Shh! Don’t Tell Them There’s No Magic In Design Thinking

When the term Design Thinking first emerged on the scene, I found it completely puzzling. People were treating it as if it was a revolutionary new methodology to produce better products and services. They were talking about how entire companies were adopting this new approach, and those companies were becoming more competitive in the marketplace and seeing huge increases in customer satisfaction.

Now, every few years, someone touts some new approach or method that’s going to change the world. It’s part of how consultants make money. Brand an idea and sell it. Make a ton of money until the next big thing comes around. So, I’m used to these cycles by now.

Yet, Design Thinking was in my own backyard. It’s supposed to be a shift in how companies think about design, and that’s where I’ve been working for the last 37 years. I needed to find out more about what it was.

Did We Need a New Term?

It wasn’t hard to find people excited about Design Thinking. They were popping up in lots of organizations.

Yet, when I asked them what they thought it meant, their answer puzzled me. They told me it was a new approach to design, focusing on problem solving with multidisciplinary teams, producing competitive end-to-end solutions that delight customers, users, and employees.

Problem solving? Multidisciplinary teams? End-to-end solutions? Delighting users? I’d been researching and writing about integrating these elements for decades. What’s new here?

“Well, our senior managers are really excited about design thinking. Much more than any time before. That’s what’s new!” they’d tell me.

For the longest time, I didn’t get it. It seemed like we just added a new name to an old thing. Nothing was different. I thought it wouldn’t last.

But it did. Everywhere I’d go, there would be presentations where folks would talk about how they’ve introduced design thinking into their organization. (My wife and I would play this game. If we hear someone say “design thinking” in a presentation, we’d each try to be the first to say “I’M DESIGNING WITH MY THOUGHTS!”)

Why did we need another term? Design worked perfectly fine, I thought. You could take any sentence that had design thinking in it and substitute only the word design and get the same meaning. Hell, you could just use thinking most of the time and it still worked.

Fighting the “Design Means Make It Pretty” Meme

For decades, I’ve needed to do what every seasoned design professional has found themselves doing: explaining why design is more than just making something pretty. When I’ve worked with other designers, they get it.

But once someone who isn’t a designer — someone who is a layperson — is introduced into the mix, I’ve found I need to convince them that design isn’t only about making the thing pretty. That’s it’s about solving problems. That’s it’s about end-to-end solutions.

Some of the make-it-pretty meme comes from the way design is framed inside our society. TV shows, like Project Runway or This Old House, talk about design as the end stage, where the colors and decorations are added in. Go into a Home Depot or a Lowe’s and you’ll find a section of the store called the Design Center, where they sell paint and decorative knickknacks to complete your rooms. There’s no discussion of problem solving or end-to-end solutions in that world of design.

It’s important to bring design into a project early, before the team settles on a solution, so they can truly explore the needs of the users. Yet, when we would propose this, we’d get these funny looks. Why should we care about the design that early? We haven’t even figured out what we’re doing yet? They’d always push back and tell us to come back later, when it was time for design to clean things up.

That’s been the fight for decades. We’ve spent so much time trying to get the laypeople to try to think about design in a bigger definition. Yet, they always come back to the notion that design is only about making it pretty.

Design Thinking is a Reframing of Design

The phrase design thinking changed all that. To a layperson, it was completely new. While it was made up of words they thought they knew, the combination was novel. “Design thinking? What’s that?”

Adding the word ‘thinking’ to ‘design’ was a brilliant move. David Kelley and Tim Brown, the founders of IDEO who popularized the term, were smart to take advantage of the unfamiliarity of the phrase.

To those of us who’ve been doing this for a long time, design thinking doesn’t mean anything new. But it also doesn’t mean ‘make it pretty.’ And that’s why it works.

It changes the conversation. When you add ‘thinking’ to the word ‘design, it’s no longer about color or decoration. It’s now about process. It’s about getting to a more intentional outcome. It’s about thinking about the experience of the customer, user, and employee.

Design Thinking is a shortcut for a new way for non-designers to approach design. It says:

  • We’re going to do things differently from how we’ve always done it before.
  • We’re going to study problems before we jump to solutions.
  • We’re going to treat requirements as assumptions and validate them.
  • We’re going to diverge on our best ideas before picking the one that matches the solution best.
  • We’re going to map the customer’s journey to see where we’ve made a mess of things.
  • We’re going to build multiple prototypes and watch users interact with them, to learn what’s best.

