Is Design Thinking a Skill?

By: Dr. Deborah Sliver, Karen Bemis and Sue Weston

Design thinking is a problem-solving method used to deal with our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. The Stanford’s Institute of Design popularized design thinking as a way to understand the customer by challenging assumptions and refining the problems in an iterative process. Implementing design thinking involves a five-step process: 1) empathize with your users, 2) define your users’ needs and issues, and then 3) ideate by challenging assumptions and creating innovative solutions. Finally, each viable solution is 4) prototyped and 5) tested. (This video explains how it works.) By studying how users interact with their products, companies can understand the user experience. While the client is part of the design process, they don’t always know what they want. As Henry Ford said,“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses when in actuality they wanted a faster way to travel – the car.” Design thinking uses ideation and iteration to hone in on the real request. 

Do companies recognize “design thinking” as a skill?  While courses in design thinking are very popular with students and lifelong learners, are companies recognizing this as its own skill set? To tease this out, we looked at jobs posted between Jul. 01, 2017 - Jun. 30, 2018 that include “design thinking” as a skill requested for new hires. We identified over 16,000 advertised positions that included the term “design thinking.”  We analyzed job postings for the past three years and discovered that the number of jobs requesting design thinking is steadily increasing. Between 2016 and 2018 there was a 200% increase in jobs seeking design thinking compared with a 6% increase in all positions. 

The increase in demand may reflect the cross dependencies between design thinking, the lean framework, and agile processes.  According to an article by Joe McKendrick, "Design thinking is how we explore and solve problems; Lean is our framework for testing our beliefs and learning our way to the right outcomes; Agile is how we adapt to changing conditions with software." Together, they allow rapid delivery of software by breaking down internal silos with cross-functional customer-centric teams.  

Where are the jobs?  We found that over half the jobs requesting design thinking fell into four industries. Consulting services comprised approximately one-third of the positions, followed by depository credit institutions, software publishers and insurance carriers (the chart below shows some employers who posted jobs).


Jobs by industry (based on % jobs created that request design thinking) and some associated employers  

The most common occupation within this set of jobs was web developer, which accounted for 17% of jobs and aligns with UI / UXD positions. Marketing manager accounts for 7% of jobs and includes product manager and software developer roles. The next two occupations accounting for 5% of jobs each were software developer and management analyst (details are in the chart below).  

Comparison of occupations with job titles using Burning Glass taxonomy

How is design thinking included in job descriptions? We reviewed a cross-section of positions to understand where and how employers are advertising design thinking. Within the roles we examined, we found a wide range of job titles in which design thinking was an essential skill. Below is text from the job posting including the title of the position:

  1. Technology Senior Manager - Agile Program Manager - Build positive client relationship to support the delivery of these agile activities. Manage 'design thinking' and requirements gathering process. “
  2. Product Manager - “Deep design thinking, customer empathy, market understanding, data-driven execution.”
  3. Emerging Technologies Architect Manager - “Experience in conducting ‘design thinking’ based workshops for solution development.”
  4. HR Operations Project Manager - “This role focuses on promoting efficiency and productivity of by providing expertise in these areas: desktop / mobile web development, design thinking, and overall project management.”
  5. Design Architect - “The design team is working to enable the organization and its various teams to respond to the rapidly evolving cybersecurity environment. We do this by building new and improving existing processes, platforms, applications and interfaces within the organization using industry best practices and emphasizing the user experience, design thinking, and collaborative initiatives.”

What other skills are requested with design thinking? We found that one out of five jobs that requested design thinking also identified prototyping and project management. This was followed by product management, process design and user research (each of which appeared in 15% of positions).

10 skills most often associated with design thinking

Related software skills included Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, visual design and Java Script.  Based on a model developed by Burning Glass, some skills anticipated to increase in demand over the next two years include SAP, machine learning, Scrum, Atlassian JIRA, UX Wireframes, big data, data science and Salesforce.

Design thinking creates a collaborative, interconnected work environment where decisions are made quickly through research, prototyping, and testing. This mindset produces customer-driven solutions. Most importantly, design thinking rewards being inquisitive, questioning established processes and finding new ways to deliver a product or service. It empowers employees to be curious, observe, test and engage their end-user. Just as the industrial revolution standardized processes to provide consistency and reduce cost, design thinking will provide personalization and customization.

Rutgers courses to increase your knowledge of the skills associated with design thinking: 


This blog analyzes jobs advertised between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2018, using a tool called Labor Insight from Burning Glass Technologies. By mining the detailed information stored in job postings, we can determine what employers are looking for when they fill related positions. The positions in this article were selected based on having a job advertisement requesting ”design thinking” as a skill. In our analysis, we identified skills predicted to increase in demand based on a methodology developed by Burning Glass. Burning Glass combines econometric time series models with machine learning approaches to predict the growth in job postings with a given demand for skills.

While this analysis can show trends in the job market, there are limitations. Not all jobs were advertised online. The unstructured nature of job advertisements can make it difficult for the system to identify individual parts of information effectively in some cases. While Labor Insight breaks up all the pieces of the job description into fields for analysis, inconsistency in the formatting of job descriptions and industry-specific terminology or titles may result in some irrelevant jobs included while some relevant jobs were left out.