Why “Design Thinking”?


This blog was inspired by a pattern I have observed in the curiosity for Design Thinking among the professionals from a wide range of industries. Within the past two years three friends of mine, all serving in the pharmaceutical industry have shown a keen interest in introducing Design Thinking into their organization. Also, during the same period, I have noticed a growing interest in incorporating Design Thinking into strategic levels of the FinTech sector. I have wondered why highly regulated pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions are attracted to Design Thinking. I hope to generate a conversation through this blog with the purpose of bringing greater clarity to what Design Thinking is.

The context for design thinking

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

– Albert Einstein, Former refugee

There are several prevailing conditions in Healthcare and FinTech sectors that call for fresh perspectives. Established institutional ecosystems in these sectors for delivering value to everyday people have become self-serving and overbearing. Those running the systems have become the primary beneficiaries and those who they were meant to serve in the first place have become either victims or slaves of the systems. Every day people are fast losing trust in the established institutions and are looking for alternatives that will put them back in the center.

“The people who need design ingenuity the most, the poorest 90% of the global population, have historically been deprived of it.”

– Alice Rawsthorn, Design critic

At the same time, new and innovative models of transactions are emerging in the startup ecosystem and are fast threatening established institution’s monopoly in the marketplace. Emerging Participatory models of the interface between people and institutions are focusing on giving power back to everyday people. In this background, I am not surprised that the established Healthcare and FinTech companies are searching for a new vision and a roadmap that will make them more trustworthy to the everyday people and relevant in the emerging future. These change-averse sectors are hoping that “Design thinking” will help them build capacity to learn, transform, and thrive.

The core questions

The real challenge for both the design community and the organizations that want to implement it is to bring clarity to what “Design Thinking” is, how it is practiced, and what outcomes it can produce. to understand what it is, we must also understand what it is not.

What Design Thinking is not

There is a misconception promoted in the marketplace that “Design Thinking” is a practice pioneered by IDEO and Stanford D-School. There is no doubt that both of these institutions have played a significant role in making design thinking a part of the business vernacular. However propagating the myth that the process model articulated by IDEO and the Stanford D-School is the most original, exclusive and authentic representation of design thinking does disservice to the process of establishing it as a global practice and denies credit to the historical work of scholars who have contributed to the study of designerly ways of knowing (Title of a book written by Nigel Cross). I suggest that we should not limit our understanding of Design thinking to the model propagated by IDEO and the D-School PR machine. Doing so will only hurt the process of encouraging a wide community of designers, social scientists, and management scientists to contribute to the body of knowledge base and enrich the process.

So what is Design Thinking

To understand what design thinking is one must understand how designers think.

While scientists are largely focused on “what is?” (The truth), designers are focused on “what if?” (The possibilities). Scientists help bring clarity to ambiguity, turn superstitions into rational ways of interpreting the mysteries of nature and bring order to chaos. On the other hand, designers help cultivate curiosity and tolerance for ambiguity and chaos, expand imagination, encourage exploration, recognize patterns, and serve as sherpas in discovering alternate paths to the future. Designers help create elegant and delightful solutions to lingering, wicked and complex problems. For those stuck in the past, designers provide a provocation for an individual’s mind and for organizations' culture so that they can dare to entertain possibilities without being constrained by their comfort for the status quo. Designers provide reconnaissance to the future.

Elementary School Teacher Using Cognitive mapping tool to map her students’ learning journey

Tools are an important part of design thinking. Tinkering with ideas requires tinkering tools. Designers have traditionally used tinkering tools to gain insights, to process insights into patterns, patterns into frameworks, frameworks into concepts, concepts into scenarios and scenarios into ecosystems of products and services. Tinkering tools make it easy for abstract ideas and concepts to become more concrete and to examine their viability. Designerly ways of knowing and tinkering gives power and confidence to their clients to prepare themselves for the emerging future. Design thinking, therefore, is a way of envisioning and building the future after examining a variety of possibilities.

The future of Design Thinking

The practice of design has undergone radical change over the years. In the past design belonged to the designers. Designers saw themselves as a hero (or god). They studied the “users” of their design artifacts, only to gain insight into how best to manipulate their emotions and behaviors. A successful designer was one who became a brand him/herself. Designers of the past designed for people.

Designers of the future will design with people. I practiced design for 14 years before going to graduate school to study design research. During this period, I read concepts and methods from Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology and Communication theory. I also did an internship at the leading design firm Fitch Inc. (formerly Richardson Smith) as a design researcher. All of these experiences brought me to a realization that design is an ongoing and iterative process. The future is always under construction in people’s imagination. Designers at best provide a provocation for people to consider the possibilities of how they want to construct their material surroundings and experience their life. In reality design begins in social imagination and ends where it lives- in people’s lives. Therefore it is important to consider everyday people (the true owners of the design) as co-creators. The design thinking process will be incomplete and inadequate and its outcomes ineffective unless the real people- the beneficiaries of design are involved in the design process in co-imagining and co-creating design.

“Managers need a new framework for value creation. Increasingly, individual customers interact with a network of firms and consumer communities to co-create value. No longer can firms autonomously create value. Neither is value embedded in products and services per se. Products are but an artifact around which compelling individual experiences are created. As a result, the focus of innovation will shift from products and services to experience environments that individuals can interact with to co-construct their own experiences. These personalized co-creation experiences are the source of unique value for consumers and companies alike.”

-C.K. Prahlad and Venkat Ramaswami

The future of Design Thinking, therefore, lies in establishing processes, culture, and tools for an engaged, sustained and iterative collaboration between all the stakeholders in a value chain. For organizations that are founded on the old model of top-down modes of creating and delivering value, design thinking offers an opportunity to retrain their people and reboot their operations so that news pathways to the future become visible.

How to get there?

During one of the workshops, I conducted at The Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, one of the industry participants asked me a very important question. He asked, “ In order to establish a co-creation practice in a large global company, at what level should the responsibility for managing the process should be assigned?” My response to him was, “The level of the person is less important, but what is important is that he/she should believe in the co-creation process, should be passionate and persistent in championing it, and should have the acumen to network relentlessly across silos and levels of authority in the company.” This individual became an evangelist of co-creation in his company. With his passion and persistence, he was able to bring us into his company and we have continued to build a co-creation culture through multiple project engagements.

“Don’t underestimate the ripple effect of what you do.” — Leila Janah


For those who want to consider becoming a champion of Design Thinking in your organization I summarize this blog:

  1. Design thinking is about co-imagining and co-creating a roadmap to the future by exploring possible alternatives and scenarios.
  2. To be effective and successful Design thinking must become a culture of an organization.
  3. Key stakeholders (including everyday people) must be included through a structured and ongoing relationship as partners in the process.
  4. Design thinking will produce numerous possibilities, which will need further testing, validation, and refinement through an iterative process.
  5. There isn’t one standard, licensed process of design thinking that you need to follow. Make up your own.

Finally, to my mind bringing design thinking into your organization is akin to bringing nature into your home. There are many ways of doing it. You can purchase a plant at a store and display it in your window. Alternately, you can go into the forest and collect seeds, till the earth in your yard, sow the seeds, water them, let some of the seeds turn into saplings, nurture them, trim them and let them bloom. Even better, you can gather an entire community of nature enthusiasts and grow a forest. At SonicRim we have decided to grow a forest with you. In the age of rapid deforestation merely selling plants for window dressing is not enough.



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