Design Sensing

An alternative approach to Design Thinking including qualities from Theory U and Appreciative Inquiry

This structured, iterative, 7-step process supports innovation teams to develop ideas, products or services that
are based on users’ needs
fuel team creativity and collective wisdom
tap into hidden futures that are ready to emerge

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What is Design Sensing?

Design sensing is a good alternative to Design Thinking or the U process of Theory U as it combines the advantages of both approaches. The Design Sensing process guides an innovation team from the perception of a problem or challenge to the tested and implemented idea. It is a very structured and straightforward process yet  at the same time gives space for intuition, sensing and refined perception. 


In order to call it Design Sensing, the following are important in the process:


  • Appreciation of all that is good: Starting from gratitude, ending with gratitude.
  • Human Centered Approach: exploring the needs of the target group with empathy and a real interest in their lives. We design for them and with them. We include their thoughts, ideas, and needs in a very early stage. We keep close contact with them throughout the whole process, checking again and again if the ideas are in alignment with them.
  • An ideation phase which gives space for intuition and emerging solutions instead of "having" ideas - accessing more realms of ideation than just the brain.
  • Prototyping and testing before the implementation in order to allow mistakes and playfulness and thus to keep ease in the process.


The process can be run through several times, each cycle with more focused questions, based on the insights from the previous cycle. The pace of one cycle can vary from one day to several weeks, depending on the complexity of the challenge, time and resources of the innovation team. Generally we recommend to run through the cycles several times but at a fast pace.

When is Design sensing used?

The purpose of this method is to develop and test new ideas that work for the users and affected stakeholders. It is especially useful if you are involved in a complex system with many stakeholders and want to ensure the best possible innovative results - for your users, but also for other stakeholders, including the natural environment.

Design Sensing can be used for short and focused design sprints on a specific challenge, as well as for longer and more complex innovation processes. If you are familiar with Design Thinking, you would use Design Sensing for the same purposes and situations as for Design Thinking, but it usually deepens the innovation team's connection - with the users and with their field of attention. Your innovation team should have an openness towards intuitive approaches though.

Design Sensing was developed by the Visionautik Akademie as an alternative to Design Thinking within the EU project “Hosting Innovation”.
Running through a multitude of innovation processes within and beyond Visionautik Akademie we found that Design Thinking is a very helpful approach to generate new ideas, products or services. We noticed, though, that with a few changes to Design Thinking, the innovation process can go much deeper and bring better results with greater ease.

So we experimented with adding aspects from other methodologies, above all from Theory U and Appreciative Inquiry, and thus created this alternative to Design Thinking.

We integrated gratitude and appreciation as their own phase, and we enriched the ideation phase with intuitive methods that go beyond classic ideation and brainstorming techniques.

We perceived the ideation phase in classic design thinking processes as mostly very mind-driven, usually with post-its and pen, in active brainstorming mode, usually with words, maximally with visuals. For us innovation isn’t reduced to mind-based thinking and producing ideas, but a holistic approach that also includes perceiving and sensing what the future holds, and what this specific situation needs - inspired by Otto Scharmer’s presencing. This is why we call this process Design Sensing.

  • Appreciative / Community building
  • Awareness Raising
  • Business / Entrepreneurial Thinking
  • Collective Intelligence
  • Decision making
  • Empowerment
  • Focalizer
  • Group communication
  • Harvesting
  • Idea generator
  • Problem Solving
  • Reflection
  • Social skills
  • Strategy / Planning
  • Sustainability
  • Understanding complexity
Innovation Phases
  • 1 Understanding the challenge
  • 2 Creating an Innovation-Friendly Culture
  • 3 Fostering New Perspectives & Ways of Thinking
  • 4 Idea Generation
  • 5 Grounding the Idea
  • 6 Prototyping
  • 7 Implementation & Diffusion
  • 8 Upscaling
  • 9 Evaluation
Train the Trainer seminars including Design Sensing can be found here: