Design Thinking is Killing Creativity

You might have probably heard everyone’s jaw drop after I mentioned this on Twitter over the weekend.

A fellow designer and I were discussing this in detail and jointly came to this disappointing conclusion. It was quite a significant conclusion and likely to be correct, as both of us were in positions to manage design processes and teams, and also shape and influence design centric business strategies.

I do not think that this epiphany happened as a result of this discussion. This was something that has been cooking at the back of my mind since design thinking started gaining traction in the competitive corporate environment. My thoughts include design thinking’s impact, its fallout, and its side effects.

This was really not an easy post to write, there were lots of information for me to manage and reorganize. As with any story, lets start from the beginning by looking at why design thinking was even needed in the first place?

Why Design Thinking?

I think A.G. Lafley says it best with the following two quotes on the difference between business and design thinking.

“Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence), …”

“Design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.” ~ Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley

(From The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, Business Week 28 July 2008)

Businesses finally realized that in this hyper competitive environment, design thinking could help create the next big thing. Considering all the hard lessons learnt during the recent recession, businesses were more than ready for this change.

So designers (well at least some) are rejoicing that design thinking has finally reached the tipping point. The evidence is everywhere. Any business periodical worth its salt has some form of design coverage in the form of a segment, blog or at the very least a “design” tag.

Everyone was happy. So happy that we were even rolling with the confusion between big D Design and small d design. There is no denying that design, both the verb and noun, has finally got the recognition it needs by being firmly entrenched in the board room.

Everything Comes at a Cost?

For design to be so integrated into business processes, a huge divide had to be crossed, and different mindsets had to meet and meld. It became a prerequisite that design thinking had to be communicated in a language that the business can understand.

That, in my humble opinion, was the beginning of the end.

As design thinking moved closer across the chasm to the business, it further evolved and started to inherit the problems that businesses so hoped that design thinking would solve and move beyond.

For one, design thinking’s consumer focused methodology was used to validate rather than predict. We explored a similar discussion in the post “user centered design is dead”. We were now asking consumers “What Next”, instead of leading with compelling and meaningful solutions. As a result, we just kept on optimizing rather than innovating.

Design could have stepped in to reverse this. However I believe instead of getting easier, it got harder. Perhaps now design and business are just too close, and being too close has its disadvantages as people start taking each other for granted.

The popularity of crowd sourcing did not help. Together with the Internet, market research now becomes scalable with access to truly statistical significant data. Now suddenly businesses have access to large amounts of information and data, and logically old habits die-hard. The real failure here is when businesses validate solutions (anchored by design thinking) with data compiled from existing solutions.

Furthermore in the 5 or so years since design thinking made it big in the boardroom, I’ve experienced over and over again business ROI getting the better of design thinking. Awesome product propositions anchored by critical insight, technology, and business potential, gets killed or watered down because risk adverse businesses believe they can’t sell enough to justify the product’s existence.

Sigh. At the end of the day though all is not lost as well-informed designers can still negotiate around and resolve such hazards.

Design Thinking Packaged like a Happy Meal

The last straw came when I realized that the design thinking process had now become a nice little packaged “product”. A nice curriculum taught in schools and universities, spread in droves by business consultants eager to jump on what was now the next big business trend. Just like JIT, Six Sigma and ISO certifications etc, design thinking was now being structurally deployed like another other business process in organizations far and wide.

What makes it worse is when people from such design thinking integrated organizations are debating the right or wrong way in conducting Design Thinking. I wonder if they forgot that it is not about a right or wrong process but a right or wrong solution.

Dictating design thinking as a sequential step-by-step process is ripe for failure in the creativity and solutions department. This is probably why after half a decade; the companies that are creating innovative products continue to be the usual suspects. The same old brands that have been doing so even before Design Thinking had its day. Therefore I feel design thinking has not produced the results the business has been hoping for, and despite the best efforts, design thinking will continue to be something only a few can do well.

Furthermore design thinkers that have not been classically trained in design “doing” will likely not realize that great innovative solutions don’t come at the end of the process; they come from any part of the process.

Design is an iterative activity that only has broad guidelines but no fixed process. What’s more important is that critical insights, sensitivity to consumer needs and beautiful solutions comes from the creative chaos encouraged by an open design process. All of this got killed when the business mindset required design thinking to have structure, repeatability, and reliability.

Time to Move on, Nothing to see Here!

I think it’s time for all of us to move on. Design thinking should not be seen as the end all, but part of a number of design tools businesses can employ. Therefore I have always contested, from the beginning, that designers should lead such efforts. This is because classically trained designers have the ability to able to deal with chaos and manage risk; something the business needs help with. All the more so, as it is from within this chaos that paradigm-shifting ideas will come. That is where the Holy Grail really resides.

Phew! What a beast of an article, and I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Please do excuse the grammar (which I went back to fix), as it was 2am when I struggled to complete this post. As always, I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Edit: Check out the follow up post: How Can We Fix the Problems of Design Thinking?

  • DT_GK_India

    January 15, 2015 at 5:56 pm Reply

    Could agree more on this peice
    “…All of this got killed when the business mindset required design thinking to have structure, repeatability, and reliability.”
    Recently, I conducted a basic DT awarness workshop for the Sr Mgmt of an IT company… only to realize (when the floor was open for discussion) that everyone in the room wanted a pattern to apply it to their Line of business…
    Its like wanting a customized-innovative-repeatable-economic output

  • Austin Hill Shaw

    February 4, 2012 at 2:37 am Reply

    I am an architectural designer and a creativity consultant, one who teaches other about creativity and the creative process.
    I loved your exploration, especially the part:
    “Design is an iterative activity that only has broad guidelines but no fixed process. What’s more important is that critical insights, sensitivity to consumer needs and beautiful solutions comes from the creative chaos encouraged by an open design process. All of this got killed when the business mindset required design thinking to have structure, repeatability, and reliability.”
    Please see the following post for ways that explore the links between creativity and consciousness.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful ideas…

  • DT

    March 2, 2011 at 9:12 pm Reply

    @Eduardo: Thanks for your question.
    Basically, when a company or designers asks a consumer what he dislikes about a product and then implements a change, the designer is just improving the product incrementally. It is a safe way of product development and for the business because it is what the business wants.
    As people often can’t tell you what they like not predict the future, innovative product development comes from critical insight and often a good synthesis of trends and problems.

