What is design thinking, anyway?

Hopefully by now you’ve read our recap of Shelley Prevost’s stellar talk on how to get yourself calm. As she explained, it’s imperative to reach a place of calm before you shoot for creativity. But how do you actually make creativity happen in order to solve your problems—and ultimately, your customer’s?

To answer this question that dogs entrepreneurs, we spoke with Eric Brown, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Whiteboard. Whiteboard is a creative consulting agency that helps brands transform their digital media presence and corporate culture.

Eric is an expert in design thinking, which is a bit of a misnomer. In his words, “design thinking doesn’t have nearly as much to do with thinking as it has to do with action and process. It’s a non-linear way to solve problems.”

For entrepreneurs who are ready to get creative and problem-solve, Eric offered three major tips.

Tip 1: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. 

These are the five “phases” of design thinking. It isn’t a step-by-step process so much as places on a map, or modes of thinking.

Empathizing constitutes learning about the user or customer and trying to understand needs—encountering the problem from others’ perspectives. 

Once you’ve listened and learned, you define the specific problem that needs to be solved. Empathy leads to specification. The more you listen, the easier it will be to differentiate between numerous problems and narrow down the specifics of each one. 

Only when you have defined the nuances of a problem can you begin to ideate, or brainstorm solutions. “Ideation is thinking outside AND inside the box,” Eric reminded us. “Groundbreaking ideas are awesome, but exercising restraint can be just as helpful.”

Once you’ve generated ideas, you pick one to iterate on, or bring into reality. This is the prototyping phase of design, where you build the smallest possible version of one of the possible solutions. 

And of course, that prototype will need to be tested. “The testing aspect of design has been made so much easier in a digital world,” Eric observed. “New technology alleviates the pressure of having to build something perfect the first time around. You can test over and over and over again.”

What sets design thinking apart from other ways of solving problems is that these phases, while somewhat sequential, need to constantly be revisited. 

“Groundbreaking ideas are awesome, but exercising restraint can be just as helpful.”

You empathize. You try to define the problem and realize you still don’t have enough information. So you empathize some more. Then your prototype turns out to be impossible to build. So you go back to the ideation stage to come up with a different solution, or maybe you need to redefine the problem altogether. Every time you test, you go back to a previous phase to make the prototype even better, until it becomes a real, reliable solution.

This is design. 

Tip 2: Get your ideas DOWN before you get them OUT.

Entrepreneurs widely suffer from “ephemeral idea syndrome.” Talk to any business leader, and you’ll quickly find that she has countless ideas but no place to start. Entrepreneurs are magnets for inspiration, but that inspiration is incredibly hard to retain, let alone act upon.

“I ran into this problem myself when I started Whiteboard,” Eric shared. “I had all these thoughts and convictions about what I wanted the company culture to be. I wanted it to prioritize autonomy, give flexibility, but most of all—encourage collaboration.”

“If you’re in that same place, then I have a question for you,” he continued. “Have you written it down yet? No? Then it doesn’t exist for anyone else.”

Design thinking is not about thinking—it’s about action and experimentation. Design doesn’t happen in your head and then magically turn into reality one day. You have to take steps to test, perfect, and realize your ideas. Writing them down is the first and necessary step. Everyone has great ideas. True genius is realizing your idea is good enough to write down.

Once you have ideas written down, you’re ready to execute a plan, which brings us to tip #3:

Tip 3: Be humble.

Much of Eric’s passion for design thinking stems from a recognition that entrepreneurs can’t do it all on their own. In fact, design itself is a collaborative process that demands a humble curiosity on the part of the designer—a willingness to be wrong. 

“Go find people who are smarter than you, who have been doing this longer than you. Ask them what they would have done in your shoes. Their word isn’t law, but it comes with experience that you simply don’t have yet.”

…entrepreneurs can’t do it all on their own. In fact, design itself is a collaborative process that demands a humble curiosity on the part of the designer—a willingness to be wrong. 

Whether it’s revisiting your company’s strategic plan, launching a new product, or overhauling your entire business model, design is a willingness to test, ask for help, and discover that you were mistaken. 

Of all moments, now is the time to embrace dependency and humility, Eric encouraged us. “We need to be more creative, not more restrained. More trusting, not more fearful.”


Eric Brown believes design shapes the world and the people who make it. As a sought-after creative director and co-founder of Whiteboard, Eric works alongside teams and organizations who are committed to utilizing design to cultivate tangible outcomes that positively influence customers, stakeholders, and employees. He helps design digital experiences for clients such as Chick-fil-A, Airbus, NCR, Compassion International, Legacybox, Food for the Hungry, Preemptive Love Coalition, Purposity, Barna Group, Last Mile Health, and more. Over the years, his work has garnered national and international attention—being featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes, The Webby’s, CNN, and the TODAY Show. Eric lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with his wife, Katie, and children, Ella and Owen.

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