Reality Bites

You guys are just going to make me go right ahead and say it, aren’t you?

Yes. Design thinking has hit a bit of a plateau. I’ll be the first to point out the elephant and admit that over the last year not much has happened. At least, not on the surface…


The same hype slash propaganda promoting the idealistic process and practical methods is continuing its rounds which is why design thinking is starting to seem a little stale. Stale because we kind of know enough about what it is (process) and how to do it (methods). We get it. You have variations of the general process of: fuzzy front end, empathize, problem frame, ideate, prototype, and iterate. You already understand that its about people, its human centered and its collaborative and participatory. You know its about facilitation. You know that sticky notes should be your best friend and lego may be taken seriously by adults in business suits. And yet, we are still circulating this same information, with very minor tweaks and/or novel ideas (use blue sticky notes instead of yellow/ try bodystorming instead of brainstorming/add more emphasis on ethnography and anthropology) in an attempt to differentiate what is, and has been, essentially the same information packaged with slightly different bows.

What have we learned in the last year and a half?

Well, honestly? Not much. That is, nothing new in terms of empirical insights on the process+method behind design thinking. But there have been some papers published around cognition which echo earlier research. In updating the literature for my most recent review, I (and other researchers) struggled to find significant ‘breakthroughs’ and/or developments in pragmatic and non-theoretical design thinking research. When i mentioned in an earlier post that design thinking is still being discussed in academia, it is mainly in conferences and forums such as the PhD design list. Charles Burnette recently published some new (cognitively focused) interpretations that may be of interest to those of you seeking a more psychological stance on design thinking literature. For me, the most interesting development is that design thinking is really powering forward in public service and policy design areas. This may not sound particularly new, but the fact that it is gaining traction within governments as opposed to external agencies specialising in public or policy design consultancy, is a major improvement for design thinking.

So what can i add to this conversation? Well, in an attempt to contribute some new research on the topic i re-structured and revisited the section of literature that i had written on recent developments in design thinking. The history has largely remained the same, but what i rediscovered is that design thinking is now generally accepted as an approach than a description of a set of methods. This may seem obvious, but there was still debate around whether design thinking signified a set of methods or a mindset or both. What is also interesting is the opinion that design thinking shapes multidisciplinary design practice, and is also shaped by practice (See Gumienny et al. 2010, p.246). This adds more weight to the ideology that the characteristics of design thinking may be transitory and that the designerly approach evolves with new and emerging areas of human concern. Again, this situation brings up the same pesky questions: how do we define design thinking practice? what skills does a design thinker need? are there fundamental characteristics of design thinking, or will it forever change and evolve with social needs?

In response to the last question, i tried to distinguish a rough list of fundamental characteristics for design thinking that could classify as ‘staples’; elements that (up to now) have and should remain part of the description of design thinking despite advancements in research and transformations of approach. Im kind of going out on a limb here because these characteristics may change, or over time become obsolete. But i feel that despite the observable evolution of design thinking we can see recurring characteristics that underpin the approach. The benefit of trying to articulate foundational elements of design thinking creates a focus framework. This means that no matter what direction design thinking takes, it will always protect itself from disintegrating and/or deviating from a designerly approach. Because if the design approach evolves dramatically in the future, who can say it is any more design than it is science, business or art?  (Perhaps the real question is: do we want to preserve it as part of the practise of design, or let it adapt, evolve and transform over time?)

So think of this list as base ingredients in cooking- with just a few staple ingredients you can create many different dishes. I settled on these core characteristics because they were consistently discussed in both historical and current research on design thinking:

*Preference for the design of intangibles over tangibles

*Innovation (***this needs a special disclaimer: refer to end of this post)

*Holistic perspective

*Comfort in the uncertainty around “wicked” (i.e complex) problems

*Emphasis on multidisciplinary collaboration

*Human/user-centered focus

*Emphasis on user/human centered methods for data gathering/analysis (fundamentally ethnographic)

*Preference for creative visualisation; particularly manifested in methods for sensemaking/synthesis

*Positive/Optimistic attitude


*Open and iterative in both process and mindset (non linear)

Just to emphasise that these design traits are characteristics fundamental to design practice, i have placed them in my nifty pyramid so you can see that the characteristics we know now as design thinking are in fact fundamental to design practise as a whole:



i acknowledge that each level can potentially carry more/less characteristics, but i am focusing on the general nature of design work in each level