  • DT

    March 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm Reply

    @amy: Thanks for your comment for sorry for the very late reply. I can’t comment too much as I’m not familiar with your course and the fashion industry. But what I can say is any designer with commercial savvy can go a long way. Also I think in fashion it is one of the few design industries where business and design work well together. Just look at all the creative directors making their names and the business brands backing them. I’m sure there will be struggles, that always happens but the fact the two are talking will go along way.
    @carl: Hey Carl, very nice to see you here. Indeed that is a sensation I get, many designers feel threaten by Design Thinking. I for one am not, and am fully for it all the way. Not only is it an additional opportunity for a designer to find employment, it furthers the appreciation and understanding of the power of design and what it can do for the business and organization.
    Indeed, for me I don’t openly talk or call anything Design Thinking, as I mentioned to you after my talk, it breeds confusion, misunderstanding and as you highlighted them vs us attitude.
    My struggle is with the capability of the people leading design thinking in an organization. Ironically, the best people to manage design thinking are the designers themselves, and they are the ones shying away from it.

  • Carl

    March 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm Reply

    I’m reading this post because I, like the author of this post, am attending a Design Thinking workshop for the next two days.
    I’m not a designer – that is, I was not trained in Design. But I have worked in design, with designers and with the design process for some time now.
    And I understand Design Thinking as an approach to one’s business and the processes that support that. For example, a lot of businesses would do well to look at themselves, their products and services for their customers’ perspective – an obvious position, perhaps, to some readers of this blog but, as we all know, an often neglected source of insights. There are other ‘aspects’ of Design Thinking too of course that I shan’t go into here.
    There’s a lot that can be said – indeed a lot has been said in the original post and in some of the comments.
    But, I put it to you all, that a lot of this comes from a position of fear – a fear felt by designers that designers might be being challenged – that their esteemed and cool postions might possibly be eroded or encroached upon by someone in a suit – that someone else might be able to talk about some of the things they are supposed to be able to talk about.
    In fact, I didn’t have to go far before I found a comment from CSVEN above (who I think, is the person who DT conversed with before putting the post together). I quote:
    “…The only reason we have this new phrase, imo, is because the business world is trying to understand us [with Tim Brown’s help and encouragement] and in the process trying to make what we do fit into their left-brained system…”
    I see Design Thinking as a way of thinking that me and other unfortunates burdened with a left-brain system can learn from Design and help businesses as a whole understand Design’s benefits and a way of working that helps us all to innovate and create things and services that customers want and enjoy.
    Talking about us and them from some position of exclusivity where never the two shall meet (or indeed understand each other) smacks of possessiveness, of exclusivity and a little fear.

  • Amy

    November 9, 2010 at 7:54 pm Reply

    Hi there,
    This article has confirmed what I have been thinking for so long and has inspired me to make a change in my own education direction…
    I am a fashion student studying at London College Of Fashion and have found the change in the course structure during my final year a real struggle.Whilst the course is’ Fashion Design development’,the emphasis during my third year seems to be heavily leaning towards more business and strategical thinking.What was once accessed on innovation,creativity and fashionability now seems to be credited on how much you can justify your subject,inspiration and designs themselves.The marking criteria focuses mainly on market and brand research,sales figures and statistics.For me whilst I am not doubting the validity of such research I believe that surely this should not lead the fundamentals of design work.A lot of my tutors are very commercially minded and seem to under value the importance of thinking outside the box.Basically I want to challenge the whole stance of the final project as I feel extremely strongly that Fashion is an escapism from reality and that the initial stages should be entirely detached from figures,consumer trends and buying patterns.As soon as a designer starts ‘inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence), …” they produce work that is generic.Its the risk taking that produces the new,exciting and cutting edge and essentially will eventually provide a USP giving the design work commercial appeal and critical acclaim.
    I want to present my case that the business side should not direct the creative side and challenge the scheme…I am going to email my tutor but need to ensure that I present a well backed up case….I wondered if you could help me do so as I want to do it properly and not jeopardise my degree.
    If not,no worries but I would be extremely grateful if you could offer any help,support,advice or point of reference

  • Eduardo Loureiro

    June 24, 2010 at 3:54 am Reply

    I would like to understand better this paragraph:
    For one, design thinking’s consumer focused methodology was used to validate rather than predict. We explored a similar discussion in the post “user centered design is dead”. We were now asking consumers “What Next”, instead of leading with compelling and meaningful solutions. As a result, we just kept on optimizing rather than innovating.
    Why do you think that?

  • Jonathan

    June 5, 2010 at 7:49 pm Reply

    What your saying is that it’s not Design Thinking that’s killing creativity, but some people’s interpretations of how it works? Then the beast that needs slaying is the interpretation, not the process or concept or whatever.
    FWIW abductive reasoning forms the core of approaches like De Bono’s lateral thinking, and is the sort of thinking captured in Buzan’s mind mapping technique. Neither of them use the term “design thinking” and in a way I think that might be the problem – designers themselves aren’t comfortable with the concept, especially those who viciously (and I mean the word) reject the notion that “thinking” has any part in the design process.
    But the answer to the question is “no” – design thinking is not killing creativity. Things masquerading as design thinking are begetting uncreative thinking.
    You say above “those supposed design thinkers” but you mean “some people who say they are applying design thinking but aren’t really” – the issue there is that you’re lumping everyone who enthuses about design thinking in the same way. It’s a dangerous thing to do.
    Anyway, I could show you many, many examples of how “traditional” design approaches have produced dreadful, dreadful objects or services. That doesn’t mean that “design” is killing creativity.
    Pinning the blame for a few bad examples on an entire philosophy – of which far more good examples exist than bad ones – is partly to blame for Design Thinking getting a bad rap and being misinterpreted.

  • Jeff Parks

    June 5, 2010 at 7:36 pm Reply

    Wonderful article!
    You note that…
    “We were now asking consumers “What Next”, instead of leading with compelling and meaningful solutions. As a result, we just kept on optimizing rather than innovating.”
    I recently shared a framework that I think illustrates many of the points you’ve outlined in your article. If of value to you and your readers you can see the video here:
    I think we need to focus 3 perspectives away from our “self” or our own experiences; to create that greater value and evolve the conversation beyond the usual frameworks, processes, etc in the design industry.
    Again, thank you for a wonderful article and the effort to start advancing the conversation in the design industry. Cheers!

