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Graphic Design Roundup #47: The Four Stages of Thinking Like A Designer

Everyone can learn from studying the ways successful designers solve problems. An informal study of more than a hundred leading designers in various fields observed four key behaviors that seemed to be of second nature.

These deep-rooted habits were linked to a designer’s skill for bringing original ideas to life as innovative visual ideas. The four most important acts successful designers do to achieve significant breakthroughs are:

  • Probe
  • Empathize
  • Combine
  • Perform



Ask a lot of questions. During the early part of the design process, asking numerous questions can have a profound effect on everything that follows. What are often considered "dumb” questions are the ones that challenge preexisting realities and assumptions of a business and helps break down barriers and resistance to change.

Posing the basic "why" questions may make the questioner seem naïve. There is also a risk of putting people on the defensive — “we’ve always done it this way.” But when people can freely reconsider longstanding problems and entrenched practices, the designer can steer the thought process in new directions.

This ability to question and challenge the status quo has never been more important to companies struggling to survive in today’s economy.


It’s easy for a company to act as if it cares about customers. But to genuinely empathize, it is essential to view the situation from the perspective of the customer.

Designers are able to pay close attention to people and uncover their deep, unspoken needs. Focus groups and questionnaires miss these vital and often overlooked details; designers understand how to engage with people on an emotional level.


Designers have a knack for combining existing elements or ideas and fusing them together in fresh new ways.

This can be a practical pathway to innovation because it eliminates the need to “reinvent the wheel.” Not everyone has the ability to generate these great amalgamations. Designers have developed the technique for "lateral thinking" — searching in unlikely places for ideas and inspiration — and are willing to connect ideas that might not look like they belong together.


Just about everyone can dream up new ideas. But designers are practiced at taking those ideas beyond the imagination and give them form. Whether it’s a sketch on a napkin or a digital mock-up, the “quick-and-dirty” prototypes that designers whip up are a critical step in the process — bringing ideas to life.


Plus an indispensable trait to consider.

Designers tend to be more comfortable with risk than the average person. They understand that innovation involves setbacks all along the way. The designer’s ability to "fail forward" is an exceptionally valuable quality in today’s rapidly changing environment.

Adopting these habits – whether you are a designer, a manager, an accountant or any other position throughout a company – can result in greater productivity and job satisfaction.


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