Design Thinking and its Evolutions

A practitioner’s reflection on the future of design thinking

Paricha 'Bomb' D.


Once upon a time, there were 5 hexagons that outlined the step-process known as design thinking.

And for a long time after its creation, innovation professionals and educators from every discipline adopted it as their own — indeed the methodology invites radical collaboration and creative remix.

Everyday, more people talked about it and helped popularize it to all four the corners of the world, across languages and cultures and geographies.

Until one day, the same people — or may be those who listened to those people — decided that design thinking no longer works. There were no tangible output, they said, money needed to be made, reliably and quick.

Because of this, the educators at gathered around the proverbial campfire to reflect on a better way to teach the methodology, so that the defectors (so to speak), can make better use of it.

And because of this, they decided to de-emphasize the fixedness of the process and capitalize on its promise and potential to transform practitioners’ skills and mindsets.

And ever since that day, the five-step process became known as the seven design abilities that people can practice like the design muscle that is innate in every human being.

Stanford via IDEO U

In 2016, just before entering the Design Impact program at Stanford University, I saw a Medium post from the Stanford about what I interpreted as the next evolution(s) of the design thinking process. At the time, I just started working at an energy tech start up in the Bay Areas as technical staff and, somehow, was very much curious about the role of design in the sustainability, climate, and energy spaces.

About 8 years later, now, at the dawn of 2024, I am looking back on my own uses of design thinking in educational and corporate innovation contexts. I thought about how I could possibly, however humbly, contribute to shaping it in my own work as an educator. This is a reflection on my work history, relationship to design thinking.

Design Thinking and I

I recalled attending pop-up workshops at the as an graduate engineering student, making wallets and studying systems and practicing creative teamworks with design thinking. I remember feeling vividly optimistic: empowered by and confident with a process that helps me solve (a good subset of) problems that I will face as a future employee/entrepreneur. In a way, it is a general good feeling that my weekly engineering problem sets and labs never left me with. I was probably drinking the Kool-Aid at the time but now, half a decade into my post-graduate school career in education and consulting, I see a more realistic potential in the methodology sans rose-coloured glasses.

Around 2019, I started teaching design innovation at a newly-founded entrepreneurship school at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, in a first-year undergraduate class called Rethinking Justice for Innovators. There, I used the methodology in the context of social justice, specifically by applying it to complex social problems (e.g. gender-based violence, income inequality, climate change) and incorporating concepts like vulnerability and intersectionality into existing tools. I encouraged the students to show their work and communicate their learnings in an exhibition in lieu of a slides-powered final presentation.

I designed my classes around the iconic hexagons, however misleading this step-by-step process could turn out to be. The topical split along the diagram was straightforward and simple to digest in blocks that neatly fit into the course syllabus. For instance, the first half of the course covered contents on social justice — via simulations, games, guest lectures — while the second half of the course introduces a project with the scaffold of design thinking for 6–8 weeks.

Of course, my students’ learning are never quite straightforward, and I always find myself urging students to visit/ask questions in office hours where I, inevitably, encouraged them to learn through failure and iteration.

Design thinking in transition

In addition to teaching, I worked on projects as a design researcher and consultant, in particular in innovation initiatives of corporations and the social sector. I was not ready for the bombardment of buzzwords: empathize, brainstorm, fail-forward, iteration that teetered the contents of any project towards corporate theatre.

More than once, an attendee of my workshop was able to tell the story of a case study I was about to share but did not participate quite so actively in its debrief. Just once, fortunately, I was asked to lead a brainstorm session (because, I was told, that’s what “you do”) without an objective or problem statement. Sometimes, I was told that my proposals were too expensive, which I appreciated because the feedback is usually a way to quickly understand the client’s pain points (and their attitude towards design thinking).

Despite the many misunderstandings that I encountered and the plethora of well-worded and -intentioned criticisms in public (usually blown out of proportion), I have grown to appreciate the nuances in the how’s and when’s (and how and when not to’s) to apply design thinking — at least in the Thai context where the methodology is making its way from the workshop phase into more distributed applications (e.g. new product development) and face actual scrutiny backed by measurable ROIs (i.e. will the new product make money?). I’ve used the methodology to recommend features for AI-backed healthcare and entertainment applications, for financial services for long-term debtors and aspiring investors, and to recommend internal changes to solve management problems.

After 5 years of teaching the class and consulting on bespoke projects, I believe that the methodology still has many useful use cases, if applied properly, with the right stakeholder support, and time to let the process run. Just like any other processes.

Critically, I am also slowly experiencing design thinking in a different form factor, as abilities that stays with individuals and as a language that empowers teams.

First: from methodology to abilities

Like most people, I started coming into contact with design thinking in a classroom. I was excited by the linearity and stick-to-it intuitiveness that the methodology offers, and the feeling that I can solve any problem* that I would like to.

*Note: this is not true, of course, but I would argue that user confidence is a designed outcome of design thinking

As an engineer, I never felt confident to solve any of humanities’ problems, let alone the hypothetical or research problems that I was given in my graduate class that were full of Greek symbols. The first time I did the Wallet exercise, I felt like an agent of change. Because there is a process that I can follow to arrive at some conclusion, even if it’s not the best one, I felt free to make mistakes along the way and reflect on the places to grow, and make that an outcome better upon iteration. The first Wallet may be terrible, but I can make it better.

This is the mindset that I tried to cultivate in the students as I follow the hexagons; that no matter the type of social problem — whether it’s about achieving net zero goals or tackling gender-based violence on campus — there is a way to slowly and respectfully understand the problem before trying to throw at it a hurricane of assumptions disguised as solutions. This is a very common problem with my students, raised in an education system that rewards correct answers over critical thinking. And so, I reminded them of the fact (in much nicer terms) that I care more for their thought process than their buzzworthy ideas.