  • matthew

    May 22, 2010 at 4:04 am Reply

    I have to say I like this post–and I love the resulting discussion!
    I agree that DT is badly defined (which, to an earlier post, is to the benefit of the consultants promoting it) but its got a lot of momentum. And as such I think the design profession needs to either step-up and facilitate their organizations’ adoption of DT or get out of the way while someone else does it–mostly in a bad way and without bringing the “design doing” part along. (Having spent the last four years in a organization eager for design thinking but with a strong gag reflex for design doing, the results ain’t purdy.)
    Love it or hate, Design Thinking is being discussed at executive retreats all over the world and we as a profession can ride that wave and introduce some big changes. While not all designers are leaders (neither are all MBA’s), Design has waited a long time to get a seat at the board table and I hope we don’t waste this chance. Soon enough the momentum will die down and the world will move to the next new-new thing.

  • Danel

    May 13, 2010 at 10:51 am Reply

    Design is both a science and an art. Perhaps the most “logical” artform that involves critical decision making and artistic expression. Designers do not own the term “design” just like any other businessmen, they do not own the term “business”. Having a title as a designer in a big design firm does not make us more creative than others. I guess we all know that there are many “designers” in our corporation who are mere 3d modelers, illustrators and even business strategist. We may think that design thinking is a compromised package to non-designers. How about business to designers? Are you sure we are not compromising traditional business learning when we try to acquire “business thinking”? Are we also trying to say that there are critical issues for inductive thinkers to acquire abductive thinking and all’s a bed a roses the other way round?
    What i am trying to say is… lets be open minded- the world can be a better place if we can learn from one another. And if coming in small packages help, why not?
    The fact that DT is still around after so many years proved that it is a vital part of the economy. At least it did not contribute to the meltdown!

  • Erik

    May 10, 2010 at 11:17 am Reply

    I think this may be part of a broader issue. I think the industrial design community has been highly successful over the past 15-20, which has given us a huge amount of clout with corporations and not quite rightly so made us the “authority” for the direction a product takes. To truly unleash creativity, it always just seems to be the right mix of really unique people (designers or not) playing off of each other in the right set of circumstances and environment. I’m not sure quite how to replicate it, but I know when I feel it.

  • zippyflounder

    April 19, 2010 at 5:01 am Reply

    To be creative, you need to be independent, not part of the herd, not a social network junkie but be willing to look at things from a unique perspective and then act. The other and most difficult aspect of being truly creative and innovative is the guts to put your chin (and cash) out there. To do otherwise is no more than talking to yourself in a noisy bar, easy, common, and achieves nothing. If you want to be truly creative, innovative and have a effect be prepared to “fail” 70 to 90% of the time, and that’s OK as economic success when it comes to true innovation takes a huge dose of luck, being at the right place at the right time with the right thing and a whole boat load of start up cash.

  • Mark

    April 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm Reply

    Hi DT,
    Thank you for your reply as well. It’s great to know people who r open to a little discussion. Yes you got the pt in that what is design thinking is not well defined. So maybe you should first define it while you are making this post. If not anyone can argue it anyway round, no? If you wish to define it as multi- disciplinary thinking, then yes, there are tons of people out there already doing that. Way before design thinking came into the picture. So then when are u drawing the mark of pre-design thinking era and then compare it to now? I also didn’t suggest designer thinker as a position, and that’s my point, you can not know how many people practice design thinking. With that in mind, you cannot just belittle it’s effect.
    Those supposedly design thinkers, are they doing it right? Do they understand the actual process? If they don’t then you probably shouldn’t include them as design thinkers. At the end of the day, it’s simply a play of word or definition. If you include everyone then yes, it’s probably not having any effects. But if you only looking at companies doing it “right”(meaning successful), then it’s cheating isn’t it? A tool can only be as useful as one think it is, or it is as narrow as the mind of it’s dictator.
    Lastly i agree with your point on the crap teachers, however in my context, a sword is a tool/skill. If a bright person already possess good thinking skills, it doesn’t matter who the teachers are. Unless you are putting it in the context of how they got graded, then yeah you are right.

  • DT

    April 17, 2010 at 12:14 am Reply

    @yushi: Those are some interesting processes you mentioned, I might check them out when I can. Thanks for sharing.
    @Dan: Indeed, you have highlighted a big myth. Strangely, not all designers are design thinkers as per the definition. Amongst those that are, many have trouble articulating it in a language the non-designer can understand.
    @Mark: I don’t think I’m jumping to any conclusions. But, from your comment, I think you may not be 100% clear what design thinking is. Than again many of us are not as well.
    First of all you might need to look at design thinking in another way. You ask: how many companies employ design thinkers? Firstly I personally do not think that Design Thinking is a professional position. Imagine a company having a department of design thinking? That is pretty silly don’t you think? Design thinking first and foremost is a process, and a process that has to be applied. So sure business executives outnumber designers, but there are a number of business executives that employ design thinking. Again think of it as a process.
    Ok back to your point, how many companies these days use design thinking? Tell you what, why not take a look yourself at Bloomberg’s Top 50 most innovative companies in 2010?
    And before you think it is only US centric, please note the majority of the top 25 are based outside of the US.
    While these 50 companies are success stories, I can probably name you 50 others not on this list. Tons of companies use DT, but my point of this post is simply design thinking is not producing the results that it claims to do doing. Why else would you have a top 50 list? Some companies are obviously doing it better than others.
    I like to close off this comment with a little philosophy as well. A good sword in the hands of a swordsman trained by a crap teacher will also never have its day.
    The problem is not just about the businesses not getting design thinking, as Dan Ritz alluded, designers are also part of the problem. Especially if they have difficulty explaining what they do in a language that non-designers can understand.
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  • Mark

    April 16, 2010 at 10:49 pm Reply

    After reading this post, i immediately wondered what resulted in you making this statement. Sorry i’m not trying to be negative, but on what ground are you justifying your insight? How many companies are actually employing and using designer thinkers while we are talking? Compare that number to the number of business/marketing executives? I dare say you will find it hard to have a ratio of even 1 is to 10! So if it’s not working yet, i think it’s really short sighted to immediately pronounce design thinking as useless, there can be a million other reasons that cause it not to work. At the end of the day, profit is still what companies look for.
    I’m a strong believer that design (as like anything) is as much a art than a science. Artist will always like the romantic idea of doing something that cannot be explained. However only the enlightened can see into the reason and deliver. A gd sword in the hand of a poor swordsman will never truly see it’s full glory. A wiseman’s word to a sea of fools will eventually just be rubbish as well.
    So dun be so quick to jump to conclusion

  • Chris Finlay

    April 11, 2010 at 4:16 am Reply

    Hey @HenryKaye really like your comments. Would like to connect w/you but can’t find you online. My friend at Wolf Olins didn’t have contact info for you either. Ping me at cfinlay1 at gmail dot com or if you are up for it. Thanks!

