Why Design Thinking Doesn’t Work

Many articles have recently addressed design thinking as one of the methods to solve problems and achieve innovation by focusing on human needs. However, the over-commercialisation and promotions have led to a backfire on the tool itself as it doesn’t provide sufficient understanding of the method. As a result, many people wonder why design thinking doesn’t work. Some opinions to doubt the method validity claiming it is a bullshit time waster. I can’t blame those who lost their faith–or never gained it–in design thinking. Many Articles, courses, and even some books that addressed design thinking from either a misleading or shallow perspective.

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To understand why it doesn’t work for some of us, we need to address the misleading claims about design thinking philosophy to apply it correctly. Therefore, in this article, we’ll explore specific points that may lead to misleading understanding to design thinking and subsequently failing to implement it successfully inside the organisation.

What is Design Thinking? How it is Defined

It seems there is a lack of understanding of what design thinking is. This appears in several articles which only limited to the IDEO definition provided by Tim Brown: “Design thinking is a human-centred 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.” While this is a correct definition, design thinking characteristics extend beyond it.

Design thinking inherits its unique features from the design itself. As highlighted by Nigel Cross in his book, Design Thinking, the design is something that we all as a human being are experiencing in a way or another. However, some people are more creative and able to practice it than others. The history of design thinking extended to the 1950s when Harold van Doren published the Industrial Design – A Practical Guide to Product Design and Development. In this book, he tried to discuss the different design methods and practices.

The design thinking fuels innovation (source: modified based on the IDEO)

If we have a look over the different attempts to define design thinking, we can notice some shared features that unify it from other methods, these are:

  • Creative: As highlighted by Nigel Cross, the design thinking is a creative process. It is driven by creative thinking and the ability to find new ideas and solutions to existing problems
  • Problem/Solution Spaces: In his book, The reflective practitioner how professionals think in action, Shon highlighted the problem-framing nature of design thinking, It is a balanced connection between both the problem and its solution. Designers move forward and backwards in the process to build a clear idea about the problem and the solution and keep exploring both spaces until reaching the creative outcome
  • Human-centred: This is probably the most commentary known characteristic of design thinking as it promoted by the IDEO and Tim Brown
design thinking
The different design thinking models

The above three main characteristics define what design thinking is and its rule as a tool for solving problems. In Lucy Kimbell’s two parts paper, Rethinking Design Thinking Part1  (and part 2), she tried to explore design thinking framework based on its characteristics and how this can help to build a solid understanding of it.

It’s a Series of Post-it Meetings: Bad Practices

Design thinking is not another excuse to add more meetings to your calendar, or a way to spend time with colourful post-it notes. Sticky notes are just a tool that can be used to organise ideas and find the connection between them. The main purpose here is the explore both the problem and solution spaces. In the relationship between these space resides the potential solution. Post-it is one of the tools that can be used to organise ideas based on the connection between them, and it can be used in methods such as card sorting and affinity diagrams.

During the early stage of the design thinking (called the diversion), the team explores ideas and one of the efficient tools for this purpose is the mind mapping. In Dr Stuart English’s paper, Integrated mind mapping: multiple perspective problem framing, he explores how to implement the mind mapping tool to explore problem space. Understanding this connection helps us to find the leading causes and factors that impact the problem to address the solution accurately.

Any of the above tools can’t work effectively without a skilful facilitator and experienced team to identify accurately the different aspects of the problem addressed. Otherwise, you will end with a nonsense meeting that waste time and effort.

Remember, Design Thinking isn’t Make You Creative

Many of the design thinking courses promoted themselves as a tool to achieve creativity and innovation. The truth is you pay a considerable amount of money and may end it with nothing. I refer to the characteristics of design that I highlighted earlier. Creativity is a talent that we are still don’t know much about it and how it works. If we perceived this understanding, we could then teach it as indicated in the below video for Mobile Prize Round Table about the Creativity.

Creativity varies from one to another, and it has a chaotic nature that even designers fail to describe it as Nigel Cross highlighted. Usually, designers can easily explain the outcome designs, but they hardly able to express how they reach the ideas behind them. What design thinking try to achieve is to provide an organised path for creativity to turn it into a value and position is broadly inside the organisation. It is a process to help and facilitate creativity not to magically invent it from nowhere.

Good Designers Will Make it Work

Again, many promotional materials claim that by applying design thinking, everyone inside the organisation will have this creative spills that designer have! This is entirely false and doesn’t reflect any of the design thinking principles. The design thinking process can’t replace the designer’s role inside the organisation. While the design process involves different expertise inside the company, the primary driver of ideas usually the one with the best design skills and the designers who are able to reflect these ideas into a prototype that can be tested and iterated.

McKinsey design model
McKinsey Group Braided Design Model. Building a design-driven culture organization (Source: McKinsey Group)

In Herbert Simon’s book, The Science of Artificial, he defines design as “to design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Based on this definition, we refer to the designers in the organisation as it is believed that they should be the title with the highest design skills that can achieve this change. However, the fact that we can see engineers, managers, CEOs, and others who have this ability. They are creative and able to take creativity to an organisational level. Based on this fact, design thinking tries to benefits from this expertise as well in order to drive innovation inside the business or find a creative solution that considers all aspects associated with it in a system thinking approach.

Get a Course, and You’re Done: Limited Practice

While companies pay thousands of dollars to get design thinking courses with no actual outcome, this may be because of one or more of the above reasons. Another nature of the design that influences the process success is the practice and application. Practising design thinking methodology and implementing it as a design-culture inside the organisation helps to get a better outcome. The team will start to feel comfortable about the process which will reflect the quality of the results.

Taking a course will do nothing but giving an understanding of the method and how it can be applied. Practising it based on the unique nature of the organisation’s problems help to tailor the process and fit it well to get an improved outcome. Without this practice, the team will merely reach the desired benefits of the process.

Many people wonder why design thinking doesn’t work. Actually, there is considerable debate about design thinking as the topic has been over-commercialised and promoted by many companies. There are many reasons behind this failure, but the most common ones are related to how we define design thinking and understand it as a methodology. This lack of understanding of the method leads to a wrong application that eventually leads to a failure process. We can say that design thinking tries creatively to explore human-centred solutions through an uncertain iterative process that moved between the problem and solution space to reach an innovative outcome.

In sum, you can’t have a successful design thinking practice without understanding the nature of design and how it reflects on the design thinking methodology. This understanding helps us to put the method into practice and fit inside the organisational structure to improve the outcome. Additionally, we should put in mind that the design thinking process is not a replacement for good creative design skills. It is a tool that helps to position the creative designer properly inside the organisation and benefit from the collaborative work between the team members.

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm a design academic, author and advisor. I taught for both undergraduate and postgraduate design programmes in three universities: Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. I contributed to building four design programmes. My experience includes design management, design thinking, interactive design, evidence-based design and design for healthcare. I'm the inventor of the Adherence Canvas, an evidence-based design tool to improve patient adherence to health tech. Additionally, I wrote several books on design and technology. I am the founder of Designorate.com. I am a fellow and mentor for the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), an accredited lecturer from the British Charter Institute of IT (BSC), and an Adobe Education Leader. My industry experience involves 20 years in interactive design and multimedia design.

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