Design thinking is over the hill

Dennis Hambeukers
Jun 2 · 5 min read

One year ago, I wrote an essay about the state of design thinking called The end of design thinking as we know it. In it, I philosophized about a shift that I saw happening in design thinking. A shift away from the one-day-bootcamp-anyone-can-do-this-magic-bullet towards a realization that it needs actual design skills to tackle complex projects. Recently a reader of that piece asked how I thought the situation was now, one year later, when it comes to design thinking. That’s an interesting question. As it turns out, design thinking is actually over the hill.

At first, I asked myself questions like: Do things move quick enough in this area that you can make a yearly assessment? Was my previous piece even indicative of the state of design thinking one year ago? The essay attracted a lot of attention so it hit a nerve.

My writings are not the result of some sort of academic research. They are deeply personal reflections that I write with the hope that they help other people to think about these topics. So what I can do is continue that personal reflection and assess the state of design thinking from my personal situation. This past year, just from my personal view, I saw the term design thinking being used less and less. This could be due to the fact that my personal interest in the topic is waning because I think we are moving on towards a more mature situation in which it is actually about design. Like I stated in my essay from last year. I realize I only see what I focus on and I realize I am in a bubble like everyone else. So I checked Google Trends and found this:

Google trend on the search query “design thinking” 2021.05.15

Whohaha! People have actually been searching less on the term design thinking last year. Interest in design thinking is actually waning! It is actually over the hill. Or everybody knows what design thinking is and people don’t need to Google it anymore :) This is not academic research, but let’s, for the sake of this reflection, assume interest in design thinking is waning.

Like I stated in my essay from a year ago, in my mind this is due to the fact that more people are waking up to the idea that design thinking is not a silver bullet. And that it also takes actual design skills to help businesses solve complex business problems with designs.

Danger and opportunity for design thinking

There is a danger and an opportunity in this. The danger is obvious. If people are losing interest in design thinking, designers could lose their momentum and thus their seat at the strategy table where the complex problems are discussed. The opportunity is to show business people that designers can actually help solve complex business problems with their design skills and can do a better job than the one-day-bootcamp non-designers have been doing. It’s a challenge. It seems design thinking is following a Gartner Hype Cycle type-of-pattern:

Gartner Hype Cycle pattern

If that is the case, we have just passed the Peak of inflated expectations and are descending into the Trough of disillusionment. The work in the Trough of disillusionment is different from the work on the road towards the Peak of inflated expectations. On the way to the peak of inflated expectations, you need to feed the hype and ride the wave of energy to get to the strategy tables. Sales of design thinking becomes easier and easier. If the design thinking work doesn’t produce results directly, you have some slack because it’s all new and it takes time to see results. Everybody is exited and the innovation theatre is in full swing. People are less critical. But, of course, at some point, expectations have to be met. If the way of working doesn’t produce the expected results, people have a tendency to dismiss it as fast as they adopted it. The slope downward is as steep as the slope upward.

At the Peak of inflated expectations, design thinking was the solution to the world’s most wicked problems. That is unrealistic but it was the state of mind. These expectations were impossible to meet from the get go but everybody (including me) was more or less on board with this because it opened doors that had been closed. Even if I tried to manage expectations, people didn’t listen. They were so exited that they didn’t want to hear disclaimers. And it’s nice to be a hype. Let’s be honest. So the Though of disillusionment is a natural next phase. Nothing to worry about but a natural stage of development. But the work is different.

The need for designers to step up

The two main points in my essay from one year ago were that people were waking up to the reality that design thinking is not some magic trick that everybody can do, that you actually need designers to do design thinking. The other point was that designers need to study business just like business people study design. I believe this is becoming more relevant in the Trough of disillusionment. We now have to move design thinking from an unrealistic hype to a more mature practice. The only way to climb the Slope of enlightenment is to prove that design thinking with designers actually works if expectations are realistic. To do so, designers need to step up and dive deeper into the strategic business aspects of complex problem solving. Without that, design thinking could become a hype that dies and doesn’t reach the Plateau of productivity.

I am also curious to see if the term design thinking will stay. Maybe the strategic complex business solving capacity of design thinking will be incorporated into the common understanding of design. If design can embrace its strategic part more, incorporate Agile and Lean Startup ways more, we could re-define design, get to a bigger definition of design. Then, we wouldn’t need an additional term like design thinking. Then, design thinking will have served its purpose to redefine design.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.