Is design thinking a soft skill?

Design thinking is a way to innovate and solve problems that is person-centered and iterative. It is based on approaching challenges in a way that designers will tend to approach them. Focusing on the solution, rather than the problem, design thinking takes the user through five steps to get to the right solution.

Given that the phases of design thinking are known as empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test, it looks like there might be at least some soft skills required. So, is design thinking a soft skill? And would that make a difference to how you would go about teaching it in training workshops?

Design thinking and hard & soft skills

Hard skills can generally be learnt by practicing and repeating. They are skills in which you can demonstrate your proficiency and be easily examined on. For example, computer skills are considered hard skills, as you can show your level of ability in them through qualifications or a practical demonstration. The same is also true for driving, or carpentry.

On the other hand, soft skills are considered to be more cognitive and social. They are interpersonal skills which are harder to teach and prove competence in than hard skills. They help people interact more effectively and to get the most out of themselves and others. 

Emotional intelligence is a soft skill, and the ability to empathize and understand others is key in life and in business. Being able to work well in a team and possessing strong leadership skills as well are skills that come more naturally to some people than to others.

Design thinking is the top soft skill companies want managers to have

Between the years 2015-2018 the demand for design thinking skills grew by 174% and this was the greatest growing soft skill that companies were looking for at manager level. Gartner TalentNeuron data showed that it was in fact the top most-in-demand skill on their list of emerging soft skills needed by managers. They noted that ‘“People skills” have long been on the must-have list for the C-suite, but senior executives today have to influence, negotiate and innovate at speed to steer their organizations through fast-changing, volatile business conditions’.

With the Covid-19 pandemic driving the shift to automation much more swiftly than anyone had anticipated, many hard skills are being replaced by robots. Strong soft skills are therefore greatly in demand amongst employers.

Soft skills and design thinking workshops

It can sometimes be a little intimidating learning a soft skill. If you are concerned about your people skills or find them difficult to understand, it can be daunting to know that you will be expected to learn and apply them in a training course or workshop

Introducing a subject that is based around soft skills to students can also be challenging: they may be concerned that design thinking is a complicated, intangible skill that might be difficult to grasp. But in some way, it can also about a hard and fast set of rules that can be followed in the same way each time.

So, how do you introduce design thinking as a soft skill but also explain that it is a process that can be applied and followed to business problems and used in general life too? And, conversely, what skills does the design thinking process help to develop?

Approaching design thinking as a soft skill

Defining design thinking

Explain that design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving that emphasizes empathy, experimentation, and iteration. It focuses on the end user and how the solution applies to them, rather than just finding a solution. 

After all, there are many solutions to problems: not all of them are relevant, feasible or even necessary. Design thinking tries to get away from the idea that just because a certain solution can answer a particular problem, it does necessarily mean it is the right solution.

Emphasizing the relevance

Design thinking is particularly useful in helping drive innovation. In today's rapidly changing world, it is vital that companies are able to innovate swiftly. 

We recently saw the importance of being able to innovate and evolve when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Many companies were forced to pivot and those that didn’t, or didn’t do it fast-enough, were left behind or were even unable to survive. Design thinking is a methodology that can be applied to a wide range of problems and industries.

Explaining the mindset

Design thinking requires a growth mindset and a willingness to experiment and fail in order to find creative solutions to problems. It is not a process where you are expected to get the ‘right’ answer first time, every time. Each part of the process may need to be repeated until the best solution becomes clear. Feedback is a vital part of this process, and there are lessons to be learnt from failure. It should not be feared.

Offering examples

There are various well-publicised examples of how design thinking has been applied successfully. Companies including Oral-B, UberEats, and Airbnb have all used the design thinking process to think outside the box and find a solution to a problem they were each having.

Encouraging active participation

Explaining the 5 stages of the design thinking process - empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test – will be more easily understood in a workshop training scenario where there are practical examples of how each stage works and how they connect

This can be done by encouraging the group to actively participate in design thinking exercises and activities. This will help people understand how design thinking works in practice, and how they can apply it in their own personal and business lives.

