On Design Thinking

Nick Foster RDI
7 min readMay 13, 2022

Oh… are we still talking about this?

Design Thinking is dead — so the majority of my peers claim — yet there it is, smeared all over LinkedIn, peeking out from job descriptions and lurking in resumés. It crops up in conversations, sneaks into pitches and elbows its way into briefs. It graces the covers of the magazines which languish in shabby wire racks in my local supermarket. In my close circle of well-dressed-folks-in-black, Design Thinking has jumped the shark. It’s rolled up and died somewhere, drowned under little squares of pale yellow paper, but out there?… Out there it’s matured into a fully fledged industry. It’s been absorbed deep into curricula. It’s found its way into the rhythm of commerce and the vast, sprawling lexicon of the boardroom. I’ve been bumping up against Design Thinking for over a decade now, and have developed strong feelings about it. Rather than continue to blurt out my thoughts as half-formed soundbites, I’ve tried to capture them succinctly below.

I may be wrong, I’m sure you’ll let me know.

1. Design Thinking is reductive

The Design Thinking process, as developed by IDEO, promoted through Stanford University’s d.school and endorsed by publications such as Harvard Business Review, consists of five sequential phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. For those of you with a formal Design education, this probably resembles the first few weeks of your training, and perhaps suffices as an introductory pedagogical approach to a nominal Design process. If you found yourself required to describe a Design process in a TED talk, you might fall back on this structure… in a pinch.

Reducing and simplifying complex systems is a commonplace tactic in education, as it aids the comprehension and absorption of a topic, but in order to be effective it has a duty to convey the complex truths which lie below the surface. Design Thinking education willfully ignores these complexities, preferring to wrap Design into a digestible package, and in so doing establishing it as a simple, reproducible and processional endeavor. This approach dramatically simplifies the highly complex, nuanced, non-linear reality of Design to a grotesque degree.

The five stage process proposed by Design Thinking has proven itself to be inapplicable to real world problems — ignoring, obfuscating and skipping over huge swathes of important work. As the realities of actual Design problems reveal themselves to Design Thinkers, many have tied themselves in knots, adding more hexagons, more feedback loops and more layers to the point of absurdity. As if to reaffirm the disparity between theory and practice, the d.school published a Medium post at the end of 2019, where they announced their intent to teach “without any trace of the beloved hexagons”, reflecting that “design isn’t a process”, and ostensibly reneging on the core tenet of Design Thinking as it wrestles to shake the grasp of reality.

Given the genesis of Design Thinking — emerging as it did from the bowels of international consulting firm IDEO — it’s perhaps no coincidence that these five tidy phases closely mirror the ‘phase billing’ techniques employed by Design consultancies. Each portion of a project proceeds conveniently along pre-agreed paths, with pre-agreed outcomes on pre-agreed schedules. Real Design work is complex, chaotic and messy, Design Thinking is linear, simplistic and procedural.

Design Thinking proponents will rebuke this critique. “Design Thinking isn’t intended to replace Design”, they’ll claim, “it’s an abstracted version of the process for use in other fields” — which leads me onto my second critique…

2. Design Thinking diminishes the value of Design

The Design Thinking mantra goes something like this: by educating organizations about Design, and helping non-designers to ‘think like a designer’ we can elevate the value of Design within any business. However, far from elevating Design in organizations, the simplified, abstracted and digestible nature of Design Thinking has created a community of engaged but naïve practitioners. By oversimplifying the Design process to such an extent, Design Thinking has actively diminished the understanding of Design, and the depth of expertise, training and technique that is required by a professional designer.

At Davos in 2014 — in perhaps the most reckless act of disciplinary seppuku committed by a designer in the last century — former IDEO CEO Tim Brown stated that he believed ‘everyone is a designer’. If you’re a cash-strapped CEO, this statement may beg the reasonable question, ‘if everyone is a designer, then why do I need a Design team?’ Further still, if ‘everyone is a designer’, then is it really even a job?

In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, each of those five Design Thinking stages represents an entire discipline, rich with decades of history, research, discourse, best practices and technical competence. There are practitioners with PhD’s in every one of those hexagons which eager devotees skip through during their $13,000 bootcamps at Stanford. Design Thinking has reduced a wide ranging, complex and professional industry to a weekend certification offering a few extra credits to breathless innovators. In parallel, Design Thinking’s propensity for playful ideation sessions with jovial warm up exercises, glue sticks and Legos don’t elevate Design as a profession within organizations, rather it serves to reaffirm the impression of Design as an adolescent past-time, a position from which it has been attempting to escape for decades.

