A brain surrounded by small stars.

The Link Between Effective Explanation and Design Thinking

Design Thinking, in essence, is to think like a designer. When designers have to solve complex problems and come up with innovative solutions they employ Design Thinking. So, how does a designer think and why should this be relevant to those who are not designers?

Designers are deliberately sensitive to the needs of people and empathize with their subjects before attempting to design an object. They also clearly define the issue before starting an ideation process to come up with solutions that will meet their subjects’ needs.

There is a definite link between effective explanation and Design Thinking. Design Thinking can help us think differently about how we explain ideas and maximize the effectiveness of our explanations.

An effective explanation is engaging and ultimately gives understanding to the recipient. Whether it is in a classroom situation, an executive meeting, or a product presentation effective explanation skills are essential if you want to have the desired impact on the target audience.



Phases of Design Thinking

1. Empathize

The first phase of Design Thinking involves empathy – the designer communicates with those who experience the problem, in order to get a full understanding of the issue. In order to truly understand, the designer avoids making assumptions, and instead gathers real insights into the issue.

Great explainers also need to have an excellent knowledge of their audience. No assumptions can be made, because what may be perfectly clear to the explainer may be perplexing to others. Just like the designer empathizes with the subject, the explainer needs to know the difficulties that the audience face, because the explanation should be matched to the audience: it must not be too complex, nor too simple.


2. Define

In the second phase the problem is formulated in clear terms. Once this is done, the designer can start working on ideas and solutions. Similarly, an explanation cannot be offered until a real problem area has been identified. In order to define the issues that the audience may have with a topic, questions need to be asked. It is not only about what the audience already knows, but also about what they need to know next.


3. Ideate

The third phase involves the finding of potential solutions. The designer comes up with as many ideas as possible to solve the problem. This may involve brainstorming, mind-mapping, and even role-play. Ideas are then refined and narrowed down to those that are most feasible.

When it comes to effective explanation, there is a host of ways to explain concepts. It is just a matter of finding the most suitable way – the way that will best suit the target audience. Humor can be used to engage the audience; stories can create interest, enhance meaning and spark empathy. Analogies, metaphors, comparisons and images can clarify information. Characters can be incorporated, or info-graphics, videos or diagrams can be used. And so, Design Thinking ideation can be applied to find compelling and effective ways to explain concepts.


4. Prototype

In the fourth phase of Design Thinking feasible ideas are being put to the test. Potential solutions are examined in more detail to identify constraints or flaws. As part of this process, ideas are accepted or rejected, improved or re-designed. Effectiveness of explanations can be examined in a similar way. Ask questions to test which explanation styles may suit the target audience best. By asking relevant questions crucial modifications may be made to explanation styles generated during the ideation stage.


5. Testing

The fifth phase involves testing that may provide further insights for refining or improvement. (Design Thinking is not necessarily a linear process. Re-thinking, re-defining and more ideation are part of the process.) Equally, the effectiveness of an explanation needs testing. An assessment of the recipient’s understanding will be necessary to ascertain the success of the explanation. Only if there is engagement and enlightenment can we say that the explanation is effective. And, like designer products, great explanations can repeatedly be polished and improved.


The purpose of Design Thinking is to improve outcomes by analyzing the needs of those involved. This is also a fundamental part of effective explanation. Once designers know the real issue they do not immediately offer a solution. Instead, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. This is necessary in effective explanations too: a careful consideration of various ways by which a concept can be explained to perfectly meet the needs of the target audience. So, by making use of Design Thinking, explanations can be designed to be truly effective.