Five Themes Of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a tricky concept to define. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a process, a framework, a state of mind, or some combination of all of these.

Considering this ambiguity and the difficulty it presents design thinking researchers, Carlgren, Rauth & Elmquist (2016) attempted to pin down a useful definition of design thinking that can be applied in research projects going forward. What they discovered is useful not only to this end, but also for practitioners currently looking to apply design thinking for social innovation.

Five Themes of Design Thinking

After a comprehensive review of the extant literature on design thinking*, Carlgren, Rauth & Elmquist (2016) were able to identify five themes characteristic of design thinking. These themes arose from analysis of design thinking procedures in six companies of various sizes that self-identified as practitioners of design thinking. The themes generally align with the previous research in the field, though similar concepts were bunched under one broader theme for clarity.

The five characteristic themes follow, along with thoughts about how they might be applied in a sport for development program:

User Focus

The needs of the end user not only need to be considered with empathy and understanding, but the users themselves should also be involved in the design thinking process.

In a sport for development context this would mean including the athletes themselves – including current athletes and alumni who have gone through the program and have the benefit of hindsight to help them identify improvements that might be made.

Problem Framing

Rather than attempting to ‘isolate’ the problem, the scope of the problem should instead be expanded to ensure no possible solutions are missed.

The “problem” with a sport for development program may not even look like a problem at all. It may be a case of fixing what “ain’t broke” in order to improve facets of the program across the board. Rather than waiting for complaints to arise, it’s about looking around and asking ourselves: “how can we do better?”


Use either graphical or physical representations of proposed solutions (products) in a rapid prototyping process that involves frequent failure in order to succeed more meaningfully.

Prototyping is an especially powerful tool for sport for development programs and may include role playing in order to better understand the challenges being faced by different stakeholders.


This is the process of moving through iterations of the design and not being afraid to revisit previous iterations if the current one isn’t satisfactory.

As you work through your prototypes, don’t be discouraged if you hit a snag. Simply take a step back to what you know was working and begin anew the search for additional value.


Members of the design thinking team should have different skills, experience, interests, and personalities.

This is rather simple to accomplish in a sport for development program, as stakeholders typically bring all of these brands of diversity to the table without the need to specifically seek it out. Parents, volunteers and participants will all bring something unique to the design thinking process, but it’s not necessary to stop there.

Flexibility Is Key

Interestingly (and yet consistent with the varied nature of conceptualisations of design thinking seen in the academic and popular literature), each company engaged with each of these five themes in the design thinking processes but with different prioritizations of one or more themes over others. Clearly, the themes are adaptable across myriad contexts.

Such a flexible framework is sure to hold value for the design of your own sport for development program. I’d love to hear how you go with applying any of the above – please don’t hesitate to use the contact form to reach out.

* Importantly, Carlgren, Rauth & Elmquist point to the difference between designerly thinking (dating back decades and concerned with the manner in which designers think in general) and design thinking (being the modern concept of design as being a method for solving problems that is concerned with creating value for the end user) as outlined by Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla & Çetinkaya (2013) and they note that their research was concerned with only the latter concept.

Carlgren, L., Rauth, I. & Elmquist, M. 2016, ‘Framing Design Thinking: The Concept in Idea and Enactment’, Creativity and Innovation Management, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 38-57.

Johansson-Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J. & Çetinkaya, M. 2013, ‘Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures’, Creativity and Innovation Management, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 121-46.

About designing sport for development

This post relates to my PhD project at the University of Technology Sydney. My research aims to use intentional design to maximise the social outcomes of youth sport for development programs.

You can follow along with the project on Twitter or use the contact form to get in touch with me directly.

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