Which soft skills should teams focus on when learning to use design thinking?


While it is possible to use the design thinking process in your personal life and therefore see it as a way to solve a challenge on your own, the real value in design thinking is in the team. 

The more diverse input you have, the better. It is therefore vital to be able to work well in a team, and to encourage and respect the opinions of others. And of course, once you have found your service or product you are likely to have to work with other teams to bring it to life: teamwork comes into many aspects of business.

It might be a good idea to introduce icebreakers at the beginning of training sessions and workshops as a way to help people to relax and get to know each other better, especially if they do not already work together. And it’s a great way to help teams who may have lost their way a little, especially after all the fractured working arrangements during Covid-19, to get back to a more productive and collaborative way of working.

Empathy and understanding

Understanding the needs and perspectives of users is one of the main starting points of the design thinking process. By using empathy you can see a problem from the user's point of view, and find solutions that meet their needs. 

It is often easy to come up with a new product, for example, but is it a product that your users actually want? Is it something that they will use? Does it solve a problem or create a new one? Developing empathy will help make the design thinking process more effective.


Generating a wide range of ideas and solutions is the third step in the design thinking process. The aim is to generate as many ideas as possible. It does not matter how unlikely they might seem when they are first put forward. The greater diversity there is in the team, the more likely you are to have a wide range of ideas: teamwork often leads to greater innovation.  

Using brainstorming as a technique is a great way to come up with a multitude of ideas in a short time. An online whiteboard can make this process even more effective. Everyone can contribute at the same time, and it makes it easy to group or rearrange ideas. Anything relevant can then also be saved for after the session. At the end of a brainstorming session, the ideas generated can easily be narrowed down to the most promising solutions.

Embracing failure and trying again 

It can be disappointing and discouraging to think you have found the answer to a problem, only to discover that it is not going to work out. 

The design thinking process encourages teams to test their ideas and identify areas for improvement with prototypes. Learning to embrace failure as a necessary part of the process is a soft skill as well. Bouncing back, learning from whatever it is that is not working, and finding the next iteration is a quality that is useful in all aspects of life.

Design thinking skills in training workshops and beyond

All the above skills are useful for solving business challenges and innovating and designing new products and services. But this is not where it ends. The skills and processes we have looked at can help with personal and professional development in a wide range of areas. 

As it is more of a soft skill, design thinking encourages employees to continue to learn and develop. And developing one soft skill, such as teamwork and the ability to work collaboratively, can help you develop other soft skills, like empathy, and vice versa.

A questioning mindset helps leaders look at situations with an open mind. This is more likely to lead to positive change and growth than just accepting everything for how it is and continuing to do all the same things going forward. Not everyone likes change, but the ability to adapt and change is essential for survival. Especially in the business world and the current economic climate.

Thinking creatively and working with the right resources

There are many resources that can help with the design thinking process. Workshops that are designed to create maximum engagement will lead to better outcomes. They can help build teamwork and trust. And don’t forget that creating a workshop itself can be approached from a design thinking methodology. Design thinking templates can be useful for giving structure to ideas and help teams and projects get off the ground.

As we all know, the changes in the world of work have been far-reaching and have had unexpected implications. With teams working remotely or in a hybrid fashion, it can be difficult to create a sense of team. Even teams that are back in the office together are having to work hard to regain their former dynamics. Teaching soft skills and encouraging the design thinking process has wide-ranging benefits.

With the right tools it no longer matters whether the team is in all in the same room, all based remotely, or a combination of the two. Creating engaging training and development opportunities can sometimes seem overwhelming. With the right resources, however, you can create training that is adapted to both hard and soft skills, instead of having to adapt accordingly.  

Using the design thinking process to create innovative training and development

Here at Klaxoon our tools and resources are designed to help you find the solutions you need. We believe in the focus being on the end user and our collaborative tools help create maximum engagement and optimum learning outcomes.

Whether you are interested in design thinking templates, ideation boards, digital whiteboards, brainstorming techniques or a multitude of other helpful online tools, why not check out our resources page? Why not find out how we can help you make your workshops and training and development sessions easier and better?

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