

IBM’s design thinking process also incorporates DesignOps, an approach that focuses on optimizing the efficiency and effectiveness of design operations. DesignOps streamlines the design process by providing frameworks, tools, and resources that enable design teams to work more efficiently. It emphasizes the importance of workflow management, standardization of design practices, and leveraging design systems to maintain consistency across projects.

By examining IBM’s design thinking process alongside those of Stanford and MIT, we gain a broader understanding of the diverse approaches to design innovation. While all three institutions value empathy, user-centeredness, and interdisciplinary collaboration, IBM’s integration of business strategy, enterprise scalability, and emphasis on DesignOps distinguishes its approach.

As design leaders, we have the opportunity to draw inspiration from these renowned institutions and adapt their methodologies to suit our unique contexts. Whether we embrace Stanford’s emphasis on empathy, MIT’s focus on technology and innovation, or IBM’s integration of design with business strategy, the common thread that binds us is the commitment to human-centered design and the pursuit of innovative solutions.

So, let us forge our own path, blending the wisdom of Stanford, MIT, and IBM, as we strive to create impactful and transformative design solutions that make a difference in the world.

Image credit: Photo by Lex Photography