Why Design Thinking Doesn’t Work

Many articles have recently addressed design thinking as a mindset 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 a sufficient understanding of the method. As a result, many people wonder why design thinking doesn’t work. Some opinions doubt the method’s 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 addressed design thinking from either a misleading or shallow perspective.

Measuring the Impact of Design Thinking

Design Thinking Guide: What, Why and How

Jumping into Design Thinking? Read These Books First

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 a misleading understanding to design thinking and, subsequently, failure to implement it successfully inside the organisation.

What is Design Thinking? Why is it Important?

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-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.” While this is a correct definition, design thinking characteristics extend beyond it to solve problems and improve user experience. 

Design thinking, as an ideology, inherits its unique features from the design itself. As highlighted by Nigel Cross in his book Design Thinking, design is something that we all, as human beings, are experiencing in one 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 Industrial Design – A Practical Guide to Product Design and Development. In this book, he tried to discuss the different design methods and practices.

Innovation
Figure 1. Design as a driver of innovation (source: modified from 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 methodologies, such as:

Creative: As described by Nigel Cross, design thinking is a creative process. It is driven by creative thinking and the ability to find insights and new ideas that are based on empathy. Then, the exploration phase leads to formulating clear problem statements that can help drive more creative ideas that are visualised as prototypes leading to new products or solutions.

Problem/Solution Spaces: In his book, The Reflective Practitioner How Professionals Think in Action, Donald Shön highlighted the problem-framing nature of design thinking. It is a balanced connection between both the problem and its solution. Design thinkers move forward and backwards to build a clear idea about complex problems and possible solutions and keep exploring both spaces until reaching a creative outcome in collaboration with stakeholders inside the organisation.

Human-centric approach: This is probably the most commentary known characteristic of design thinking as it was promoted by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown. Creative problem-solving should consider human desirability, business viability, and technological feasibility. 

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 Part 1  (and part 2), she tried to explore the design thinking framework based on its characteristics and how this can help to build a solid understanding of it.

design thinking
Figure 2. The different design thinking models

Figure 2 shows the different design thinking models presented by Stanford University school of Design, Zurb mode, Design Council Double Diamond,  IBM, Google, and IDEO. While these models use different terms to define the different phases of the design thinking process (i.e. brainstorming, empathize, and prototyping). Many of them fall into the same mistake of being linear, whch is not a real practice of what the designers do. As a designer, I understand that the process is not linear. It is more circular and iterative, and our thoughts jump from one stage to another in the design arena. Some models, such as the Double Diamond and the IBM. My articles below describe both models:

The Double Diamond Design Thinking Process and How to Use it

IBM Design Thinking Model: A Shift Toward Big Enterprises

It’s Not a Series of Post-it Meetings

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 during ideation sessions. The main purpose here is the explore both the problem and solution spaces. In the relationship between these spaces 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. We also need to consider the qualitative nature of the design research and how to accurate analyse using tools such as the thematic analysis.

creative thinking
Figure 3. Sticky notes are commonly used in brainstorming and critical thinking

During the early stage of design thinking (the diversion phases), the team explores ideas, and one of the efficient tools for this purpose is 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.

In the business world, any of the above tools can’t work effectively without a skilful facilitator and experienced participants to identify accurately the different aspects of the problem addressed and the best practices to solve them. Otherwise, you will end with a nonsense meeting wasting time and effort.

Remember, Design Thinking Won’t Make You Creative

Many of the design thinking courses promoted themselves as a tool to achieve creativity and innovation. You pay a considerable amount of money and may end it with nothing. I refer to the characteristics of the design that I highlighted earlier. Creativity is a talent that we still don’t know much about 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 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 are hardly able to express how they reach the ideas behind them. What design thinking tries to achieve is to provide an organised path for creativity to turn it into a value and position 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 designers 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 is is 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.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 benefit 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.

Courses Won’t Make a Design Thinker

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’s 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 give an understanding of the method and how it can be applied. Practising it based on the unique nature of the organisation’s problems helps 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.

Commentary on Design Thinking 

In response to this article, several interesting ideas have been discussed through LinkedIn and other networks, which highlighted insightful feedback from friends and followers about the validity of the design thinking process.

Another element I would like to highlight is that design thinking faced several criticisms from journalists or practitioners who didn’t apply design thinking or applied it to a limited number of projects without scientific proof of their argument. So, I would like to highlight some key points from these conversations.

