Design Thinking misses a fourth circle. Ikigai comes to the rescue.

Sep 12, 2019 · 10 min read

How solutions and products find value in a raison d’être that attends to the world’s needs.

Vous trouverez la version française de l’article ici

A few years ago, at a conference on innovation, a fellow participant hastily coined the term “Design Thinking”, before even telling me her name. Indeed, a quick search on Google Trends demonstrates its massive rise in popularity since 2008.

Tim Brown, CEO of the famous design firm IDEO where it originated, defines it as follows :

“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.”

In a nutshell, it lies at the intersection of three overlapping circles : people’s desire, technical feasibility and business viability. To be fair, there is much more to Design Thinking than this Venn Diagram and IDEO, well aware of its potential for problem solving, does a great job at making it easily accessible.

That being said, I’m here to argue that without integrating the needs of our ecological and social fabric, design thinking is obsolete. Not only does it generate less value, it also directly contradicts the “human-centered approach” that IDEO claims since its beginnings in 1978. I will go as far as saying that Tim Brown himself, consciously or not, knows it.

Where Design Thinking Falls Short

With Fabrice Liut, a designer friend just as fond of systemic and complexity thinking as I am, we intend to support the natural shift of our workshops’ participants towards a new way of seeing the world : one in which everything is interconnected. As French philosopher and thinker Edgar Morin puts it, one in which we need to take into account the whole, the parts, the interrelations between the parts and those between the parts and the whole.

We soon realised that solutions and products generated through current Design Thinking practices seem to come short when it comes to considering the interconnected environment where the product would live. This blog entry by Jussi Pasanen perfectly illustrates how services such as Airbnb and Uber, recently glorified as disruptive, are now hit by unintended systemic consequences. Among many others Airbnb is emptying the cities from the very locals that gave it an attracting soul and Uber is ironically increasing traffic congestion. The author argues that anthropocentrism explains these pitfalls and that human-centered design is nothing else. With the same diagnostic, I believe that no design can be called human centered, without taking into account the interconnections that allow both us humans and our solutions to become in the first place. Because they proceed from an incomplete Design Thinking approach, the Airbnb and Uber solutions are not human centered.

With that in mind, we soon started to re-consider the three circles that introduced our design thinking based creativity workshops, to intuitively add a fourth one that we clumsily named “eco-systemic sustainability”.

We later discovered striking similarities between this altered vision of Design Thinking and another model : the Ikigai.

Sustainable Design Thinking inspired by the Ikigai Source : and @maga-lik

Does a product have an Ikigai ?

A bit like Design Thinking, typing Ikigai on Google Trends reveals a surge in popularity, albeit with some delay. September 2017 marks a turning point with the simultaneous publications of two bestsellers generously titling the Ikigai as “The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life”, and “The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life”.

In a nutshell, it says that at the cross section of what you love, what you’re great at, what you can be paid for and what the world needs, lies your Ikigai : your raison d’être, the purpose that you should thrive to define over your lifetime, the one that should put you out of bed in the morning and that might even make your life last longer.

While comparing both models, economic viability straightforwardly relates to what you can be paid for and technological feasibility to what you can do. Users desirability can also be loosely related to the “what you love” part of Ikigai : even though a product can’t experience love for humans, the reciprocal desire is true. But when it comes to what the world needs, Design Thinking falls short.

I believe that products, just as people, should proceed from a raison d’être. And since it does shift with the world around it, one should frequently refine it. Product case studies below suggest that constantly aiming towards this evolutionary purpose becomes the very source of their value.

Indeed, the comparisons between Design Thinking generated products and people with their Ikigai is limited (products don’t need to get out of bed nor can they experience love yet), but products are to be discovered, put to good use in accordance with their qualities and paid for, just as with most of us, working people.

And so, drawing on the comparison, I would argue that any solution and product that sincerely takes into account its systemic impact would generate more value, albeit non-straightforwardly.

Making Design Thinking even more valuable

Ceci n’est pas une pub, Magritte

The outdoor gear company Patagonia is a textbook case of mission-driven success. Since 1991 their mission statement includes: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This reason for being translates into reality with solutions and products such as the jacket that you shouldn’t buy or their online shop of worn equipment that goes against all business practices of planned obsolescence.

And as for the economic value, Patagonia looks like it grows every time it amplifies its social mission. The hidden benefits of such products and companies are plenty… though nonlinear. No indicator will be able to show how this whole ecosystem of users, designers and makers that take part in a common purpose generate value, but very encouragingly, with 1 billion dollars in revenue in 2017, the bottom line seems to reflect just that.

Patagonia’s founder acknowledges himself that 100% sustainability is hard. Hopefully , Patagonia’s story shows us that going forth is already worth it.

“Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible.” — “It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.” — said Chouinard, in this excellent profile on Patagonia’s founder from the Guardian

Another more recent example can be found with Toogoodtogo. Through a geolocation based app, it allows mom and pop stores to sell packages of nearly expired edibles for a fraction of their price, bringing in otherwise lost revenue and much needed new customers.

“We create value for our society, we built a sensible business model and we can aim for a positive social impact.” — Said Lucie Bash, Toogoodtogo’s 27 years old CEO in a recent article by the French newspaper Le Monde.

