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From Design Thinking to Art Thinking with an Open Innovation Perspective — A Case Study of How Art Thinking Rescued a Cultural Institution in Dublin

“Business, Innovation and Art” Special Series Issue #9

By Peter Robbins*

Published in Special Issue “Business, Open Innovation and Art” for MDPI Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market and Complexity, December 2018

[Editor’s note: While the types of radical, moonshot and transformational innovation Art Thinking catalyzes often require long-term orientation, the case study featured in this article demonstrates its successful application as a drastic “shot in the arm” strategy for an existential crisis. Potentials of the Art Thinking mindsets apply to not only a cultural institution but also other organizations.]


This article uses a contemporary and revelatory case study to explore the relationship between three conversations in the innovation literature: Design Thinking, creativity in strategy, and the emerging area of Art Thinking. Businesses are increasingly operating in a VUCA environment where they need to design better experiences for their customers and better outcomes for their firm and the Arts are no exception. Innovation, or more correctly, growth through innovation, is a top priority for business and although there is no single, unifying blueprint for success at innovation, Design Thinking is the process that is receiving most attention and getting most traction. We review the literature on Design Thinking, showing how it teaches businesses to think with the creativity and intuition of a designer to show a deep understanding of, and have empathy with, the user. However, Design Thinking has limitations. By placing the consumer at the very heart of the innovation process, Design Thinking can often lead to more incremental, rather than radical, ideas. Now there is a new perspective emerging, Art Thinking, in which the objective is not to design a journey from the current scenario, A, to an improved position, A+. Art Thinking requires the creation of an optimal position B, and spends more time in the open-ended problem space, staking out possibilities and looking for uncontested space. This paper offers a single case study of a national arts organisation in Dublin facing an existential crisis, which used an Art Thinking approach successfully to give a much-needed shot in the arm to its commercial innovation activities.



“ The motivation for this paper is to add to the recent scholarship on Design Thinking, but also to contribute to the foundation of an emerging dimension of Design Thinking: Art Thinking […]. Promoters and critics differ in their assessment of the value of the process […] of Design Thinking and its user-centricity […], which can tend to anchor solutions in more prosaic and incremental territory. Art Thinking, by contrast, has the capacity to liberate its practitioners from the user experience that characterises Design Thinking and can thus offer more creative, radical and disruptive options […].

“ In Dublin, we examine a case of the oldest, largest and most prestigious fine art gallery and studio, where most of the country’s best-known and successful visual artists make, exhibit and sell their art. […] two years ago, it [Graphic Studio Dublin] found itself on the brink of bankruptcy, having borrowed heavily to invest in new facilities during the period of Ireland’s economic collapse. Its loans were sold to a vulture-fund who were about to foreclose in a move that would have seen a generation of Irish artists displaced. This was compounded by the collapse of GSD’s twin engines of revenue: state funding and consumer demand for fine art. A new board of directors was empanelled, and they introduced Art Thinking principles to rescue the organisation from the brink of bankruptcy. They used an Art Thinking mindset and Design Thinking tools to restore the fortunes of this venerable, artist-led institution and Graphic Studio Dublin was saved.”

Literature Review [on Design Thinking]

“Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, the acronym VUCA, was coined originally by the US military during the Gulf War to describe the conditions of the frontline […]. Latterly, this is the description given to the cut and thrust of the digital revolution […].”

“ In a recent editorial about design, Time Magazine, underlining the growth in importance of design, reported:

‘In this new era, smart corporate leaders are embracing the idea that design can be a crucial differentiator. Only a decade ago, senior business executives tended to dismiss design as a second-tier function — a matter of aesthetics or corporate image best left to the folks in marketing or public relations. Today design is widely acknowledged as a C-suite concern and a key element of corporate strategy.’ […]”

“Businesses look at it as a way to balance the natural tension between ‘explore and exploit’ […], or as a plug-and-play creative process to kick-start innovation […].”

But, What Exactly is Design Thinking?

The Darden model of Design Thinking — an end to end sequence of tools

“Lockwood […], a former President of the Design Management Institute, suggests Design Thinking is:

‘a human-centred innovation process that emphasises observation, collaboration, fast learning, visualisation of ideas, rapid concept prototyping and concurrent business analysis.’

“Mootee’s […] definition focuses more on the process and defines Design Thinking as:

‘the search for a magical balance between business and art, structure and chaos, intuition and logic, concept and execution, playfulness and formality and control and empowerment.’

“Mintrom and Lieutjens […], whose emphasis is on the policy arena, assert:

‘Design thinkers exhibit curiosity and empathy in their efforts to interpret how target populations engage with their world. They deploy various investigative techniques that have the potential to illuminate problems in new ways and indicate effective client focused solutions.’”

“ Design Thinking is invariably user-centred and founded, ideally, on some actionable insight. It is highly visual and relies on customer observation, developing thick, rich ethnographic portraits of customer behaviour and trying to identify themes and patterns (unmet or under-served needs) from the observations.”

“Academics and practitioners alike now coalesce around broad definitions of Design Thinking that see it as a creative, iterative, hypothesis-driven process that is focused on both the problem and the solution. Relying on abduction and experimentation, it balances the twin drivers of possibility and constraint and works best in situations of high complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty (in other words, VUCA environments). It has to navigate between customer wants and needs, client expectations, social circumstances, business models, opportunities in technology and contemporary aesthetic canons.”

