The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking

Anna Roumiantseva
8 min readOct 19, 2016

(in collaboration with Dave Weissburg at Fidelity Labs)

They say “hindsight is 20/20”. If only you knew then what you know now, you would have sold that stock, ended that relationship, or taken that job offer in a snap. Of course the tricky part is being able to make those decisions in the present, but how do you do that without knowing what’s lurking around the corner? I want to argue that by making Futures Thinking a standard part of your thought process — both in your business and personal lives — you’ll be able to make better decisions in the face of uncertainty.

As a design strategist, I have helped design dozens of products and services. The process is always pretty similar — we invest a lot of time upfront to understand our users, generate insights about their needs, create and test a wide range of solutions to satisfy those needs, and then build a business model to bring the winning one(s) to market. It’s a process that is extremely well-suited to do what it was intended to do — creatively solve problems that our audience is facing today in a user-centric way. However, it doesn’t take into account that our users are evolving every day — much like you and I. I never thought twice about this until I did a project in partnership with the Institute for the Future this past summer and learned their Futures Thinking methodology. Rather than trying to predict the future, their methods help you create multiple possible scenarios for what the future might look like. They call it forecasting. As a result, like a weather forecast, you are able to prepare for a broad range of likely things on the horizon and take advantage of impactful opportunities while minimizing surprises. So how do Futures Thinking and Design Thinking compare and perhaps complement each other? And how can we use the two in tandem to get to better outcomes?

The two processes have some stark differences:

1.) The mix of diverging and converging:
While both processes require a series of diverging and converging steps, Design Thinking ultimately converges to a concrete concept that is tested, finalized, and brought to market.
Futures Thinking, on the other hand, yields a series of scenarios, which are meant to illustrate multiple options for what the future might be without defining an exact prediction. We can then design product concepts for any one of these future scenarios, meaning that the end-point of the Futures Thinking process can be seen as the starting point for the Design Thinking process — one can feed into the other.

2.) The goals and mindsets, which leads to very different outputs:
Design Thinking aims to inspire us to create. The goals are products, services, and experiences for today’s world. It helps get to this goal and deal with its inherent ambiguity by relying on a mindset of optimistic confidence that we will ultimately get to the desired outcome.
Futures Thinking, on the other hand, aims to inspire. The goal is to think bigger about opportunities we may (or may not) have in the coming years. It aims to inform organizational strategy for tomorrow and make it more robust for the uncertainty that lies ahead. At its core, the process embraces the inherent uncertainty that comes with this, fostering a mindset of pragmatic humility.

3.) The timeline:
Design Thinking focuses on creating for today’s world and the immediate future. As a result, the inspiration stage is usually focused on investigating the present and the immediate past only (a few years back).
Futures Thinking aims to illuminate possibilities 10–15 years down the road. As a result, it requires us to look 10–15 years back in time to understand history in order to be able to trace the trajectory of what the implications of the past might be on the future.

4.) The system:
Design Thinking, given its more immediate nature, generally only focuses on the more immediate factors relevant to the organization today — the people we’re designing for, our technological constraints, and our business needs.
Given its more long-term nature, Futures Thinking embraces a much more systemic approach. On top of looking at the factors immediately relevant to today’s organizational context, it takes into account greater macro factors that may shape the organizational context in the coming years.

However, Futures Thinking also has some undeniable similarities to the Design Thinking.

1.) Inspirational Edges: Both processes look to the fringes as a source of inspiration.
In Design Thinking this is done by looking at lead and lag users to expose user needs and analogous systems to show opportunity areas.
In Futures Thinking this is done by looking at weak signals of change observed in today’s world and extrapolating what they might become in ten to fifteen years.

2.) People and Experiences: Both processes rely on personas and prototypes to bring abstract concepts to life.
In Design Thinking this helps make user needs and product ideas tangible — this helps potential users react to concepts and provide useful feedback.
In Futures Thinking this helps make abstract scenarios for what life might be like in the future tangible by putting real items from those worlds in front of business stakeholders.

