Why Design Thinking Is Taking The World By Storm

Design Thinking is on a roll. In March 2016 search volume on Google on “Design Thinking” overtook search volume on “Prince2”. For years Prince2 was one of the dominant ways to think about, structure and run projects. It is a very strict, scientific way to look at projects. The general idea is that if you follow all the steps, you are doing everything right and your project will deliver. There are more methods like this, but it’s a prime example of the deterministic, scientific approach that dominated projects for years. Now the tables are turning. There is a growing need for a new way of thinking, doing and organizing projects. And Design Thinking is pointing us in the direction of the new way.

Google Search volume of “design thinking” versus “prince2”

Semantic virus

The term Design Thinking is spreading like a semantic virus. It’s spreading in an increasing pace and is able to attach itself to a lot of things. Ideas, words and concepts can spread like viruses can. They get inside people’s heads, into books, blogs, videos etc.

  • It all started in the 60's. According to Wikipedia the term Design Thinking first popped up in 1965. From the book book “Systematic Method for Designers from L. Bruce Archer it started its conquest of the world.
  • At first this was very slow. But in the early 1990’s it found a powerful host in the design consultancy IDEO. They popularized by using the term Design Thinking to describe their approach. The success and consequent reach of the mental model of IDEO allowed the term Design Thinking to spread.
  • In 2009 the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, wrote the book Change by Design that explained how IDEO used Design Thinking to help organization innovate successfully. This really kicked off the spread of the term.
  • Since then, popularity has grown, the term has been able to get into more books, blogs and presentations. It was able to move from design meetings into strategic meetings in boardrooms.

“Design Thinking has jumped from the minds of designers into the heads of business people.”


The strange thing is that the term Design Thinking is not totally clear. There is a lot of discussion about what it means, about what Design Thinking is. Semantics is the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. It’s the study of signs and what those signs point to. But with Design Thinking, the term points to something, but what the term means is not clear. There is a certain openness. Everybody seems to have his of her own definition. There are a lot of semantic discussions going on. A lot of people are trying to define it, grab it, own it.

But this semantic openness, the inability to get a grip on it, is helping it spread. If you think back to the metaphor of a virus, if a virus is very specific and can only attach itself to certain cells, the ability to spread is limited. But if a virus is more general, more able to mutate according to circumstances, it will be more successful in spreading. The term Design Thinking is very open, flexible and can attach itself to almost anything. If you put some effort into it, you can apply the prototyping, user centered, iterative mindset to almost anything. And this is exactly what people are doing. They are calling almost anything Design Thinking these days.

Pointing to something bigger

But the semantic openness alone is not powerful enough to power the global spread of the term. There is a desire to label almost anything Design Thinking because it is associated with success. The success of companies that put design at the core of their strategy is linking the term Design Thinking to directly to success. It has gotten to a point where Design Thinking is a condition for success. But on the other hand the term is not clear. This puts us in a strange situation. Apparently we have to apply Design Thinking to be successful, but nobody knows exactly what it is. Any attempt to define it, immediately leads to problems. You can argue with any definition. So defining it only leads to discussions.

The artistic method

I believe the term is so powerful because it points to something bigger. Something that is harder to grab or talk about. Something. I think it points to a fundamental need to integrate the artistic method into the scientific that is dominant today. The scientific approach, that is most taught in schools, has brought us lots of great innovations. But its inability to deal with uncertainty, it’s inadequacy to tap into intuition and it’s basic inhuman determinism is causing it to run into its limits.

  • It’s no longer producing the value we seek.
  • It’s no longer (has it ever?) engaging people.
  • It’s no longer helping us navigate the complexity of problems.

We are in desperate need of a new way and the term Design Thinking is pointing towards this new way. A new way that is:

  • more aligned with the human condition,
  • that is flexible,
  • concrete,
  • engaging,
  • that connects and brings out the best in people.

At this moment we are collectively rediscovering the value of the artistic approach. We are recognizing that the artistic method is also a valuable method of thinking, of solving problems, of accessing creativity and uncovering insights. It’s the other side of the medal. It’s about the use of the other half of our brain. The end game is integrating the artistic and the scientific method and accessing the synergy between the two.

Who owns Design Thinking?

A lot of discussion around Design Thinking is about the semantics: what is it exactly? Or around ownership: do it belong to the designers or the MBA’s? But that all doesn’t matter so much. The term points to a major mental shift that is necessary to deal with the speed and complexity of the world today. It points to something bigger. You could even see the semantic and ownership discussions as a strategy of the term that helps its spreading and attachment to things. The more people are trying to define and own it, the more attention it gets, the more it spreads. Even the people who are calling it a fad are helping the spread of the term. In the end it’s all about rediscovering the value of the artistic method and transferring the skill- and mindset of the designers to other areas, integrating it with the scientific method.

“The term Design Thinking is the precursor to this mental shift to the right side of the brain. It deploys very clever strategies and tactics to accomplish its goal. It’s going viral, but that is only the beginning.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership and Design Thinking 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 or Twitter.




Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers

Strategist and project manager @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

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