A wall of Post-it notes in a design thinking session.
A wall of Post-it notes in a design thinking session.

Five Emerging Trends in Design Thinking for 2020

Some key trends and themes to watch as design thinking enters a new decade.

As a design thinking strategist and facilitator for the past seven years, I’ve worked with a wide range of organizations across sectors and disciplines, on topics as diverse as using new technologies to connect people to the arts to redesigning a company’s onboarding process for new hires.

These are based on my experiences as a practitioner, and by no means is this intended to be a comprehensive, authoritative list. I welcome feedback as to what trends and themes others are seeing on the horizon.

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A team generating ideas, after reviewing the fundamentals of brainstorming “best practices.”

1. There is a “back-to-basics” focus on the fundamental mindsets and skills of design thinking.

I‘ve observed a growing demand from both nonprofit and for-profit organizations for support and training around the fundamentals, such as active listening skills and empathy-building methods.

While more and more employees have been exposed to the overall design thinking process, there is a sense that some of the essentials have been neglected. This to me represents a sophisticated understanding of the design thinking framework, as a good design thinker is only as good as their foundational skills.

In addition to active listening and empathy-building, other fundamentals include comfort with ambiguity, a bias to action, group facilitation skills, and an ability to mindfully separate convergent from divergent activities.

2. There is a growing awareness around the role that equity plays in the design process.

With the increased focus on DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion) in more and more organizations, there has also been an increased awareness of the important role that equity plays in design. This is something I‘ve observed more among my nonprofit, arts, and education clients, but I believe this trend will continue to grow in the for-profit sector in the coming decade.

Bringing equity into design merges the design thinking framework with racial equity work, considering the conditions, actions, and intentions that must be taken to achieve inclusive, equitable outcomes.

“In recent years, design thinking has left its roots as a tool used for product design and emerged as a powerful problem-solving methodology across fields and sectors. This shift in how design thinking is used has come in concert with a societal shift in the way we identify problems and understand solutions.”
- equityXdesig: Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor, and Christine Ortiz

There are many smart individuals and organizations leading the path in this space, amplifying the design thinking process to consider problems through the lens of equity, and embracing co-design and other inclusive practices that bring stakeholders and users into the design process as equal partners.

Tools such as the Liberatory Design Cards from the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab and the National Equity Project provide concrete, actionable tools that human-centered designers can incorporate into their work.

3. More organizations are beginning to operationalize design thinking and devote in-house resources, although smaller nonprofits still lag behind.

From Blue Shield of California’s high-profile, company-wide design thinking initiative to Starbucks’ state-of-the-art innovation center, an increasing number of organizations are making design thinking an integral part of how they do business, and staffing up accordingly.

While large nonprofit institutions and government entities are dedicating operating resources and in-house positions to design thinking, smaller nonprofits, especially in the arts, still lag behind.

A service hallway filled with walls of Post-it notes and books on design thinking.
A service hallway filled with walls of Post-it notes and books on design thinking.
A “human-centered design hallway” in a library. Image courtesy of the Richfield Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

Modest staff “residency” positions like the Design Thinker in Residence at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art are a start, but most human-centered design work is still part of the “additional duties as required” of existing positions.

This means that the heavy-lifting is carried out on the margins, by people already juggling numerous other responsibilities. These people must be creative, entrepreneurial, and indefatigable, such as this librarian who transformed a service hallway into a human-centered design lab.

Museum staff members interviewing a visitor in a gallery filled with early modern art works.
Museum staff members interviewing a visitor in a gallery filled with early modern art works.
Museum staff members conducting an interview with a visitor in the galleries.

4. There are increasingly specialized applications of design thinking to niche sectors and industries.

When I first started my blog, Design Thinking for Museums, in 2013, the only other domain-specific applications of design thinking were to libraries and education. When I attended the Executive Education Program in design thinking at the Stanford d.school, I was the only person from an arts organization, and only one of three people from a nonprofit. The majority were from Fortune 500 companies.

When I returned to my organization, an art museum, I had to figure out, on my own, how to adapt and modify the design thinking tools and methods for the context of a museum. Today, however, there are increasingly specialized applications of design thinking to a variety of sectors, from national parks to the legal profession to the food and restaurant industry. And as the field matures, we will continue to see even more specific applications to niche industries. This will serve the field well, beyond the early-stage “one-size-fits-all” approach.

5. Misconceptions about what design thinking is, and is not, still persist.

Despite all of the growth and progress of the last decade, there are still many misconceptions about what design thinking is and is not. The endless and ugly debates over semantics, process steps, and intent persist.

While digging into each and every critique of design thinking is far beyond the scope of this, it is my hope that as practitioners continue to mature, skills levels increase, and the application of design thinking becomes more sophisticated and focused, these misunderstandings will begin to subside, and design thinkers can focus on doing good work.


Dana Mitroff Silvers is the Principal + Founder of Designing Insights, a San Francisco Bay Area-based consultancy offering design thinking workshops, design sprints, and facilitated experiences.

Design thinking + user research for #museums, #tech, and beyond. DesigningInsights.com & DesignThinkingforMuseums.net

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