“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.” ~Tim Brown, IDEO
“Design thinking is kind of like syphilis — it’s contagious and rots your brains.” ~Lee Vinsel
In 2009 Tim Brown published Change By Design and introduced the idea of design thinking, which he described as “a human−centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and more creative.” Since then, design thinking has grown in popularity. It has been used and misused by people working to solve all manner of problems as well as people looking to cash in on the latest buzzword.
As I have come to practice it, design thinking has three core tenets:
- Radical collaboration — combining diverse perspectives, all valued equally, which can lead to unexpected solutions.
- Human-centered approach — defining a problem with empathy and insight, and involving users and stakeholders in ideation and testing.
- Culture of prototyping — a bias towards action, incorporating tangible prototypes into an iterative process.
The goal is to find a solution that is viable (from a business perspective), feasible (technological/process perspective), and desirable (user perspective).
The design thinking process can be understood as:
GET OUT: Talk to people, observe and reflect, synthesize observations
REFRAME: Look at the problem in different ways, define the problem from an empathic position, establish a point of view
PROTOTYPE: Generate ideas, create tangible prototypes
TEST: With users, learn and
This is a simplified expression of a process that can actually be quite in-depth and time-consuming. It should also feel familiar to designers because it’s a process that many of us use (remember that design thinking “draws from the designer’s toolkit”).
As with many things that gain popularity, there has been a backlash to design thinking. Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram, was the first detractor with her “Design Thinking is Bullshit” talk at the 2017 Adobe 99U conference. She’s not the only one launching criticisms, but her comments have been very provocative and she’s gotten a lot of miles out of the topic. Her complaints range from a perceived lack of criticism allowed for in the process to the reliance on post-its as our “only tool.”
Jen says “Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their process into a prescriptive step-by-step approach to creative problem solving — claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”
“Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their process.”
While I can’t fully disagree with her definition, when viewed in context, I suggest that Jen is being protective of her turf. She’s saying that we shouldn’t let “non-designers” have access to our tools and that not just “anyone” should be given access to our secret powers. It has more to do with protectionism than a critique of the design thinking process.
Other critiques of design thinking from the design world include that it goes too far in simplifying our special, complex, iterative process; that it does not recognize the value of craft and making; and that it’s a buzzword for sales, not impact. (This is in no way an exhaustive list of critiques.)
While these critiques sometimes come from a lack of understanding, they are often of a process gone wrong, more so than of design thinking as a practice. But what most people are really reacting to is the current marketing of design thinking.
“The marketing of design thinking is completely bullshit.”
In a follow-up podcast Jen slightly revises her position and states, “Design thinking is not bullshit. However, the marketing of design thinking is completely bullshit. It’s even getting worse and worse now that we have three-day boot camps that offer certified programs — as if anyone who enrolled in these programs can become a designer and think like a designer and work like a designer.”
Jen is still being protectionist, but she correctly points out that, as with many popular movements, people are trying to cash in. Providers are offering courses and certification in design thinking and we have to assume that more than a few of them are simply exploiting the trend for gain.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I believe there is value to be had from a design thinking approach, but we should be cognizant of not turning it into a methodology, as Barry Katz, IDEO fellow and CCA and Stanford professor, describes: “The most flagrant misuse of this concept is in turning it into a methodology: Feed a problem into the front end of the ‘Design Thinking’ machine, turn the crank five times (brainstorm, prototype, user test …), and out spills an iPhone at the end of it! … No one who has ever worked in the design field has ever seen a project unfold like that.” Design thinking, as Tim Brown says, is “not a concept, like wallpaper, to be applied.”
Design thinking does peel back the curtain on certain design tricks of the trade — user research, prototyping, etc. — and allows non-designers to take a more creative approach to problem-solving. In this way design thinking democratizes design (that’s good!). It helps extend the language of design, helps expand the community of design, and helps build a world where people understand design better.
Design thinking democratizes design.
Design thinking also increases the value of design (that’s good too!). If the popular version of design thinking is overly simple, those of us with a mastery of design skills can stand out from people who are just working through a process and will be more valued. And as design is incorporated into business and large-scale problem solving, our work can be more substance over style for those who want that type of practice.
In the end, I think we can say design thinking is a powerful, human-centered, collaborative, iterative, observation-ideation-implementation cycle. It’s been co-opted and over-simplified to sell books and classes, but it’s still a valuable problem-solving mindset.
Amy Gustincic is a designer, strategist and creative leader who crafts unique strategic solutions by combining an award-winning design practice with a human-centered approach toward business.