  • Henry Kaye

    April 10, 2010 at 9:00 pm Reply

    Design thinking as it stands is more WHAT to think about (dependent on tools so it can be disseminated among the business community). It does brush on EMPATHY which is important, but has any designer thought about how they learn or absorb information? What information is absorbed when you learn, how is this turned into knowledge. Is my thinking constrained by what I’m expected to deliver. How is it different from how other professions think?
    What we need first are the right set of questions about how we think, before we can effectively answer it! Then move on to how can we repurpose how we think, giving it new application!

  • Dan Ritz

    April 10, 2010 at 5:06 am Reply

    You could also say just the opposite: creativity is killing design thinking.
    Most of the designers I’ve worked with over the years (about a decade) haven’t been lacking in creativity. They’ve been lacking in the ability to stop and think about what they are doing.
    When I try to steer the conversation in another direction I’m always, in some way, told that I’m limiting creativity. From my perspective, the thing preventing growth has usually been creativity. I wonder if it’s a phase or level of awareness for me and the people I’m working with.
    I’m guessing you interact with designers more experienced than I have–where design thinking is more of a prerequisite. From that perspective design thinking may be a block to thinking creatively.
    Very strange and very interesting. Thanks for sharing. It’s nice to see a problem from another perspective.

  • yushi

    April 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm Reply

    This is a great post. I found some similarities in my COIN class(collective innovation networks). What we are doing is trying to be more collaborative in a global virtual team environment. However, after being taught all of these key elements and factors in collaboration, and being introduced the software CONDOR. Those concepts subconsciously influenced my actions. I can’t focus purely on the project itself. Here design thinking works the same way. When we are imposing the idea of design thinking, people tends to be trapped more of its literature meaning. It has to be a natural process. We can’t reinforce it or make that happen, what we can do instead, is nurturing and facilitating that happen. I strongly agree with there is no structured process for design, for research. We have to do everything case by case.

  • neilperkin

    April 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm Reply

    Great post. Just to let you know that it’s shorlisted in the Post Of The Month vote I run…

  • Rotkapchen

    April 8, 2010 at 4:05 am Reply

    “a word to represent a process” Is there an assumption in this statement that design thinking is or should be a process? Ah, the darned Wikipedia definition, perhaps. Well, I took issue with that years ago (and you should have seen what it looked like then, far more atrocious than now):
    Yes, there are processes. But they’re not predefined. There are heuristics to suggest some approaches in given situations. Elements of the ‘design process’ may be relevant, but so are elements of Systems Thinking and complexity.
    Design thinking helps bring together both art and science into a whole called design. There are a lot of ‘designers’ who approach their craft more on the science side — indeed these are very successful people in the business arena which believes that business can and should be a science. They’d be wrong. Businesses are failing because of the belief in science. Toyota believed so strongly in the strength of their science that they ignored the feedback they were getting as ‘impossible’. Science is not infallible, nor is it strong without art — it’s brittle, it breaks.

  • Chris Finlay

    April 8, 2010 at 2:47 am Reply

    @Rotkapchen in principle I agree with you. The statement describes the problem with communication in general since each of us have a unique experience with the meaning of words. That said, the context is important here. If love were being considered as a word to represent a process then I would probably have the same gripe. I would request a more useful working definition (not a perfect one) of love so that we could do our best work together. Or have our best love. Who wouldn’t want that!? 😉
    I think the author makes a great point about recognizing that answers come at different points and being able to recognize that serves you well. That intuitive insight is high octane fuel for dt and that freedom seems counter to nailing down the specifics of the process or a definition.
    *Great comments on this post, btw.

  • Rotkapchen

    April 8, 2010 at 1:48 am Reply

    “Currently the term dt is about as useless as it is useful since there is no commonly accepted definition and the practice is so varied.”
    Hmmm. I’m pretty sure that accurately describes ‘love’ and no one would suggest that it doesn’t exist or that we should stop trying to uncover its mysteries or its practice, no matter how varied.

  • DT

    April 7, 2010 at 10:48 pm Reply

    @Fred: Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I think your comment, together with Ariel’s link to your business week article, prompts me to think that Design Thinking needs to be associated again with Design doing. As such it should just be called Design. If we consider this as a function as Finance, Accounting, HR etc. within an organization it starts to make more sense. You don’t call it Department of Design Thinking, department of design makes more holistic sense.
    @Cameron: Indeed Cameron! Very insightful of you.
    @Henry: I think you highlight one important but unspoken point. Designers are not totally blameless in this discussion. It is indeed not an easy task for designers to explain what they do in a language non-designers can understand.
    @James: Thanks for sharing your thoughts from a software design perspectives. I think we can draw a lot of parallels with the evolution of software development to interaction design.
    @Gwen: Very insightful of you. I am also in similar mindset as you and have always maintained that good designers needs to be able to wear many hats, or speak the language of the other disciplines. (Hat tip again to the name Design Translator!) It does look like in this case that the language that designers speak to the business has been overly focused on.

  • Chris Finlay

    April 7, 2010 at 9:55 pm Reply

    Am with @henrykaye
    Calling dt a creativity killer is to brand dt as a prescriptive approach.
    Currently the term dt is about as useless as it is useful since there is no commonly accepted definition and the practice is so varied.
    Knowing when to say when is the definition of a pro. Its like cooking without using a cook book. You have to be able to recognize the right amount of salt not just use the measuring spoon. A real chef can cook using all of the senses to know when things are at their best.
    Having an approach to the fuzzy process of figuring out what to make and why can be very helpful as long as you treat the process more like you are solving a mystery than putting together a puzzle.

