Design Thinking Is Not the Answer

Twenty-five years after design thinking was applied to commercial purposes by IDEO’s founder David Kelley, the concept seems to have landed in the mainstream business community. [If you have been encouraged to “think outside the box,” you’ve been exposed to one element.] Of course, when a concept moves from the fringe to the center, problems appear.

“Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach, which IDEO calls design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.” [source:]

Design thinking has produced items like Apple’s first mouse and experiences like Wells Fargo’s ATM Interface. Putting the end user at the forefront of the process, prototyping, and testing have changed the way some organizations operate. As the challenges of the future become ever more complex, more corporations, universities, NGOs, and governments are looking toward design thinking to provide an alternative to “business as usual.” There are some flaws in that line of thinking.

One of the concerns about design thinking is that the methodology is becoming an ideology. Early advocate Bruce Nussbaum called it quits in 2011 because corporations were corrupting the spirit of the concept. “Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all too well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Call it N+1 innovation. CEOs in particular, took to the process side of Design Thinking, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes.” [Fast Company, 2011]

Effectively, design thinking was interpreted as a panacea for solving complex problems. Example: Forbes contributor Lawton Ursey wrote, “Design thinking can and does work for all types of organizations, big and small.” The article was titled, Why Design Thinking Should Be At The Core Of Your Business Strategy Development. [Forbes, 2014]

Back to Nussbaum: “From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process.” A culture that wants clear ROI, predictable input, and output guarantees just doesn’t absorb design thinking.

This is echoed by design strategist, Sean Baker, who believes a key aspect of design strategy is being aware of the discipline’s potential pitfalls. “One of the biggest worries I have with the spread of design thinking is the idea of a packaged set of tools that can just be copied and pasted into any situation,” he says. [Metropolis Magazine, 2015]

To be clear, design thinking itself is not the problem. Neither is it the answer. Tim Malbon, co-founder of product innovation studio Made by Many, wrote, “... innovation demands a full-stack approach that doesn’t privilege design over other disciplines...” [The Problem with Design Thinking]

When faced with deteriorating results, shifting market expectations, and gaps in institutional knowledge, organizations need to change. It’s called adaptability. Marked by awareness, diversity, and self-determination, an adaptable organization can meet these challenges. Recognizing shifts in the environment, aka problem identification, is step one. Diversity in thinking, if not built into the organization, sends groups scrambling for answers like design thinking. But it won’t plug the hole in the boat.

The opposite of “business as usual” is not design thinking. Design thinking doesn’t work effectively as a one-time exercise with your leadership team, to develop a sure-shot breakthrough product, or in a siloed department of “creative types.” It’s a way of operating, much different than what many organizations use to keep the machine churning. Additionally, design thinking is a way, not “the way.” What about systems thinking, public health research process, or lean startup methodology? Or an amalgam of different methodologies that acknowledge the complexities of the marketplace, shifting customer expectations, and uncomfortable realities? Thinking outside the box might mean that design thinking won’t work for you.