Design Thinking vs. Visual Thinking: What Are They And How Do They Work Together?

Design Thinking vs. Visual Thinking: What Are They And How Do They Work Together?
Daniella Alscher

Written by:
Daniella Alscher

Mar 31, 2020
design thinking vs visual thinking - header

Design thinking and visual thinking are two phrases that look and sound very similar. It’s not uncommon for people to think they mean the same thing. 

However, it’s important to understand that they don’t. 

While these two different ways of thinking can work together, they are both effective for very separate reasons and are meant to be used in different situations. 

Simply put, design thinking is a method for problem solving. Visual thinking is the set of tools that can make complex solutions or ideas more digestible by visualizing them. 

Below, a further, more detailed explanation of each of these ways of thinking is provided, as well as the relationship between the two.


What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a five-part process taught in design and business schools that helps us think of ideas for solving problems that a particular group of people may be experiencing, often with a product.

Essentially, this process is one in which we make a genuine and intense attempt at understanding the user and their experience before we make an attempt to solve the problem and move into product ideation and the product design process.

While it may be easier to discuss this way of thinking in “stages,” it’s important to know that these five phases do not need to occur in any specific order or amount of times.

These should be looked at as five events that all occur as a contribution to the same project, rather than looking at design thinking as a specific set of ordered steps.

Below, we’ll go over the five phases of this process in more detail.

design thinking - five step process
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1. Empathize

One of the well-known laws of design is that anything you create should be created with the user in mind. 

While it is possible to predict how the user will react, design thinking involves a specific phase for thinkers to gain an empathetic understanding of the problem at hand. 

While this does involve putting yourself in the shoes of a user, it also means taking the time to speak to experts to better understand the problem as well as engaging with real users. 

Participating in these activities encourages design thinkers to step outside of their own assumptions. This stage is meant to be completely exploratory, with a considerable amount of information being gathered about the user and the problem(s) they’re experiencing.

design thinking - empathize
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2. Define the Problem

In this phase, design thinkers combine the information they’ve gathered in the empathize stage and use that to identify the problem at hand. 

The observations that were made should be analyzed and organized so that you and your team can clearly pinpoint the problem. 

For example, if your business noticed that sales suddenly dropped for a specific product, this would be the point where you and your team would sit down and try to define exactly what the problem is. 

Below are some examples of hypothetical questions that you and your team could be asking yourselves:

  • Were colors on the packaging altered?
  • Was anything added to the package that may have made it heavier to lift that it was before that change? 
  • Did competitors begin selling something similar? 
  • Was the copy on the package changed?

The problem that you identify should be written out in a problem statement, and should have a focus around the user instead of you or your business.

This can be done by avoiding beginning your statement with, “We need to make this package easier to lift so that we can make more sales.”

Instead, begin the sentence with the group of people who are experiencing the problem: “Customers of our company need to be able to more easily lift this product.” 

Keeping the problem statement user-focused is a reminder that the solution should be, too. 

Defining the problem almost immediately prompts design thinkers to begin the next phase of the design thinking process: ideation. 

design thinking - define the problem
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3. Ideate

The second and third phase of Design Thinking can occur simultaneously, chronologically, and/or repeatedly. We naturally begin to think rapidly of possible solutions as we call out the problem at hand. 

While the most obvious solutions are likely the ones that will come to mind first, design thinking encourages new, unique, and thorough solutions.  

In this phase, no idea is too big, too small, too complicated or too simple. Using mind mapping software is one of many solutions design thinkers can leverage as they try to come up with and organize fresh solutions and expand their way of thinking beyond the norm. 

Any and all solutions should be recorded early on so that later, the ideas that stand out amongst the rest are easier to see. It may even occur to you and your team later down the line that it could take the combination of two or more ideas to create something genius.

design thinking - ideate
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4. Prototype

Once you and your design team have developed a few unique solutions, it’s time to prototype. 

Mocking up your solution with wireframing software or creating physical versions of the proposed solution – whether an entire product or a feature of the product – can help design teams determine whether or not the solutions are worthy of continuing to explore. 

These prototypes can then be tested by the design team, but it may be smart to involve people in other departments or groups of people outside of the team who may be using this solution in real life. 

The purpose of this stage is to identify which of the solutions is the best possible one for the problem at hand. Each solution is created, tested, and then either approved, rejected or adjusted before being tested again. 

After experimenting, designers will have a clearer idea of the problems being experienced and how easily that problem can be solved by design or with little effort from the user. 

design thinking - prototype
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5. Test

Prototyping can often help cancel out some ideas, while bringing others to the forefront. In this phase of design thinking, the most favorable solution that was brought up in the prototyping phase is implemented and released into the wild. 

Remember: Design thinking is not a five-step, one-time event. It’s a very non-linear process that takes multiple, sometimes infinite iterations to perfect a product.

That’s why the final stage is called “Test;” the result that the prototype phase produces is implemented, and then used to help redefine the problem and continue to inform designers about the way a user will interact with the solution.

design thinking - test
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What is Visual Thinking?

Whatever you’re ideating for, that process can get pretty overwhelming if you’re keeping it all in your head. 

Visual thinking is all about learning how to convey those complex ideas in a more simple manner by using tools to make those things more clear. 

Pen and paper, marker and whiteboard, or keyboard and a project management tool or other software — whatever it takes to get those thoughts out into the physical world. 

While verbal communication can be helpful, there are times where words simply aren’t enough to explain your idea thoroughly to others. 

Being able to convey those thoughts in the form of charts, diagrams, and quick sketches can help others understand those ideas in a more universal and convenient manner. 

But visual thinking is about more than just creating a picture — it’s also about the process that occurs as we bring our ideas from our minds to a piece of paper.

Visualizing ideas can help people quickly see what matters most and explain their great ideas to others so that they can collaborate and come up with ideas that may never have come to fruition if a thought had been shared in a different way. 

Additionally, visual thinking can help call out problems, identify patterns, and even provide a new perspective. Without leveraging visual thinking, some of the most logical solutions may never come to life.


Design Thinking and Visual Thinking: Together

In this article, we’ve covered that design thinking is a way of thinking which encourages a more positive user experience, no matter the product, while visual thinking is more about making ideas accessible by physically representing them in a way that will make sense for those trying to understand beyond verbal explanation. 

With an understanding of both of these ways of thinking, it’s not too difficult to imagine how one may come in handy with the other. While it doesn’t make much sense to apply design thinking to visual thinking, the opposite is most definitely effective. 

Throughout all phases of the design thinking process, visual thinking can help more effectively explain the thoughts that often race through a designer’s mind as soon as they get an idea. 

Whether you’re interviewing a user, defining a problem, ideating solutions, bringing those solutions to life or launching them into reality, visualizing ideas, processes and comparisons can help you communicate with clients, executives and colleagues.

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    About the Author

    Daniella Alscher is a Content Marketing Associate for G2. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s listening to true crime podcasts or sitting on the couch. Or both.

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