In essence, Design Thinking is the integration of techniques, like Lean UX, customer journey mapping, and prototyping directly into the way the organization does business every day. It’s using the basic, proven tools of design to the maximum effect.

The customer-focused problem-solving approach to developing products and services feels magical to anyone who hasn’t been doing design for a long time. People get excited about it. And they talk about it as if it’s magical.

Magic is a wonderful thing. It helps you suspend your disbelief. “Yes, Design Thinking can finally solve all of our problems!” This reframing gives the designer the power to lower the resistance of executives providing support for solving big problems and achieving great outcomes.

Yet, with power comes responsibility.

The Traveler from Stone Soup

The magical powers that people assign to Design Thinking reminds me of an old Eastern European folk tale. The story takes place at a time when walking was the only way to travel from one village to the next (before horses were invented). In that time, it was traditional to offer visitors to your village scraps of food to replenish their hunger after such a long walk.

One traveler, upon arriving at a new town, knocked on the door of the first house he saw. However, despite the tradition, the homeowner didn’t offer any food. She explained that they were experiencing a drought and barely had enough food to feed their own family. They couldn’t spare a scrap.

Every house the traveler visited had the same story. It was a drought and there was no extra food.

When the traveler reached the center of town, he decided he needed to make something for himself. He took out his pots, started a little fire, and set up to cook himself some dinner.

He reached into his bag and pulled out a round stone. He set the stone in the bottom of the pot and started stirring. A crowd of villagers started to form.

“What are you doing?” a curious villager asked.

“I’m making Stone Soup,” the traveler responded.

“You can make a soup out of stone?” asked the villager.

“Yes, but a little water makes it better.”

“I have a little water in my well,” said another villager. He then ran off and fetched the water. The water was added to the pot and the traveler resumed his stirring.

“What will it taste like?” a villager new to the scene asked.

“Well, it would taste better with some carrots.” Upon hearing this another villager ran to his house to grab a few carrots from his garden.

Then another villager offered up some other vegetables he’d salvaged from his garden. And a woman mentioned she had some meat scraps on her pantry.

“All of it would make the soup even better,” said the traveler. Off they all went to grab what they had.

Soon the pot was filled with a lovely large stew. The traveler graciously shared his dinner with the villagers. Everybody had a grand time eating the Stone Soup.

After the festive evening, as the traveler was packing up to head on his way, he thanked everyone for helping.

“As a repayment for your kindness and generosity,” the traveler announced, “I’d like to give your village the gift of this stone. So, you can keep making soup even when you have a drought upon you.” The villagers all cheered with delight.

They thanked the traveler profusely as he made his way out of town. He continued on his way.

When the traveler was a few miles out of the town, he looked down at the road and spotted a lovely round stone. He picked it up and admired it for second. Then he dropped it into his bag and continued on his way with a smile on his face.

What Does the Traveler Think?

Design Thinking is our stone. When we apply Design Thinking, we bring the entire organization together to collaboratively solve big problems.

Yet, to me, that’s not the important lesson from the story. The lesson I take away is that, at no time during the story, do we believe that the traveler thinks the stone makes soup.

Instead, the traveler sees that the villagers need their thinking reframed. They have enough food to eat, if only they worked together. The stone isn’t magical. It’s a device.

Maybe the villagers believe the stone makes soup? Maybe a smart villager or two see what the traveler did? But at no time did the traveler himself ever believe the stone made soup. He’d starve if he did.

As design professionals, we shouldn’t let ourselves think there’s any magic in Design Thinking. Our teams, stakeholders, and executives can believe in it, but we shouldn’t. To do so would be to depend on Design Thinking having magic and such magic doesn’t really exist.

That’s the design professional’s secret. Shh! Don’t tell them!


Build out your Design Thinking toolkit with a Lean UX approach, customer journey mapping to gain across-the-organization collaboration, and design prototyping to share your vision of how your product can be better. Send your team to the full day workshops on these topics at the UX Immersion Conference, May 1–3, in Portland OR.