Unpacking the commonalities and differences between these two approaches


If you are new to innovation and design (and even if you’re not), some of the terms that get thrown around start to blur together and sound very similar. Design Thinking and Design Sprints are two phrases that can benefit from a more in-depth explanation to pull them apart. Are they the same thing? Are they radically different? No and no. They aren’t the same, but there is a ton of overlap in these approaches.

This article unpacks each method so you can better understand design thinking and Design Sprints and how each applies to business, design, product development, and innovation.

Design Sprint vs. Design Thinking. How are they different? How are they similar?
Design Sprint vs. Design Thinking. How are they different? How are they similar?

What’s Design Thinking versus a Design Sprint?

Let’s start with a brief definition of the two terms. Design Thinking is a methodology, or way of attacking a business problem, that starts first-and-foremost from the customer perspective. Instead of thinking about a business problem solely from the businesses perspective (i.e. what will improve our bottom line?), design thinkers create products and experiences with the end-user in mind first. Design thinking grows out of a belief that being human-centered is the best path to creating things that people truly want. Along with a focus on customers, design thinking also promotes a focus on prototyping and testing.

While Design Thinking has been part of business culture since the 1990s (and was emerging long before that), Design Sprints are the newer kid on the block. Design Sprints are a prescriptive, five-day approach to tackling a business problem. The method was first developed at Google Ventures and then codified in the book Sprint. The Design Sprint uses design thinking-inspired methods and compresses them into a robust process that a team can do in just one week.

The Headline: Design Thinking is an approach to designing products, experiences, or services that focuses on the end-user first. A Design Sprint is a precise, week-long approach to solving business problems that incorporates many of the tenants of design thinking such as prototyping and user research.


Now that we’ve outlined the basics of Design Thinking and Design Sprints, let’s go a little deeper on the two processes and what each entails.

Design thinking and sprint supplies

What is Design Thinking?

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
 — Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Design Thinking is the belief that when we develop products, experiences, and services, we should be creating them with our end-users top-of-mind. It all starts with the customer or user. What do they want or need? What are their challenges and struggles? (Versus more business-first mindsets like: How can we increase our bottom line? or What can we do with this software?)

Being user-centered doesn’t mean that business needs aren’t considered. Technical feasibility and business viability are also part of design thinking. But, the process always starts from the desirability from the customer point of view.

Because many organizations and companies have adopted design thinking, there are many variations. Yet, they all essentially boil down to the same steps, just with different names for the phases of work.

Let’s look at Stanford d.School’s Design Thinking process:

Stanford’s Design Thinking process
Stanford’s Design Thinking process
  • Phase 1-Empathize: This is about understanding your users. In this phase, you typically interview your current or prospective customers to get a sense of their needs, challenges and wants to inspire your design, whether that design is a new app or the service experience at a boutique hotel.
  • Phase 2- Define: After you’ve talked to users, you are ready to define the problem you are facing more precisely. What are the most significant issues your users face? Is the challenge you thought you were solving the real need? However you define the essential problem, it’s this critical question that should be top of mind as you design your solution.
  • Phase 3-Ideate: In this phase, you think broadly of different ways you might answer the top user needs. For example, you might be thinking about new ways to help people get their pizza delivered faster. It’s this ideation process that many think about when they consider design thinking: brainstorming and getting tons of sticky notes up on the wall. However, while you might spend time generating “wild” ideas, you ultimately need to hone in on ideas or solutions that will work for your users in the real world.
  • Phase 4-Prototype: The next phase in a design thinking process is when you create a prototype. A prototype can take many forms; the point is to create a simulation of your proposed idea so you can see if it has promise. Your prototype can be as simple as some sketches or as “real” as a clickable prototype made in a program like InVision.
  • Phase 5-Test: Finally, you show your prototype to users and get unbiased feedback and honest reactions. Through user testing and user interviews, you hear from real consumers. You use this feedback to tweak your design and inform an even-better version of your design.

Don’t forget, while the Design Thinking process sounds linear, it isn’t. It can loop back on itself — you might go back to earlier phases to learn more, come up with additional ideas, or prototype more. The goal is to get closer and closer to a solution that your users will love when you put it out into the world.

Working through a sprint

What is a Design Sprint?

Now that you know what Design Thinking is, let’s dive into Design Sprints. A Design Sprint takes the design thinking process and compresses aspects of it into just five days. Sprints were developed at Google Ventures by Jake Knapp, who codified the process in his book Sprint, which he wrote with John Zertasky and Braden Kowitz.

We outline the five-day Design Sprint process here, but once you know the basics, it’s possible to evolve or compress it for your needs.

The five-day Design Sprint process.
The five-day Design Sprint process.

The Design Sprint Process

The sprint is a tried-and-true formula, with clear plans and activities for each day.

  • Day 1 | Map: Monday is about making a plan and getting focused. The first day’s activities help you define critical questions, your goal, hear from internal experts and pick an area of focus.
  • Day 2 | Sketch: The second day gets everyone’s creative juices going. But, instead of group brainstorming, the process prioritizes individual sketching of solutions.
  • Day 3 | Decide: On Wednesday, the team looks at the potential solutions and works together to decide on what to storyboard and prototype.
  • Day 4 | Prototype: On day four, the team creates a rapid prototype based on your storyboard, so you have something visual and tangible to test with users.
  • Day 5 | Test: On the final day, you show your prototype to five different users in one-on-one interviews to gather feedback and get a gut-check on your possible direction.

“The big idea of the sprint is to take a small team, clear the schedule for a week, and rapidly progress from problem to tested solution.” — Jake Knapp,
creator of the Google Ventures Design Sprint

Some of the fundamental approaches to creative problem-solving that you digest through the sprint are:

  • How to break down a complex problem into a focused target.
  • The benefits of a diverse, cross-functional group when tackling a project.
  • The power of learning through quick-and-dirty prototyping versus months of product development.
  • The importance of showing your work to customers early to get actionable feedback.
  • Plus, the need for collaboration, open-mindedness, divergent thinking, and empathy for the end-user.

With their emphasis on end-users, identifying critical questions, and prototyping, there are many commonalities between Design Thinking and Design Sprints. Both are effective methods when you want to create new products, services, or experiences or rethink existing ones. They help ensure that you design from the customer’s perspective versus a business-only view.


Want to learn Design Thinking methods or run a Design Sprint at your company? We can help.

Voltage Control offers innovation consulting, design sprint facilitation, and design thinking training. Please reach out to us at info@voltagecontrol.com if you want to talk.