***”So whats up with innovation?” I hear you ask. Well, when i was reflecting on the backlash around design thinking that peaked in 2012, i realised that there was a major degree of difference between the expectations and reality of design thinking. The expectation industry had is that design thinking would radically innovate processes and outcomes. The reality is that top agencies and figureheads have struggled to consistently publish groundbreaking insights. But this is exactly where our attitude towards design thinking was, and is, wrong. Design thinking is innovative, but it is NOT radically innovative. That is, it is not innovative in the sense and way clients/organisations and perhaps even you would like it or believe it to be. Norman and Verganti pointed out this problem in their paper, Incremental and radical innovation: design research versus technology and meaning change:

Radical innovation is the center of attention of design studies, where it is taught in design schools, and
advocated by people discussing innovation and “design thinking.” It is what everyone wants, but in fact, successful radical innovation is surprisingly rare.

design thinking isnt a fast food process

To summarise the paper for you, design thinking is *not* i repeat NOT a process for radical innovation. It never was. Stop expecting it to be radically innovative in your business, outcome, service, relationships, cat, mother in law, and any other thing you might want to fix. Get. it. out. of. your. heads. Now.

Design thinking is rarely about immediate innovation. It is, and always was, incremental. This is the fundamental underlying issue beneath all of those negative articles on design thinking you read about in 2012 and sometimes still today. Our expectations on design thinking need to shift (clients especially), and our attention  needs to move to a space where we understand that this process is not one that can create overnight miracles. It is not radical. Its methods may sometimes be rapid, but thats about as fast as its going to get. Good design thinking takes time and any innovation as a result of it will be incremental due to the nature of human centered iteration and improvement that is embedded in the mindset and process.

so would you like fries with that?

3 thoughts on “Reality Bites

  1. Darrick Hildman M.Ed. says:

    I wanted to thank you for your insights and thoughts on Design Thinking. I only heard of the term Design Thinking a few weeks ago and found this blog on the web. It is interesting to read about the rise and so called demise of Design Thinking all in a could of websites.

    Here is my insight. I don’t think that you can get rid of Design Thinking because I think it is a natural process. 10 years ago I was creating some useful things for around the house ie. a head rest that slides into the end of your bed so that you can get a massage on the bed without craning your neck sideways, as well as creating choreography, dance lessons and large event for our Swing Dance troupe. I decided to research and write down the process I was using to work on these projects.

    After studying mostly books about creative and critical thinking I labeled my process. It has 7 steps; Explorer, Investigator, Dreamer, Judge, Architect, Champion, and Historian. I even taught some classes at my local recreation center. I didn’t know what to call the process, so eventually I called it something like the Creative Process or something. Now years later I realize I had designed my own Design Thinking process.

    I think for those who are Design Thinkers, that they realize that Design Thinking is a process that is constantly swirling around in their heads. I is almost like a curse sometimes because I feel like I can’t jump into the middle of a project with out going back and really understanding what the problem/opportunity is, or that instead of just acting, I would like to architect our plan of action.

    It is nice to know that Design Thinking is a thing. I kept trying to figure out if it was the Scientific Method, Critical or Creative thinking. Yes it is all of those things somewhere in the process.

    The reason I was looking is because I would like to teach folks how to use Design Thinking to design face-to-face communication interactions like counseling, forums, interviews etc.

    Thank you once again and keep up the good fight. People can call these things by all different names, but it is still a way of being.

  2. Darrick Hildman M.Ed. says:

    I just wanted to add, maybe instead of thinking about Design Thinking as a process, that you can just apply and get results, or a incremental, but more as a way of being. I think that Design Thinkers are always exploring, dreaming up alternatives, creating, and sometime it is slow and sometimes you make great leaps. I don’t think DaVinci, Einstein, or Edison ever sat down and said, “Today we are going to use a process to innovate,” They were Design Thinking every moment of everyday.

    The question is can everyone do this or learn to do Design Thinking? I think so. Like I said earlier, I think most folks are probably doing it already. By being more intentional about the process, and looking at the world through the different lenses of Design Thinking it becomes a habit of thought. A way of being.

  3. stefdr says:

    Hi Darrick,

    Thanks for your comment. It is great to hear that you had become more aware and reflective on design thinking. It is indeed a way of being; a philosophy and culture. This is required especially for organisational transformation. If you dont believe in it, you wont adopt the process or mentality that comes with it. Applying the designerly approach/process through a skeptical mindset will naturally create barriers for problem framing. I feel this is the source of many ‘failed attempts’- but it is one source only, the rest im trying to figure out 🙂



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