We could discuss these (and other) similarities and differences for days, but the point is that both processes are valuable in their own right. One of my favorite quotes by Daniel Egger states, “The present creates value so that the future can exist… and the future offers a strategic north and new possible opportunities.” We need to be looking at both to optimize for success and find the alignment between the present and the future.


The greater question for us as design practitioners, then, is: what do we do about all of this? Can using Future Thinking in our design process benefit us? What will it help us accomplish?

I think that the ultimate benefit of blending the two methodologies is to design products that are more future-proof. Rather than designing something that today’s user will buy today, it helps us better understand what that user might want and need in the future and evolve with him/her. It’s kind of like starting a college savings plan for your newborn. It helps design for longer-lasting relationships with our users — a relationship based on our products and services rather than merely on our brand.

So how do we do it? One option is to commit to Future Thinking and engage in it regularly in parallel with our Design Thinking process — to always have an up-to-date set of possible scenarios for what our future will be 10–15 years from now and align our design initiatives with these visions. This is great, but we’re not all ready to take that leap yet. So in the meantime we can borrow some exercises from the Futures Thinking process and integrate them into our Design Thinking initiatives so start getting steeped in the methodology.

· Looking Back to Look Forward:
In Design Thinking we are guided heavily by stories from our users — these are data points about the past. This Futures Thinking exercise can help connect the data points to uncover trajectories. It can help us understand users on a deeper level by seeing how their realities and behaviors have evolved (and how they might continue to evolve).
It prompts us to ask questions like: What have been some of the most important trends in the domain/industry we’re designing in and which of them have most affected our user groups?
How did these trends change user behaviors/preferences and what were the drivers behind these trends? What might be the next step for these trends if we were to extrapolate them into the future?

· Collecting and Clustering Signals:
In Design Thinking look to “tail” users and analogous systems for insights and inspiration. This Futures Thinking exercise can help see how else we might look at what is happening at the “fringes” of our organizational context (in areas that might seem irrelevant at first) to better understand potential opportunity areas.
It prompts us to ask questions like: What are some of the most creative, exciting, unusual things happening in the world at large today? What is driving these things to develop? Why are these interesting and what implications might they have in the future? How might they apply to the domain we’re designing in?

· Forecasting Two Curves:
In Design Thinking we think about how insights from extreme users can translate to more mainstream user groups. This Futures Thinking exercise provides a structured approach to envision how seeds of change from today’s fringes might make their way into the mainstream and how, conversely, the elements from today’s mainstream might fall to obsolescence.
It prompts us to ask questions like: What innovations might stem from today’s signals of change if/when they become mainstream? What needs to happen for the shift to occur and what might the transition look like? What elements of the domain we’re designing for & our user lives will be most transformed as a result? Which parts of today’s mainstream will still be around and which will go away?

· Revealing Unexpected Possibilities:
In Design Thinking we generate a lot of observations, insights, and ideas throughout the divergent stages of the process. This Futures Thinking exercise provides a new “mash-up” framework to help make sense of these diverse elements and uncover new opportunity areas.
It requires us to generate a lot (at least 50–100) signals of change that you’re seeing in today’s world. These can be news stories, emerging startups, or anything else concrete that you think might have implications for the future. It then prompts us to think about what interesting opportunities could exist at the intersection of various combinations of 2–3 of these signals. It prompts us to ask questions like: Which insights do we find the most intriguing (even if they appear completely unrelated)? What kinds of user needs could exist at the intersection of these insights if you combined them? Which user needs seem to be the most critical? What kinds of new products and experiences could exist to fill the intersection of these needs?

Futures Thinking can often seem nebulous and uncomfortable — much like Design Thinking did back when you were less familiar with it. I hope that this overview peaked your interest and made you see the value behind it. I also hope that it made you want to explore how Future Thinking might make you a better designer and strategist. Finally, I hope that this is just the beginning of a movement to bring the two disciplines closer together over the coming years and the start of a conversation around how we do so.