  • gwen

    April 3, 2010 at 6:17 am Reply

    it is true, that design thinking is a term to use when communicating with other non-designers about a “how” or “why” designers do the things they do.
    I wish to go even beyond the concept of -thinking- and focus on the word “design” – among cultural differences, the word design is interpret differently. I feel “design” in america is pictured as an IDEO mentality to do consumer research and collaborate with other non-designers. “design” in korea is to be a fine artist, to get inspired by nature – etc – And of course this applies to italian, german, japanese, etc… various interpretation of the meaning and value of “design” within their society.
    I recently read design of business by Roger Martin – (it is a good book and one to read in the context for designers to better understand how to communicate to business needs and understand why they need that “ideal” algorithm for innovation.)
    – My theory is that design thinking should be a “language” that designers should say to non-designers. As a way to communicate with business people, but not to assume that design thinking is what they originally do. It is something I have notice about myself being a young designer surrounded by business, engineers, analyst, etc
    – I need a “common” language to communicate my ideas and my viewpoint. I need to understand what are business jargons which i will use to prove my “creativity” into something that could be innovative. If i don’t have any articulative material to communicate with non-designers how can i prove my intelligence with them. I am not the best person when it comes to writing or high level of vocabulary and I am sure there are tons of designers that feels the same way.
    There have been weeks that i thinking visually without any form of human verbal communication and suddenly i get into a meeting where I literally could not remember how to speak and ended up drawing on the white board to ‘express’ my thoughts.

  • James Christie

    April 2, 2010 at 10:59 pm Reply

    I found this very interesting, from the perspective of software development. I’m very interested in the process of designing software.
    “Design is an iterative activity that only has broad guidelines but no fixed process. What’s more important is that critical insights, sensitivity to consumer needs and beautiful solutions comes from the creative chaos encouraged by an open design process.”
    Yes, that’s what I’d have said, though certainly less poetically. Ariel’s comments were very interesting too. They are not specifically about software design, but they’re very relevant; certainly more relevant than most software developers would assume.
    Historically, software developers have had huge difficulty moving conceptually from the requirements to a design. This difficulty was glossed over for many years by the reliance on structured techniques. This pretended that you could move methodically from the requirements through to a design by unleashing an avalanche of requirements and design documentation from which the correct design would inevitably evolve, if only the process were applied properly. There was no real basis for the presumption that this would work. It was just guesswork. In reality designers were winging it, and going through the motions of documentation.
    What successful designers were doing was much more interesting than following a rigid process. As Ariel says, Donald Schön’s work on reflection in action sheds useful light on what happens. I am not familiar with the research that Ariel refers to, but it seems entirely consistent with the work I know about looking at software design.
    Successful software designers repeatedly build, prove and refine mental simulations of how the system might work. Unsuccessful designers can’t conceive working simulations, and fix at an early stage on designs whose effectiveness they can’t test till they have been built.
    Formal, rigid processes reinforce the approach that unsuccessful software designers have to take, and are uncomfortable for the talented designers. If the criticisms you make are relevant to a design process with pretensions to be engineering, then that surely reinforces their validity when applied to more obviously creative contexts.
    If you want to check out my sources this link back to my site takes you to an article with the references & links.
    The article was a sceptical discussion of the relevance of standards and formal processes to software development.

  • Robin Ferraby

    April 2, 2010 at 5:30 pm Reply

    I’m not fully with you. To me trad design to business is very broad spectrum, middle section is very exciting and new but def new, it’s not just design ie to measure the middle spectrum but applying a vision for ‘design’ (design thinking) isn’t the way to think of it to me. What the various activities in the middle spectrum are is still being developed but I don’t feel they are summed up in ‘design thinking’.
    In terms of ‘design thinking’ being used to describe pure design activity, it’s a very attractive summary for communication of lots of the quality of design process but not a catch-all. Top class design thinking execution is invaluable but the label shouldn’t be allowed to stand taller than design activity across the spectrum. It’s a window on design that business types can peer through, which is invaluable in itself.
    My initial thoughts anyway…

  • Henry Kaye

    April 2, 2010 at 11:37 am Reply

    Some observations:
    • Design Thinking was never intended for Designers.
    • Designers are not true learning organizations, therefore it’s
    easier to appropriate a new term if not new knowledge.
    • Like Branding, designers will debase ‘Design thinking’ too.
    • Designers would do better with Executive coaching and workshops
    teaching others how they think and make decisions (action learning?).
    • Design Thinking doesn’t begin to take on value unless there’s an
    appreciable difference in impact, relative to conventional thinking.
    • People don’t often think about how they think! Including designers.
    • The empathy aspect of user-centricity is only a tool rather than mindset.
    (Designers think different, because how they learn is different)
    • Design 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 are isolating if not meaningless, the numbers
    may as well be reversed or reordered. There’s only what adds value, what
    adds more and what doesn’t. Combine the 4 (tiers) into one model.

  • Cameron

    April 2, 2010 at 10:13 am Reply

    This was my exact opinion after interning at a big corporation where my boss was really gung ho about ethnography and user-centered design. After all several months of work, his supervisor gave us only a few weeks to redesign a product because he would lose his bonus if the manufacturing schedule changed at all.
    I also think designers hurt themselves when we pretend like ethnography/research is a ‘designer’ specific trait. Anyone who ‘gets’ it (and these people come from all walks of life) and has decent social skills and common sense can do it.
    The skill that is UNIQUE to design is that of TRANSLATOR from brand, idea, feeling into a friendly object or experience. No one else can do this. This is why I like your handle, DT, and I suspect the reason you picked it…

  • Ariel Guers

    April 2, 2010 at 2:04 am Reply

    I strongly agree with Fred Collopy’s comment.
    If I may, to add to the discussion I’d like to point to a Fast Company blog article written by Collopy, one the most compelling and profound critiques of design thinking I’ve read so far:

  • Fred Collopy

    April 2, 2010 at 12:20 am Reply

    Whatever design thinking is or is not, designers have much to teach businesses. That is why my colleagues and others have been studying what designers actually do for decades now. And the ideas that they have been discovering have experienced only the barest take up by executives, managers and business leaders. So, I don’t think one should conclude that the application of these ideas more broadly in business is doing anything in particular. It is simply much to early to know.
    It will take more time and more space that I feel compelled to invest right here, right now, but I think it safe to say that design’s contributions go well beyond abduction (what ever that is; and I say that humbly having now read Peirce’s discussion of the topic several times).
    In addition to bringing a different attitude to a complex task than most people do, good designers have a huge toolkit of methods and techniques they employ to reframe problems, get unstuck, observe and engage people in ways that lead to insight, and make things visible to others. I love the enthusiasm with which some (left brained) managers embrace these when exposed to them in the context of problems that they actually need to solve. But to date relatively few have even had that opportunity.

