The Intersection of Design Thinking and Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and the Important Role of Research

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford


As a long-tome practitioner of both research and Creative Problem Solving (CPS), I have strived to find the perfect marriage of research and the process of innovation. My team and I have been implementing combinations of the CPS process and techniques with research to help our clients solve problems and challenges, and to create both radical and incremental change. Parts of this process also included evaluation of prototypes developed by our clients. Some time ago it was with great delight that we discovered Design Thinking, a process that has become highly popular, not just in design circles, but also in marketing as part of the marketer’s expanding skillset and business in general. Design Thinking is not only revolutionary in its impact on the world, but it also represents a terrific combination of focus on human beings through various forms of research in the context of a process to facilitate true innovation.  In short, Design Thinking ensures that we are not all focusing on breeding faster horses.


Design Thinking and Creative Problem Solving (CPS) are both used to develop or redesign products, services, experiences, systems, processes, and workflow for change.  Design Thinking represents an evolution of the CPS methodology. The primary difference between Design Thinking and CPS is that Design Thinking incorporates classic CPS with methodologies such as ethnography, prototyping, and testing.


Design Thinking and CPS are both forms of evolutionary or revolutionary solution based thinking. While some may consider both methods to be a form of brainstorming, they are, in fact, both well-defined processes.





The process of CPS was formalized in the 1950’s by Alex Osborn, one of the founders of BBDO, and Sidney Parnes, a psychologist with whom Osborn collaborated. Together they founded the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College as well as the Creative Education Foundation. A powerful and enduring approach to innovation, CPS is still taught by both the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College and the Creative Education Foundation.


CPS employs three primary steps that include: exploring the challenge, generating ideas, and preparing for action. After identifying the problem, as many solutions or ideas as possible are generated using divergent techniques. Convergent techniques are then used to land on the best solution or idea.  Each of the primary steps in CPS includes the following:


Exploring the Challenge

  • Objective Finding: Determining the overall objective
  • Fact Finding: Identifying the relevant facts
  • Problem Finding: Developing a concise problem statement


Generating Ideas

  • Ideas Finding: Using divergent techniques to develop as many solutions or ideas a possible




Preparing for Action

  • Solution Finding: Using convergent techniques to identify the best solution or idea
  • Acceptance Finding: Obtaining stakeholder support for the best solution or idea




Many highly creative tools and techniques have been developed since the 1950’s to address each step in the CPS process.





Design Thinking is solution based thinking that involves evaluating a problem or situation and determining a reasonable, practical plan to attack the problem or situation. Some define Design Thinking as a process with seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. Within these seven steps, problems are framed, the right questions are asked, ideas and solutions are created, and the best answers are chosen. The steps are not necessarily linear and can occur simultaneously and may be repeated.  To ensure an ongoing process of innovation, the process is also often iterative.




However, there are different takes on Design Thinking.  Above and beyond the basic steps outlined above, many also incorporate additional “Human-Centered Design” elements into the Design Thinking process. In addition to the “research” step included above, these steps include: empathizing (or incorporating an ethnographic research element at the beginning of the design process), testing to obtain user feedback, and conducting research to learn and optimize following implementation.





Design Thinking provides the perfect marriage of CPS and research.  It also includes prototyping and implementation steps.  The table below shows the intersection of Design Thinking and CPS, and it shows how users are engaged to provide a significant impact on the process of design through several research steps.





Design Thinking represents a vastly improved process that goes beyond the combination of CPS and research. Design Thinking, particularly when it incorporates the key elements of Human-Centered Design, is a logical and extremely powerful evolution of the CPS process.  The CPS process omitted the iterative evaluative process that can only be realized by engaging with those for whom one is designing to ensure that human needs and capabilities are addressed.  However, elements of the process of CPS along with the tools and techniques that have been developed since the 1950’s can be extremely useful in the implementation of Design Thinking.



Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. She can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or


This entry was posted in Innovation and tagged on October 10, 2017 by Q2 Insights