Here's how I'm thinking about these DT models.

The Stanford d.school describes the Design Thinking method in (5) steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. IDEO describes it in (3) modes that are often but not always sequential: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation.

I'm assuming that these models describe the same set of activities. For example, user interviews in the initial research phase are part of the d.school's Empathize step and IDEO's "Inspiration" mode.

So here's my question.

What I'm wondering is where the lines are drawn (or if they're inherently blurry). For example, does Prototype map onto Ideation, Implementation, or both? Or is my assumption am I wrong, and these models are orthogonal rather than overlapping? And if so, what is the relationship between them?

Here's what the models look like.

The d.school's model:

d.school Design Thinking steps diagram
(source: kashifzaman.com)

IDEO's model:

IDEO 3 modes diagram

  • Is this a test of posting DT.SE questions in UX.SE? If not, it might be best answered in Area 51.
    – dnbrv
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 3:02
  • 1
    @dnbrv I'm testing whether it's in scope on UX.SE. I also just want to know the answer. I've asked it over at DT.SE, too. But of course, I won't get an answer there.
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 3:37

3 Answers 3


The problem with DT definitions is that if you ask two practitioners to define DT you'll get four different answers — see this discussion on the DT LinkedIn group for example ;-)

That said, since the IDEO and d.school approaches to DT have lot of the same folk involved, I'd say that these two are mostly describing the same process with different words.

  • Observe & Enquire / Tell Stories are generative processes that would map onto the flare out around the empathy stage.

  • Synthesis is about taking that mass of information and finding patterns, and would map onto the focus around the define stage.

  • Brainstorm and Prototype map to ideate & prototype

  • Introduce experiments maps onto test.

So the Inspiration / Ideation / Implementation phases would map onto the d.school something like this:

enter image description here

  • Some of the terms in your answer are unfamiliar to me and not in the question: Brainstorm, Tell Stories, Observe & Enquire. Could you clarify if these terms are synonyms for ones in your (quite helpful) diagram?
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 17:00
  • Ohhh those terms are in the illustration of IDEO's method! Now I see what you did.
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:50

First of all, kudos on a well illustrated question.

The two approaches are not identical, but are very similar, and the overall architecture of the design process they articulate is the same. Practically speaking, the commonalities are far greater than the differences. Some background may help:

  • d.school and IDEO were both founded by David Kelley. For a long while, he was both CEO of IDEO and a professor at d.school. He's still active with both. So they share deep ideological roots. His brother Tom is still the general manager of IDEO.
  • d.school has seeded decades worth of talent at IDEO, since they are across the street from each other. So underneath the management layer there is a lot of cross-pollination still.
  • IDEO was founded for several reasons, but one of the reasons was to to put in practice the design thinking and practices pioneered at d.school.

I'm not sure why they use different terminology to describe similar process, but I will note that consultancies frequently do this (e.g. different management consultancies have different terms for the idea of a "balanced scorecard") for trademark reasons.

  • Thanks! Your "origin story" is an informative and helpful explanation of the historical and institutional reasons why the d.school and IDEO's terminology overlaps. However, in this specific question, I'm most interested in how they overlap.
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:37
  • Re: "well illustrated questions"—if we're not thinking visually, I can't see if we're thinking at all ;-)
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:39
  • 1
    @NathanLucy oh! that's much easier. (a) The models are collinear, not orthogonal. (b) Empathy = Observe/inquire + Tell stories; Define = Synthesize; Ideate = Brainstorm; Prototype = Create/refine prototypes; Test = Introduce experiments. Is that what you're looking for?
    – tohster
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:42
  • Very much so. Now I understand the language in @adrianh's answer above better. He has an illustrated version of your comment here.
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:51
  • I'm accepting his answer, but please leave yours un-edited, as the background information will be useful to others with the same question.
    – Crowder
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:51

This image will give you a better match! d.school 5 stages is just a subset of the all stages of IDEO 3 phases inspiration, ideation, implementation. In the image, the phases Observe and Imperatifs stages are the equivalent of the Empathize and Define new names used by d.school. The source of the image is from a french "inspiration" of d.school http://www.dschool.fr/design-thinking/

enter image description here

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