  • DT

    April 1, 2010 at 12:32 pm Reply

    Hi All, thank you very much for your comments and feedback I appreciate them. To reduce over commenting, I will only reply to comments that I think I need replying to. I’ve already said what I needed to say in the post. But rest assured I’ve read all your comments as they are important to me.
    @Ingo: I think you might be underestimating the awareness companies have now of the value of design. (Notice I will use Design and DT interchangeably.) Many companies are fully aware of design’s benefits and want to engage in design thinking and many have already done so. (thanks in no small part to Apple’s success) I think if you recalibrate how far Design has gone into organizations, you might see things a little differently. At the end of the day, I’m looking at results, and despite everything, nothing is happening that is worth mentioning.
    @Ariel Guers: Thanks a lot for sharing your research and adding to the conversation. Indeed, you are right, designers are uniquely able to resolve this because they are deeply rooted in the process and practicing this artistry you spoke of. I will check out your site and I’m sure babel fish will come in handy!
    @Larry Irons: Good one, DT is all about a multidisciplinary approach, understanding needs and spotting blind spots.
    @Raph: It is interesting your comment that engineers are stifled from creativity due to the processes they have to follow. Thank you.
    @Andy: It may not always be the case, but more often than not, crowd sourcing encourages a “lets please everyone mentality” and that as we all know is a path to failure of an innovative idea.
    @Sven:Indeed sven, this post does have its roots in our conversations from the past and it does seem our greatest fears have sadly come true. As integrated design thinking should and has become so much more, I’m more and more inclined to your point of calling it just “Thinking”.
    @Brian: Very good point. Designers are not totally innocent. Out tendency to remain in abstract thought or what I like to call “mental masturbation” will be our weakest trait. Everyone needs to understand our roles and sympathetic to that of the other, and also look to see how we can complement each other. The business can play a big role in helping ground designers or innovative ideas to the harsh realities. At the very least, the design thinking movement has given rise to a greater awareness to each other and the needs of the consumer.
    @Garth: Good quote.

    I forget where I read this but “the creative thinker must be sufficiently immersed in the problem to facilitate the reception of creative insights yet at the same time sufficiently detached from it, to consistently see it afresh.”

    This links to my point on why we focus in design thinking too much on process and forget about the solution.
    @Rotkapchen: I see where you are coming from and I do agree. Design thinking needs space to roam. However, we need to ask ourselves why the need for DT in the first place? In my mind, it is all about innovation, and innovation is about break through products, and break through products is about money. Sad, but this is the reason for it all.
    @Otto: Thanks for your feedback. I’m not implying that DT is a designer’s God given right, what I’m saying is classically trained designers are the best fit to lead this effort. Now, as I mentioned in my post:

    Therefore I feel design thinking has not produced the results the business has been hoping for, and despite the best efforts, design thinking will continue to be something only a few can do well.

    While designers are most able to do the job, not all are capable of doing it.
    I’m not sure which businesses you have worked with, but just like Ingo’s comment earlier, I think you might be underestimating the degree of design awareness within businesses. Take for example your comment about DT is missing in non-anglo companies/countries. I like to draw your attention to brands such as Samsung, LG, Asus, Ben-Q, Lenovo, Tata etc. and huge budgets being spent on design in countries like China, Korea, and Singapore. I think the success of these brands, iconic representations of their countries, are proof enough that DT is deeply embedded in not only the corporate in the country’s culture as well. I’ll leave it at that for now and will not go into commenting how successful these brand are as the definitions of success are varied.

  • Otto

    April 1, 2010 at 11:06 am Reply

    Edited: I’m not Raph!
    I appreciate your post and your willingness to critically review what Design Thinking has added to our lives. I agree with you on some points, especially your “Happy Meal” comment (re: the packaged product). If we are to follow how Business Week and many design agencies with a keen eye for marketing, promote Design Thinking, I too, sometimes wonder. However, I think your post also lacks a few important considerations.
    For instance, who said Design Thinking is the job (or dare I say, inherited right) of designers anyway? I think it was Roger Martin who, in an unscrupulous little sentence in his book, “The Design of Business” alluded to the fact that usually, designers are in fact not the best design thinkers. Without taking anything away from what a designer has to offer (most notably “design doing”), I think he’s right. Design Thinking requires people who exist exactly at the cusp of how business managers and designers think. It’s easy to claim to be one of these fortunate few, but are all “design thinkers” REALLY?
    Also, I would shy away from making claims that appear ‘universal’, yet in reality usually only applies to a certain condition (usually at U.S. Fortune XX companies). For instance, I can tell you that design thinking has hardly made it ‘big’ in many a boardroom, especially in non-Anglo countries. Again, we must beware of “Business Week reporting”.
    My advice: as a designer, don’t try to enter too many beauty pageants. It’s early days. Design Thinking will lead to something else that is bigger (and hopefully, more appropriately named). As for business, I’m not so sure business is quite so ‘on board’ just yet. But things are going to be different. One day, anyway.

  • Rotkapchen

    April 1, 2010 at 10:19 am Reply

    Defining design thinking is like trying to answer a question that hasn’t yet been asked.
    But I’ve got a bit of a beef with your insistence on ‘innovation’ as if it is something breakthru. The biggest opportunity for businesses is to provide a design thinking infrastructure for all the micro-innovation that’s needed to just get the darned work done — workarounds to the ‘controls’ that have been put in place and prevent actual work.

