Unlock Innovation Using Design Thinking – Part 1

March 27, 2024
By iQ Staff
iQ Interview Series Ian Kitajima

For communicators, consultants and executives alike, perspective is everything. Ian Kitajima, president of the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research (PICHTR), is a local expert on revolutionary design thinking, a discovery-based thought process from the Stanford School of Design.

In this two-part blog, Ian shares how curiosity-driven perspectives – and asking the question “how might we” – address underlying issues to identify business solutions.


What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a five-step, iterative process that aims to solve complex problems in a user-centric way. The process involves:

  1. Empathize: Understanding the needs, experiences and motivations of the people you’re designing for.
  2. Define: Clearly articulating the problem based on insights gained during the empathy phase.
  3. Ideate: Generating a wide range of ideas and solutions.
  4. Prototype: Creating tangible representations of ideas to explore and test their effectiveness.
  5. Test: Gathering feedback on the prototypes to refine and improve the solutions.

Design thinking encourages a discovery mindset, intense curiosity and the suspension of preconceived notions. It's a method that can be applied to a variety of industries and challenges, and is used to create products, services and experiences.


How were you introduced to design thinking?

Back in 2009, I was introduced to design thinking after I came across an article about it, shared by Patrick Sullivan, the founder of Oceanit. It caught my attention because Patrick's son was attending the design school at Stanford. That article was a turning point for me, inspiring me to leave my position as the director of marketing to dedicate my efforts to integrating design thinking into Oceanit and spreading it throughout Hawaii. We viewed design thinking as a method that empowered people to "think outside the box" and innovate by uncovering user needs and wants that are hidden and difficult to perceive. My goal was to teach this process to everyone in Hawaii, particularly to teachers and students, so that together, we could tackle Hawaii's many challenges.


What’s the difference between a mindset of discovery and a mindset of validation?

Children have a mindset of discovery; they ask more questions than they have the answers to and are always open to failure, i.e., learning. The opposite of that, a mindset of validation, is what most adults have. Validation is a bias in which we view problems through a lens based on our own skills and experience to confirm what we already know and believe. Rather than innovating to find the best possible solutions to the problem, validators choose evolutionary solutions without giving themselves the opportunity to experiment or explore alternative disruptive approaches. This inclination toward seeking confirmation rather than challenging assumptions can lead to the loss of an organization’s competitive advantage over time. Adults and mature organizations, entrenched in the validation mindset, often miss out on opportunities for learning and growth that come from embracing uncertainty and the potential for failure.


How can business leaders use design thinking?

To apply design thinking concepts effectively, business leaders and communicators can consider the following practical advice:

  1. Embrace Empathy: Start with understanding the needs, experiences and motivations of your customers or stakeholders. Conduct interviews, observe behaviors and immerse yourself in their environment to gain insights.
  2. Define the Problem: Clearly articulate the problem you are trying to solve. Use insights from the empathy phase to create a point of view that focuses on specific users and their needs.
  3. Ideate Broadly: Encourage the generation of a wide range of ideas without judgment. Prioritize quantity over quality initially to explore various possibilities and foster creativity.
  4. Prototype Quickly: Create simple, low-fidelity prototypes to visualize solutions. Prototypes can be sketches, models or mockups that are inexpensive and quick to make.
  5. Test and Iterate: Share prototypes with users to gather feedback. Be open to criticism and ready to refine or pivot your approach based on what you learn.
  6. Foster a Culture of Innovation: Encourage a safe environment where team members feel comfortable sharing ideas. Use constructive language like "I like," "I wish," "What if" and "I wonder" to promote positive dialogue.
  7. Practice the Process: Design thinking is a skill that improves with practice. Start with small projects to familiarize your team with the process before tackling larger challenges.
  8. Suspend Reality: Temporarily set aside constraints and allow for outlandish ideas. This can lead to innovative solutions that wouldn't emerge from a purely practical standpoint.
  9. Collaborate Across Disciplines: Involve people with diverse backgrounds and expertise in the design thinking process to bring in fresh perspectives and challenge assumptions.
  10. Learn Continuously: Stay informed about design thinking methodologies by reading books, attending workshops and engaging with the design thinking community.

By integrating these practices into their strategic approach, business leaders and communicators can leverage design thinking to drive innovation and create solutions that truly resonate with their audiences.