The numbers speak for themselves : since 2016, they already saved close to 7 million meals from the waste bin with a team of 60+ waste warriors that is still growing. And yes, they do have a mission statement : “Our ambition is to fight again food waste and contribute to the national objective of reducing it to 50% before 2025”

In his article, Raz Godelnik uses the iPhone as a good example of a product that hits the jackpot regarding desirability, feasibility and viability but comes short when it comes to sustainability.

Smartphones undoubtedly made us more interconnected and so serve a social purpose. But at what ecological and social cost ? Each step of the iPhone’s intricate supply chain reveals shortcomings that include, among others, the horrific child labor conditions in the cobalt mines, manufacturing and shipping pollution issues… Using it also comes with issues such as the systematic incentives, that lead to the theft of our attention away from the real world. Then, once disposed of, our smartphones fuel the world’s electronic waste problem.

If Apple seems to take these realities into account, we have yet to witness a systemic change in which encouraging the expensive replacement of a fully functional smartphone by another with a slightly bigger screen, three cameras instead of two, faster loading times, or just to showcase your status, would strike us as an aberration.

In the context of the climate crisis and a never so interconnected planet, we can’t deny that discarding the ecological and social sustainability of our products and solutions, we dangerously take part in destroying the ecological and social tissue that allowed this product, but also ourselves to exist in the first place.

And so, forgetting to take this into account renders Design Thinking in its current form inhuman.

Tim Brown Knows It

To be fair, IDEO is far from inhuman. It already applies Design Thinking and human centered design to ecological and social issues through its non-profit branch

But to me, this initiative, although well-intentioned, is a thing of the past : we are still stuck in the binary view of irresponsible but lucrative private companies on one side and good but donation-based NGOs on the other.

And Tim Brown perfectly knows that at one point, we will rise to the opportunity of a much more interconnected approach as showed in this visionary ted talk of 2009 :

So I’d like to take the idea that Rory Sutherland talked about, this notion that intangible things are worth perhaps more than physical things, and take that a little bit further and say that I think the design of participatory systems, in which many more forms of value beyond simply cash are both created and measured, is going to be the major theme, not only for design, but also for our economy as we go forward.

Walking his talk, he took a good step towards a more interconnected approach at the 2017 world economic forum. Dubbed as a radical, restorative, regenerative approach to business, he unveiled a circular design guide, crafted in partnership with the Ellen Mc Arthur foundation.

That sense of meaning that comes from designing and using and experiencing things that we could do for a long long time that everybody on the planet could do instead of just a privileged few, that’s a pretty special feeling and that’s the feeling I want to have about everything that we design. — Tim Brown, in this video introduction to Circular Design

Let me use bits of Tim brown’s talk to define circular economy. Circle ! Easy idea. Our modern industrial economy is designed along a line : you start by digging stuff out of the ground, end by throwing stuff away and somewhere in the middle you produce something valuable. You go from nothing to something to something that has no value and fills up the planet. The question is how to bend that line, and continue to use that thing for another cycle.

Tim Brown’s commitment to Circular Design is great, but he still falls one inch away from the real change maker : adapting the much revered, observed, quoted, advertised and so well-known Design Thinking model.

What’s next ?

I will close with my sheer reverence and respect for the exceptional company that is IDEO. With design thinking, they succeeded in bringing about empathy, creativity, human centered design and much more within big corporates, governmental organisations or Davos. They also acknowledge that Design Thinking is not without practical flaws.

But a model, especially such a famous one, comes with power and responsibility. Negating the fact that a product loses value when it participates in the destruction of the fabric that allowed it but also its creators and its users, to become in the first place, renders the model shortsighted and dangerous at scale.

I believe acknowledging it would, without a doubt, accelerate the inevitable and much needed transition towards a more sustainable global society. If by any means you can access Tim Brown and pass him the world, I’d be — we’d be much obliged.

After all, another circle is all it takes.

How to call this fourth Design Thinking’s circle ?

This is where you contribute. How to call that fourth circle about what the world needs ? Our hearts are set on eco-systemic sustainability but maybe you can find a better, more impactful idea ?. Highlight, comment, let us know what you think !
For the sake of it here are other entries that we considered : Durability ? Systemicity ? Circularity ? Harmony ? Resilience ? Regenerativity ? Restorativity ?…

What about using this article and the Design Thinking x Ikigai model ?

Since circularity does also apply to ideas, we decided that this whole article and our work on Design Thinking with four circles would fall under a CC by SA license. You’re free to use and adapt any of it, including for commercial purposes, as long as your production is under the same CC by SA licence and that attribution is respected ( Both this article and the four circles Design Thinking model inspired by the Ikigai are the work of Fabrice Liut from le comptoir and FXPasquier from Complexus).

Collective Intelligence facilitator, enthusiast and founder of Complexus, I allow collectives motivated by a common purpose to accept reality as it is and go forth.
I so serve our raison d’être :
support change makers’ autonomy. In the context of our ecological and societal transition, I reveal the quality of your doing and being at the service of a desirable future.

FX Pasquier 💭❤️👐


Complexity management, systemic thinking, collective…


Complexity management, systemic thinking, collective intelligence, facilitation, playful training, problems solving and change making realist optimism.


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Complexity management, systemic thinking, collective intelligence, facilitation, playful training, problems solving and change making realist optimism.