  • Garth Morley

    April 1, 2010 at 6:20 am Reply

    Being tagged a ‘graphic designer’ throughout my 24 years in the business I saw the emergence of design thinking from a more individual direction. To me, it gave validation, value and a new passion that people/clients could see value in what I thought rather than just as a visual designer.
    As a result of this global awareness I repackaged, realigned, rediscovered and reengaged with clients on the basis of a new personal branding: I am. I think. Design.
    Your most important statement was lost at the end of your post – “Therefore I have always contested from the beginning that designers should lead all design thinking and related efforts”.
    Design/Creativity is the result of expertise and creative thinking skills. Expertise refers to the technical and intellectual knowledge that an individual possesses. Creative thinking refers to the individual’s skills that facilitate imaginative problem-solving.
    The value is in the individual designers application of design thinking to a more varied design roles – not stuck in a one box application ie graphic designer – and definitely not a business process.
    I forget where I read this but “the creative thinker must be sufficiently immersed in the problem to facilitate the reception of creative insights yet at the same time sufficiently detached from it, to consistently see it afresh.”
    Design thinking has its role, maybe not as a corporate process , but rather a question of mindset. I am. I think. Design. It’s rather an attitude or an approach to a problem in general. it’s not about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather about yes/and… the realm of possibilities.

  • brian

    April 1, 2010 at 1:57 am Reply

    Thoughtful post. Being a “Quant” vs a “Creative” I’ve seen forms of this argument develop from both sides. As if there were a single method of thinking about all things.
    In my experience abstract and lateral thinking psychologically works best when its clearly separated from deduction. Its true when trying to find root causes, conceptualize, or associate.
    Things break down when people don’t know when to stop abstract thinking (” We have many unknowns and few tangible measures.. where do we start?”) and start inductive (“Did our intuition & guesses lead us closer or further from our goal?”)
    In a practical vein, pursuit of pure design methodology runs the risk of becoming a feedback loop. New shapes, ideas, laterals, aren’t introduced because they’re sterilized from ever joining the discussion. Witness the difficulty in adding digital features to traditionally analog thinking.

  • csven

    April 1, 2010 at 12:33 am Reply

    When I went back and read the comments we exchanged a few years back, I realized why your posted assertion, “Design Thinking is Killing Creativity” didn’t come as a surprise to me.
    Recall my response to you during one exchange:
    “The only reason we have this new phrase, imo, is because the business world is trying to understand us [with Tim Brown’s help and encouragement] and in the process trying to make what we do fit into their left-brained system. And the reason it has traction is because like most every other “How To” system, it sells. And the people who push the idea of this new way of thinking benefit.” –
    That thought was actually a follow-on to a comment I left on Adaptive Path’s blog entry on design thinking, which I included in my “Design is a Verb” post:
    “The problem we run into, in my opinion, is when we try to define a standardized, cross-functional “toolset” so that we can teach it or sell it to others. That’s an inherently left-brained, list-maker solution. I do not now believe there is a one-size-fits-all package for something that is, by its very nature, internalized; no matter how desperately the spreadsheet-retentive business world wants something with an associated set of bullet points and standardized metrics which can be used to improve their bottom line.” –
    So it’s no surprise to me that in the course of attempting to codify “design thinking” a significant portion of how we applied arts designers work – how we tap into our subconscious, how we utilize process, aso – seems to be left on the cutting room floor.
    The most interesting thing to me now is that what I believed would happen appears to be, in fact, happening. And I’m sorry to hear of it.

  • Andy from Workshopshed

    April 1, 2010 at 12:12 am Reply

    There was a comment just the other day that “brainstorming” is also killing creativity because of the interaction of the group.
    Is it a case that crowdsourcing ideas ultimately produces a result which is the least common demoninator?

  • Ralph

    April 1, 2010 at 12:11 am Reply

    Thank you very much for this collection of thoughts. I am truly not the type of person who directly run into the other direction and say thanks a lot and now we jump back into the other direction and call design art. But to streamline everything down to business processes could/will bring designers into the same trap as engineers and other professions find themself today. Even if engineers perhaps feel more comfortable in algorythm like processes. But it is true that it kills creativity and one of the main KPIs of designers but alos a KPI of all generative professions as you need to solve problems focused on a target.
    like all the other methods e.g. COOPERs Goal directed design method balance between chaos and clean linearity is key to reach the goal at the end with potentials in your hand. Just the the goal or just potentials will not create value.
    DesignThinking itself is not bad as it is not so diffenret to already long approved methods + a twist of EMOTION but perhaps in a few years after a path of convergence we find a new name for the good aspects and can deconnect it from design as a tool which than can be used by all professions if worth to use and to create value.
    Like some similar approaches are called already Imageneering or “product thinking”. The valueable method does not need to belong to design. The question will be who should be than the owner of the method? Business Economics, Engineers, Ethnographs?
    Or do we find a new island for it?
    It is a great journey for designers and the others who find themself converging at the moment.

  • karen

    March 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm Reply

    Very quick post:
    Design thinking can kill creativity if it only focuses on linearity/omnipresent in the same areas/dogmatic yo yo way that’s not lateral.
    Simple as it sounds, but I think this is common error when design thinking/research is concerned.

  • Jon Dascola

    March 31, 2010 at 10:05 pm Reply

    There is so much talk about design thinking and design research, but the real value starts with design doing.
    An idea is only great if it can be executed.

  • Larry Irons

    March 31, 2010 at 9:51 pm Reply

    Thinking in a design way, especially in an organizational context, means you have to keep a close eye out for the “places” in business process where workaround practices keep things going. These may exist between departments, business units, divisions, or even enterprises. Routinizing creative solutions always kills the ability of those researching the design challenge to “see” the “places” where these “experience killing gaps” occur. Just my rule of thumb for thinking about how creative insight gets dumbed down by the organizational imperative for reliable processes.

  • jeff

    March 31, 2010 at 9:35 pm Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. Design is not a science, it’s an art. Design thinking has tried to turn a creative art form into a precise strategy driven model. While I agree that it has some merit, it is not the end all be all and most times I favor intuition over analyzing data.

