What in the World is Design Thinking for a Tax Firm?


I am sure all of you have heard the term Design Thinking – and probably tossed it aside since Design Thinking could not possibly relate to tax firms, but you would be wrong. Allow me to start at the beginning by defining Design Thinking, and then offer you my perspective on characteristics associated with it.

Design Thinking is not something specific to designers; it is a different approach to searching for solutions. Design Thinking is a process in which you seek to truly understand your clients and redefine problems. It allows you to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly visible. It is a solutions-based approach to solving problems. Tax accountants frequently make assumptions about clients without taking the small step to fully grasp the intricacies of each individual client. A Design Thinking mindset will help you gain a deeper level of understanding without actually thinking about it.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, stated, “Design Thinking is a human-centered and collaborative approach to problem-solving, using a designed mindset to solve complex problems.” What if we broke the process down differently? Started to think of this as a shift in your strategic mindset that you could apply to other aspects of running your firm? It would allow you to become more focused on seeing the world through your clients’ eyes, what they need instead of seeing what you think they need.

There are many articles out there to walk you through a standard Design Thinking process:

  • Start with inspiration and observe clients from a different perspective to capitalize on the needs that your competition has not yet recognized
  • Develop ideas based on your observations rather than based on your clients’ ideas
  • Testing your assumptions of ideas and failing until you make that idea better

But, what qualities are required to start a design thinking mindset?


Curiosity is one of the fundamental qualities behind Design Thinking. You need to be able to look at all sides as if you are seeing them for the first time. Be like the toddler that keeps asking, “why?” “why?” “why?” “why?” to gain a real understanding. Question everything: Why are we still doing it this way? Why is this piece not working? Why do our clients do this particular thing? Be curious so that you go beyond the surface and learn to pay attention to what is going on below. Never make assumptions, put your judgments away and seek to understand.


Being curious leads you to truly understand and empathize with perspectives and situations. As you design services and advisory solutions, the biggest challenge can be understanding your client and their real needs. Empathy comes into play because you start to learn how your clients think and feel. Taking the time to talk directly with your clients, coming in with curiosity, and learning will help you grow your empathy. It will also step up your tax planning game.

Challenge to innovate

This is where you start to break the mold, where you get to start creating “firsts.” There is a popular quote from Henry Ford that drives home the point of Design Thinking, “If I had asked what people wanted, they would say faster horses.” When changing your mindset, you have to stop making assumptions based on previous experiences. Instead, it would help if you challenged those assumptions, the concepts of what you can or cannot do, the status quo, and go back to your curious side. How can we do this differently or better?

Big picture

With all the digging and learning and exploring the details, we need to not lose sight of the big picture and remember why you are solving for this to begin with. Focus on the value you are bringing your clients and how what you are doing will help them in the long term. Remembering the big picture also enables you to create something that clients will continue to come to you for, and help you avoid creating new problems after solving for one.

Design Thinking is not the end all be all solution for our problems, despite how much hype has been given to it. However, adopting the mindset can open up possibilities, provide a unique framework for strategic thinking, and bring useful principles to an ever-changing industry.

Like what you’re reading?

Subscribe to our FREE newsletter and we’ll deliver content like this directly to your inbox.