And so, I emphasized the kind of skills I hoped they would take with them to their future projects. Like how they should, at first, be comfortable with the openness and ambiguity of a problem space; or how they can make sure their team is on the same page by referring to the steps design thinking; or how they intentionally talk about the problem(s) as much as the solution(s). These abilities seemed flow naturally out of the projects that I assigned because they enforce a very basic lesson I tried to impart: how to clearly differentiate between problems and solutions.

If I’m honest, it is hard to measure how much they’ve learnt, even when I asked the students to present their works and thought process. The fact that the class is graded and has a final presentation is probably a double-edged sword: students do pay attention at each step of the process as long as its designed into well-scaffolded assignments but they also get stuck worried about getting to the right answers (rather than just, say, doing the work and getting feedback).

Teaching the class left with me a big question mark: how would the students learn design thinking as a set of abilities?

This gap became a trigger point for a student club Design for Thailand, inspired by its namesake initiative in America, where I help scope projects from partners in the social sector for students to work on using the design thinking process. So far, we had students re-designing the homestay experience to promote tourism with Northern tribes people and mapping the waste ecosystem for the Bangkok metropolitan area, as well upcoming projects for employment of ex-prisoners and on plastic cups recycling.

Through meetings with the leaders and the teams, I noticed the club veterans navigated the intentionally ambiguous project scope (i.e. where the actions aren’t clear, but the objective is set) who asked me process-specific advice and organized their own an exhibition to share their work every semester (so far).

I’m very proud of how far each team has grown and how, on more than one occasion, they felt motivated to visit their project stakeholders and to finish the work at implementation (see: “test” hexagon). It became very obvious to me that design thinking in practice led to a set of design abilities gained.

Then: from abilities to language

My work with the students are far from done, but I do sense a level of independence with this almost self-organized group of socially-minded entrepreneurs. The work of the projects merged with running the club as a social unit, and slowly but surely, they are initiating their own social activities and finding their organizational structure and culture. I noticed, too, that the students are using specific language — to me, a coverall for the in/tangible ways they communicate with each other and to myself as their mentors— about things like expectations, feedback, project planning, and even personal lives.

This is evident in how the students used LINE application to set up group chats with sub-group chats for projects, and asked for votes on meeting times and social trips. This is clear when they created short humourous video reels on Instagram to advertise an upcoming exhibition, in addition to the Canva-powered posters. This is most obvious when one of the teams, who’s been working with the same partner for 1.5 years, had a debrief voice call with me and it felt like I was swimming in actionable insights for their mobile application after a field trip.

In a way not so dissimilar to visual language, a set of abilities might be so ingrained in team work that they become part of the team’s vocabulary and way of work.

I was pleasantly surprised, because these reminded me of how I work. As part of a consulting team, I became highly aware of the tug of war between meeting deadlines and addressing the scoped questions to the best of our abilities. Whether it’s user research or concept testing or workshops — and definitely regardless of industry — every project I’ve had forces me openly communicate with my team on our progress, on what we’re doing at any given time, and most importantly on who the project will benefit. In the past, I have revisited the project objective when an action is not that clear, made changes to a workshop flow on the fly, requested feedback from client about my proposals.

All of this, I say with more than a little bias, requires that the working team has its own language because — past a certain point of scale — we can no longer expect a small team to be proficient with multiple abilities. That is why we have project lead who can curate design talents and orchestrate human-centered symphonies, who sets the tone and facilitate conversations (always) with the beneficiaries and pain points in mind.

While one could argue that good communication is simply a part of any good project management, I would think of this as the next evolution of design thinking that can permeate through an organization and realize measurable change. Imagine: the possibilities of company officers talking on the same page, as they critically question user insights and translate them into specific actions for their own teams to achieve higher margins and sustainable solutions.

A totally capitalistic dream? Probably. But good communication alone is probably worth the investment into driving design thinking to this point, through prolonged usage and executive support. This is only the start of a rather long road towards organizational transformation.

Next: from language to … ?

Unfortunately, the buzz on design thinking as an innovation method or even just a generally useful framework is dying down (at least here in Thailand — a story for another post). I think we have yet to scratch the surface on how design thinking can truly be used and evaluated at the organizational level. Perhaps, this drove my need to keep evolving design thinking too, into something worth exploring.

What comes after language?

How might we help teammates collaborate with design thinking at its center?

I’m tempted to refer to Dr. Hazel Markus’ culture cycle to thinking about methodology and abilities at the individual level which shape language and way of work in organizations which in turns encode the idea of human-centeredness to bigger institutions and myths.

There’s a lot of ideas to explore, and assumptions to question for sure. Is design thinking a good idea to keep around? What about the natural world as a stakeholder? How can we incorporate systems and speculating about future possibilities? There is an endless stream of new and fascinating methodologies to explore — life-centered design by Damien Lutz, circular design from Ellen MacArthur Foundation, biomimicry from the Biomimicry Institute, or Factor 10 Engineering from the Rocky Mountain Institute comes to mind — but I think we owe it to our innovation spirits to meet design thinking at its potential. We should at least explore the logical conclusions of this marvelously popular idea while the momentum is still there and decision makers are still (somewhat) listening.

For now, I believe that design thinking, in its conceptuality and flexibility and openness to interpretation, is just the right foundation upon which to build more complex methodologies that will emerge and grow our abilities, language, and institutions to promote good citizenship in the world. The question is: who of us practitioner is willing to explore beyond the buzz?



Paricha 'Bomb' D.
Editor for

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.