Can Design Thinking Solve Our Problems?

Design Thinking operates in both the problem and solution spaces to iterate ideas between them interchangeably, and we can’t escape this arena if we want to apply it correctly. Today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions. Plastic bottles were once a solution to find an affordable and usable alternative to metal and glass bottles. This solution ended up becoming an even bigger problem for the environment. 

As highlighted by Kees Dorst in his book, Design Expertise, design thinking should be seen as a philosophy and approach that aims to solve problems by moving from one state to an improved one. Another fact that we should consider is the ability to control all the factors in the future after the process. Many design thinking projects by the IDEO and other companies had failed because of uncontrolled factors that affected the outcome of the process and couldn’t be identified or considered during the design process itself. The nature of the process is shared with any other methods (i.e. agile, lean or others). 

Thinking in Systems

Many practitioners who apply design thinking to solve problems, especially social problems, need to consider the complexity of the context where the solution is used and the practicality of the solutions. The design product or service operates in an intersected mesh of internal or external factors to the system. We must understand this nature to maintain as much control as possible over the different elements. Otherwise, we may end up with problems rather than solutions.

System thinking
The system thinking diagram with external factors, gaps, and delays

System dynamics tells us how each factor affects and get affected by others in the system, as I highlighted in my article, How to Create the Systems Thinking Diagrams. Accordingly, this feedback and feedforward relationship should be considered during design thinking.

Design as a Company Culture

Several practitioners need clarification on the level of applying design thinking inside the organisation, which causes a delusion about how design thinking works. Design thinking is a creative process. It doesn’t follow a linear step nor dictated guidelines. It starts by exploring the problem rather than jumping to solutions, which is a culture that is challenging for several companies to establish. Many managers just jump to the solution space without enough exploration of the problem space. Without this culture inside the organisation, design thinking won’t be applied properly and will lead to definite failure. 

 

McKinsey design model
Figure 3. McKinsey Group Braided Design Model. Building a design-driven

Another aspect is the people themselves. While everyone can have some design thinking skills, some people are more creative and have design ability than others, as Nigel Cross highlighted in his Design Thinking book based on interviews and case studies with creative designers. Suppose the team has good knowledge of design thinking as philosophy and its nature. In that case, they will probably be able to achieve the key benefit of it, leading to problems and possible failure.

It is vital to see design thinking from the perspective of the value it contributes to the organisation and improve the process by solving its problems and challenges as they are identified in practice. 

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 moves 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.

Note: This article was first published on 17th September 2018 and updated on 26th Februery 2023. The updates included minor modification in content and commentry on readers feedback to the article. 

Bliography

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard business review, 86(6), 84.

Cross, N. (2023). Design thinking: Understanding how designers think and work. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Dorst, K. (2015). Frame innovation: Create new thinking by design. MIT press.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and culture, 3(3), 285-306.

Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129-148.

Lawson, B., & Dorst, K. (2013). Design expertise. Routledge.

Schön, D. A. (2017). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Routledge.

Simon, H. A. (1988). The science of design: Creating the artificial. Design Issues, 67-82.

 

Summary:

what are the key element in any design thinking process?

Creative: As described by Nigel Cross, design thinking is a creative process. It is driven by creative thinking and the ability to find insights and new ideas that are based on empathy. Then, the exploration phase leads to formulating clear problem statements that can help drive more creative ideas that are visualised as prototypes leading to new products or solutions.
Problem/Solution Spaces: In his book, The Reflective Practitioner How Professionals Think in Action, Donald Shön highlighted the problem-framing nature of design thinking. It is a balanced connection between both the problem and its solution. Design thinkers move forward and backwards to build a clear idea about complex problems and possible solutions and keep exploring both spaces until reaching a creative outcome in collaboration with stakeholders inside the organisation.
Human-centric approach: This is probably the most commentary known characteristic of design thinking as it was promoted by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown. Creative problem-solving should consider human desirability, business viability, and technological feasibility. 

What is design thinking?

Design thinking, as an ideology, inherits its unique features from the design itself. As highlighted by Nigel Cross in his book Design Thinking, design is something that we all, as human beings, are experiencing in one 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 Industrial Design – A Practical Guide to Product Design and Development. In this book, he tried to discuss the different design methods and practices.

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of Designorate.com. I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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