Design thinking is not dead, but are we extracting its full potential?

Tirdad Kiamanesh
3 min readNov 16, 2023

I came across this article that claimed design thinking was dead, prompting me to subscribe and investigate its validity. However, the title turned out to be mere clickbait — a well-executed one at that.

The title of this article is misleading, yet we have serious issues to address.

While it’s true that IDEO is currently facing challenges, it’s essential to clarify that IDEO is not synonymous with design or design thinking. IDEO has contributed significantly to the design world, and I hope it continues to do so. The organization effectively formalized the design and creative process, making it adaptable and implementable across various industries, even in unimagined disciplines.

This has enabled designers to sit beside decision-makers, assisting them in making informed, creative decisions to tackle complex issues. As a result, there is a growing demand, even from the public sector and government agencies, to adopt user-centered design and design thinking to enhance citizen experiences and reduce discrimination. Who would have thought the US government would advocate for a user-centered approach in their agencies?

However, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t facing serious challenges in the design world today. The design thinking approach has unintended consequences that we need to address, especially in the face of emerging technologies. Let me share my thoughts:

We lost the North Star

Design is about delivering tangible solutions, not just generating insights. We, as designers, need to immerse ourselves in the practical aspects of building and experiencing, not getting lost in frameworks and methods divorced from outcomes. We should recall our origins and what initially made us appealing – creative problem solvers who explore innovative and practical solutions.

To be a designer, you have to become a designer!

Unfortunately, we’ve unintentionally given the impression that design is merely about filling frameworks to magically solve problems. Even worse, with 2–3 lectures and workshops about design in academic programs such as MBA, we’ve fostered the delusion among students that they are design experts capable of handling the design process. Many stories circulate in our community about tensions between these types of managers and their staff with design backgrounds concerning their approach toward user-centered design and research.

Design is a serious discipline, and it’s becoming more serious.

One of my mentors aptly described a designer’s job as akin to a doctor’s — our responsibility is to alleviate people’s pain (as my mentor Federico Ferretti always said). Imagine a doctor who knows the patient’s issue but is asked to pursue a different treatment for the hospital’s financial gain! As designers sit at bigger tables making impactful decisions, we must consistently advocate for users. History has shown that only design teams true to these values survive, while others fade away for failing to deliver change that adds value to the core business, particularly evident in the design consulting world.

In-house design is gaining popularity, and for good reason.

Design is a costly process, and designers gain invaluable insights about organizations and users during this process. This information is too precious not to keep in-house. While it may seem more expensive in the short term to maintain an in-house design team, astute leaders recognize it as a long-term investment. While it may not appear to be a challenge at first glance, instances such as D-ford have demonstrated that leaders might alter their perspectives in response to market challenges, even when they have firsthand knowledge and experience of the value of design.

Design thinking is a method, a tool, an asset in a designer’s arsenal. Pronouncing its death is naive. I firmly believe that the concept of design thinking as a framework for creative problem-solving will always be relevant. This holds especially true as we grapple with complex systems and challenges brought on by emerging technologies. Recently, I had a chance to participate in the AI + Design program at the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech, where brilliant minds worldwide gathered to discuss AI’s transformative impact. After four days of learning, there was no doubt that designers and design thinking are far from irrelevant. In contrast, everyone agreed on the role of design and design thinking in the impact of AI on our society, but for sure, we must adapt and upgrade our skills and our toolbox. These are my reflections on the matter. I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.