“However, as Design Thinking becomes more widespread, so its limitations become more evident. One such limitation is that inherent in Design Thinking is its user-centric approach. It places users in the centre of the process and gives them the dominant voice in the innovation dialogue. While customers are the necessary ingredient for any successful business, they are rarely gifted with imagination or penetrating insights about the future. They cannot anticipate unmet or unarticulated needs and they are rarely the source for radical ideas. Design Thinking tends to anchor innovators in the incremental and hence, while it is a great set of tools for businesses, it can constrain breakthrough thinking.

“Another shortcoming concerns Design Thinking’s core discipline being design. However, design has historically concerned itself with the design of objects, artefacts, products — physical things. […] Hence, as design expands its operating remit into services, into experiences and even into strategy another problem can emerge.”

The Beginnings of an Art Thinking Movement

“She [Amy Whitaker] describes the root of the concept to be Schumpeterian, insofar as capitalism is entirely predicated on change and the need for disruption and reinvention to stimulate business growth. Schumpeter asserted that if firms keep doing the same thing, eventually they go out of business. ‘Following patterns rather than inventing new ones will only get you so far.’

“Art Thinking spends much more time in the problem space: it is not customer-centred; it is breakthrough-oriented.”

“Art Thinking is for companies seeking this type of growth, possibly even transformational growth. ‘They can grow by scaling up to the most efficient level of production. Or they can grow artistically by the alchemy of invention.’ Whitaker […] recognises that this can be challenging for business because:

“‘Business prizes being able to put prices on things and to know their value ahead of time. Yet, if you are inventing Point B, in any area of life — you can’t know the outcome at the moment you have to invest money, time and effort in the Point A world. This is the central paradox of business: the core assumptions of economics — efficiency, productivity and knowable value — work best when an organisation is at cruising altitude, but they will not get the plane off the ground in the first place.’ […]”

Details of the [GSD] Case Study

“The situation was so dire that the Board really had to embrace the principles of Art Thinking: it did not seem to them as if it would be enough to plot a route from current position A to an incrementally better position of A+. The Board just had to start with inventing a vision of what a desirable point B might look like in terms of revenues, audience numbers and costs.”

“ Inviting artists into the business planning process was also an unconventional (and courageous) step as artists invariably have a strong vision and point of view and they rarely pander to an audience’s tastes; rather they like to explore new territories and bring the audience on the journey with them. Nevertheless, this artist collaboration yielded a large amount of good and useable concepts, which the Board started to implement straight away.”

“ New markets, new spaces and new audiences were being opened up through this strategy, and the sales were really feeling a dramatic lift.”

“A counter-intuitive feature of this case is that when threatened with the harsh financial crisis, rather than drawing in their horns: cutting costs and commissioning less work, the Board chose to do the opposite. They elected to take a different approach, to ignore the bleak reality and, instead, to imagine a different and better reality for the organisation. They began with plotting a strategic ‘north star’ and navigated towards this desired outcome.”


“Thus, design thinking alone would not have produced the dramatic results made necessary by the crisis facing the organisation.”

“ Art Thinking is also more comfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the idea that the future is unknowable […] for if it were otherwise an innovation would, in principle be already known and would have occurred in the present and not in the future.”

“This is the heartland of Art Thinking: when the boundaries are fuzzy and the outcomes uncertain. Madsbjerg […] issues a passionate cry for humanistic, liberal arts thinking, believing like many others that over-reliance on data and algorithms creates enormous risks for employees, business and society. What all the data fails to capture, he says, is the critical nuances of culture and context that ultimately drive behaviour and lead the way to enduring innovation.

“In summary, Art Thinking, with its focus on options, not outcomes; on possibilities, not certainty, was the ideal way to approach the very grave problems threatening the very existence of a core pillar in the Irish visual arts ecosystem. […] It seems highly appropriate to pilot Art Thinking in the visual arts and according to this case-study — it really does have something worthwhile to offer.”

Read the full article in MDPI Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market and Complexity.

*Author affiliations: School of Business, Dublin City University; Department of Design Innovation, Maynooth University

Past issues:

(BIA) Introduction

(BIA Issue #1)

Dying for a Paycheck

By Jeffrey Pfeffer


Twenty-First Century Leadership: A Return to Beauty

by Nancy J. Adler and Andre L. Delbecq

(BIA Issue #2)

Work of Art

by Esko Kilpi

(BIA Issue #3)

Arts and Design as Translational Mechanisms for Academic Entrepreneurship: The metaLAB at Harvard Case Study

by Luca Simeone, Giustina Secundo and Giovanni Schiuma

(BIA Issue #4)

Recombining Hand and Head

by Piero Formica

(BIA Issue #5)

Joseph Beuys’ Rediscovery of Man–Nature Relationship: A Pioneering Experience of Open Social Innovation

by Fabio Maria Montagnino

(BIA Issue #6)
Creativity in Business Education: A Review of Creative Self-Belief Theories and Arts-Based Methods

by Sogol Homayoun and Danah Henriksen

(BIA Issue #7)

Classical Guitar Study as Creativity Training: Potential Benefits for Managers and Entrepreneurs

by Jonathan Gangi

(BIA Issue #8)

Collaborative Innovation: Exploring the Intersections among Theater, Art and Business in the Classroom

By Sara Beckman, Stacy Jo Scott and Lisa Wymore

Coming up next:

(BIA Issue #10)

Art Hacking for Business Innovation: An Exploratory Case Study on Applied Artistic Strategies

by Berit Sandberg




Reviewing the leading edge at the intersection of art, science, culture, design, technology and innovation.

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BeiBei Song 宋贝贝

BeiBei Song 宋贝贝

#Innovation strategist. #Creativity agent. Executive educator & coach @StanfordBiz. #Art #science #tech fusionist & curator. Founder @Essinova.

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