Design Thinking advocates often tout the benefits of their approach in regards to improving creativity, and it’s perhaps true that any forcible change in process leads to new points of view (and perhaps therefore creativity), but it’s worth being very clear here: Creativity isn’t Design, just as Mathematics isn’t Economics.

Design Thinking offers up such a neatly packaged, curriculum-friendly topic, that it has quickly spread through universities, colleges, business training institutes, schools and even the Girl Scouts. As a result, the approach is increasingly practiced (and taught) by people with no formal Design experience, driving a simplistic attitude to Design, and serving to further obfuscate the complexities and detail required in any ‘real’ Design work.

Proponents of Design Thinking loudly claim that their practice has elevated Design to the C-suite, and that Design now ‘has a seat at the table’. If this is true (which is factually dubious) we must ask what has been lost during this ascension? So much of the heart and soul of Design is missing from the bland, simplistic practices of Design Thinking, that it’s barely representative of the practice. Perhaps more concerning is the increased frequency with which Design Thinking and Design have become conflated and viewed as interchangeable. From preschool to post-grad, Design education is rapidly becoming ‘Design Thinking’ education, being taught by strategists, entrepreneurs and solutioneers, as opposed to artists, craftspeople and technicians.

This conflation is of grave concern to many in the Design community, myself included. In time, we can be sure that the popularity of Design Thinking will wane amongst the enterprise crowd, being replaced by a new framework, pyramid or funnel, but if Design allows itself to be conflated with Design Thinking, it risks being drawn down with the wreckage.

Design Thinking didn’t change business at all, rather it changed Design into business, adopting its language, priorities and techniques. It sold out Design in an attempt to impress those in power, and in so doing lost its heart.

3. Design Thinking fetishizes solutions

At its core, Design Thinking is a solution oriented endeavor, focused on neat, tidy endpoints. The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions (often of a technocratic nature) forms the backbone of the Design Thinking dogma, a reflection of the Neo-Schumpeterian obsession with innovation which lies at its core.

The seamless stepping from one phase to the next, wrapping up neatly with a ‘thing to be made’ is disconcerting and reductive, and (as mentioned in my first critique) reflects a phase-billing attitude common in client services industries. Like ‘Agile’, or ‘Scrum’ or any other product development tool, Design Thinking offers some basic organizational logic to a process, but it implies a level of closure which isn’t present in reality. It’s a fallacy of rapidity, of repeatability, of clean outputs and finite solutions.

This narrow focus on solutions also undermines the vast swathes of work which constitute contemporary Design practice. Good designers have spent decades developing techniques not only to explore what ‘could’ be made — (to a high quality, employing best practices, with deep material understanding, and adherence to procedure, platform or policy), but in helping explore whether something ‘should’ be made. Speculative and critical design; the exploration and expression of externalities; the rendering of implications over applications; the creation of ethical guidelines and inclusive strategies all form part of a contemporary Designer’s arsenal, yet aren’t represented anywhere within Design Thinking.

I’d like to close by talking about what it means to be a designer.

It’s often overlooked (and somewhat out of fashion to mention) but craft remains the foundational skill of a designer. Good designers not only understand how to develop solutions, but how to develop elegant solutions. Deep knowledge of the materials at hand, be they physical, digital or virtual, allows for good designers to not simply solve problems, but to do so with finesse, with an eye on implications, impact and extensibility. When scrawling a doodle on a sticky note, an experienced designer is thinking not only of the idea itself, but three or four moves ahead. In truth this is an experience based skill which can only be honed over time, by those willing to dedicate their careers to these approaches. As Dan Hill deftly noted in Dark Matter and Trojan Horses:

“Practice” is not idly named. “Thinking like a designer” — leaving aside the question of whether there’s even a point to everyone thinking like a designer — is something that takes years of, well, practice. Of experience stretched taut across numerous contexts and clients; of constant, near obsessive engagement with the world about you that would almost be exhausting were it not so enriching”

Design isn’t simply a tool to accelerate innovation, or a fun distraction during a stuffy offsite. When deployed correctly it can help build vision, strategy and long-term focus at the highest level. It can change the way we see the world, help us understand it and provide tools to explore and embrace it. It can bring balance and rigor and joy and genuine change to your organization.

Design Thinking is akin to Design viewed from the window of a fast moving car - a paltry simulacrum of a delicate and nuanced craft. For those seeking a framework for creativity, or a means to bring some of the most basic elements of Design into enterprise environments, Design Thinking might suffice.

If you want good Design work, I suggest hiring Designers.

--

--

Nick Foster RDI

Designer and Futurist. Former Head of Design at Google X.