  • Ariel Guers

    March 31, 2010 at 3:52 pm Reply

    Thanks for your reflections on this issues, there are not many people critically analyzing the DT fad (on the blogosphere Nicolae from is another example).
    From what I can tell (finishing Ph.D. thesis on decision making in design) design thinking can not really be separated from design doing when the design problem can be characterized as a wicked problem. If you talk about simpler problems, for sure you could separate these two states.
    To be able to generate “creative” (very complex term btw) solutions you need to have some kind of artistry (Donald Schön’s term), this artistry is acquired through lots of practice (reflection in-action and on-action). A couple of workshop with post-it are just not enough to turn you into a designer.
    Also, according to my own research and understanding of several other researchers (Dorst, Cross or Lawson for instance) designers think in a very different way than what DT puts forward. Designers usually consider a *very limited* set of alternatives and develop guiding principles right from the start. They don’t postpone judgment and decision making in order to open-up to new alternatives, they rapidly create a rough (partial) solution (to a partially defined problem) and move forward to see what else they can learn about the problem, trough iterations. Actually, it’s more complicated than this, of course, but I leave it like that for brevity’s sake.
    I´ve written about this issues in my blog (in Spanish, alas):
    Roberto Verganti also mentions this in the recent Big Rethink conference:
    “We should remember that designers learn by doing, not by learning and practising a theory, designing involves a lot more tacit knowledge than in other areas of business. It’s therefore hard to believe that senior managers can change their thinking habits of a lifetime after a workshop or two working with designers. And, to be frank, to suggest as much devalues what designers do.” (you’ll need to scroll quite a bit to get to his words)
    Keep on rockin’ Brian.

  • Ingo

    March 31, 2010 at 6:36 am Reply

    Although Apple might be one prominent case everyone draws on, I would never compare a company like Apple to another, big company. Risk awareness or the willingness to take it is clearly not about design but about a companies ideology and corporate culture. Which is mostly not shaped by design but by experience with risk in the past. Since a lot of companies never experienced the point where they had to rely on design and take a huge risk in doing so, many of today’s cooperations only trust in what they have experienced so far.
    So once again, D.T. could be seen as a door opener for creativity since many of these companies just started to engage and gain experience with one part of design.

  • Ingo

    March 31, 2010 at 6:33 am Reply

    This posts makes me want to have joined the discussing before hand. So, first of all, thanks for this inspiring article.
    Although I agree on a lot of what you wrote, I think you showed only one part of the story. One where design thinking is combined with, risk aware, management led companies.
    Although there might be other cases, I agree that DT might only one methodology/tool, but in my opinion, one we can all learn a lot from.
    1. It originated from design and attracted business (maybe a bit to much) which is something design rarely does.
    2. It bridged a gap between disciplines. Although they started to debate with designer about what the right way is to do DT people start to develop an understanding. It also shows that “we” (designers) still need to develop skills to talk to business and further develop our communication skills so that others recognize “us”, and understand a designers potential and expertise.
    3. Since it might be limited due to it’s strong user focus, it will, as you wrote, only be one tool. So in my point of view it didn’t killed creativity but will ultimately rise the demand. As soon as people realize that everything can only be optimized to a certain point, the demand and trust in “design” might have grown.
    4. In my opinion user centered design doesn’t imply incremental innovation although it often leads to it. The good thing about DT is that it suggested to start with user observation as a foundation. I wouldn’t underestimate this, it can be used as a powerful argument against spread-sheet-data, f.e. . In my opinion design came a long way from being a marketing tool to a user’s tool and it’s about time that we find and demand a place in-between those two where we can act as diplomats/interpreters who show future solutions no matter if they are incremental or radical.
    5. It’s no secret that most companies use DT in a wrong way. Plugging it in doesn’t work but shows us, that they still didn’t fully understand the whole story. Which is why companies will have to change or will be replaced by new once. The once who are willing to take the risk, or simply figured out a way how to take a risk without risking to much.
    In my opinion, big companies are the most vulnerable since they are most of the time not as flexible. These companies mostly focus on management rather than entrepreneurship, which gives new, creative concepts and therefor creativity a good chance to succeed at the end of the day.

  • Tim Hulford

    March 31, 2010 at 4:43 am Reply

    It’s tough to find a good definition of what design thinking really is, even more difficult to sort through the various impressions of its effect on business (and of course, design). As an industrial designer, I am someone who finds it difficult to separate design-thinking from design-doing…I am solution oriented and I am process oriented, and for me this is a balance that works.
    I might be paraphrasing what you just wrote, but I would briefly describe design thinking as having principles, being aware, and as it says in your quote: “imagining what is possible.” The big question, as I see it, is where the prospect of risk and possible failure come into the equation. I don’t see many designers out there boldly claiming to their business-conscious clients that they are big risk-takers, that they embrace failure as a healthy part of their design thinking process. This is all an underlying emotion that hides under the design-thinking layer. Designers may believe that opportunity lies in the murky part of business, in the risky parts, and perhaps they use design thinking to illuminate those areas as much as possible, but it is up to the ones taking the risk (usually not the designer so much) to grasp the shapes inside – at least enough to believe in them and move forward. Perhaps there should be a step in the design-thinking “product” that states unequivocally “embrace failure…build on what you believe” or some other tenuous trial and error sort of logic. Most designers, like businessmen, focus their clients on the promise of success and avoid areas where their thinking can be exposed as a gamble. I believe that when designers do this, they are acting as businessmen in order to communicate with businessmen. If they can get businessmen to emotionally resolve themselves against risk, perhaps they can behave more like designers in the future.

  • Jeff Zugale

    March 31, 2010 at 2:44 am Reply

    I like the insight about Design being seen as a “package” or “product” that a business can plug into an existing development pipeline and magically improve the final product-to-market and profit. As you note that’s happened with a number of different process methodologies.
    It’s a huge mistake to see Design in this way, because it’s not a physically measurable system like JIT, ISO et. al.; it is not in any way an “obtain resource A, apply skill set B and energy input C to it and reliably produce item D” process.
    Design needs to be applied holistically to not only the entire product pipeline from end to end, but also to the company’s mental processing from end to end. It’s got to be in the algorithm at all stages or the benefit is sharply reduced, if not eliminated.

  • Martin Jacobson

    March 31, 2010 at 2:11 am Reply

    Thank you.
    Thank you for the cogent and credible ideas. This kind of statement will help to prevent further dilution of the word “Design”, and help us as designers to keep our eyes on the goal.
    Fits nicely with my lunch reading, The Vignelli Canon.

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