Design Thinking Won’t Save You

Recently, Kevin McCullagh of British product strategy consultancy, Plan organized a two-day event for executives to wrap their heads around the concept of design thinking—and, in particular, to think about how they might go about implementing it within their own organization. Kevin invited me along to give an overview of some of the things I’ve been thinking recently. “Don’t hold back,” he advised. So I came up with a talk entitled, “Design Thinking Won’t Save You” which aimed to outline what design thinking is *not* in order to help attendees figure out a practical way forward. Here’s an edited version of what I said:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me break this to you gently. Design Thinking, the topic we’re here to analyze and discuss and get to grips with so you can go back and instantly transform your businesses, is not the answer.

Now before you throw down your coffee cups and storm out in disgust, let me explain that I’m not here to write off design thinking. Really, I’m not. In fact, I’ve been a keen observer of the evolution of the discipline for a number of years now and I’m still curious to watch where it goes and how it continues to evolve as its influence spreads throughout industries and around the world. So to be clearer, I suppose I should say that design thinking won’t save you, but it really might help:

First, some context: Until July of 2010, I was the editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Before that, I’d worked consistently in design journalism both here in New York and in London. The reason that I wanted to join BusinessWeek in the first place was precisely because it struck me as being the one place that had its eye on both camps, on the creative industries and on the business world writ large. And it struck me that it’s at this nexus and intersection that the thriving businesses of the future will be built.

I joined the magazine back in 2006, which was a time when design thinking was really beginning to take hold as a concept. My old boss, Bruce Nussbaum, emerged as its eloquent champion while the likes of Roger Martin from Rotman, IDEO’s Tim Brown, my new boss Larry Keeley and even the odd executive (AG Lafley of Procter and Gamble comes to mind) were widely quoted espousing its virtues.

Still, in the years that have followed, something of a problem emerged. For all the gushing success stories that we and others wrote, most were often focused on one small project executed at the periphery of a multinational organization. When we stopped and looked, it seemed like executives had issues rolling out design thinking more widely throughout the firm. And much of this stemmed from the fact that there was no consensus on a definition of design thinking, let alone agreement as to who’s responsible for it, who actually executes it or how it might be implemented at scale.

And we’d be wise to note that there’s a reason that companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric were held up time and again as being the poster children of this new discipline. Smartly, they had defined it according to their own terms, executing initiatives that were appropriate to their own internal cultures. And that often left eager onlookers somewhat baffled as to how to replicate their success.

This is something that I think you need to think very carefully about as you look to implement design thinking within your company. Coming up with ways to implement this philosophy and process throughout your organization, developing the ways to motivate and engage your employees along with the metrics to ensure that you have a sense of the real value of your achievements are all critical issues that need to be considered, carefully, upfront.

Designers often bristle when the term design thinking comes up in conversation. It’s kind of counterintuitive, right? But here’s why: Having been initially overjoyed that the C-suite was finally paying attention to design, designers suddenly became terrified that they were actually being beaten to the punch by business wolves in designer clothing.

Suddenly, designers had a problem on their hands. Don Norman, formerly of Apple, once commented that “design thinking is a term that needs to die.” Designer Peter Merholz of Bay Area firm Adaptive Path wrote scornfully: “Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation.” He didn’t mean this as a compliment. Instead, his point was that those extolling the virtues of design thinking are at best misguided, at worst likely to inflict dangerous harm on the company at large, over-promising and under-delivering and in the process screwing up the delicate business of design itself.

So let’s be very clear. Design thinking neither negates nor replaces the need for smart designers doing the work that they’ve been doing forever. Packaging still needs to be thoughtfully created. Branding and marketing programs still need to be brilliantly executed. Products still need to be artfully designed to be appropriate for the modern world. When it comes to digital experiences, for instance, design is really the driving force that will determine whether a product lives or dies in the marketplace.

Design thinking is different. It captures many of the qualities that cause designers to choose to make a career in their field, yes. And designers can most certainly play a key part in facilitating and expediting it. But it’s not a replacement for the important, difficult job of design that exists elsewhere in the organization.

The value of multi-disciplinary thinking is one that many have touched upon in recent years. That includes the T-shaped thinkers championed by Bill Moggridge at IDEO, and the I-with-a-serif-shaped thinker introduced by Microsoft Research’s Bill Buxton, right through to the collaboration across departments, functions and disciplines that constitutes genuine cross disciplinary activity. This, I believe, is the way that innovation will emerge in our fiendishly complex times.

Just as design thinking does not replace the need for design specialists, nor does it magically appear out of some black box. Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.

Instead, it turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem. That’s all part of design thinking. And designing an organizational structure in which this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas can take place effectively is tremendously challenging, particularly within large organizations where systems and departments have become entrenched over the years.

You need to be prepared to rethink how you think about projects, about who gets involved and when, about no less than how you do things. The way that you approach innovation itself will probably need to change. This might seem like a massive undertaking, but if you’re after genuine disruption more than incremental improvement, these kinds of measures are the only way to get the results that you need.

Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn’t gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it’s sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can. But design thinking can live alongside efficiency measures, as a smart investment in innovation that will help the company remain viable as the future becomes the present.

Somehow, for a time there it seemed like executives thought that if they bought into a program of design thinking then all their problems would be solved. And we should be honest, many designers were quite happy to perpetuate this myth and bask in their new status. Then the economy tanked and as Kevin wrote in a really brilliant article published on Core77, “Many who had talked their way into high-flying positions were left gliding… Greater exposure to senior management’s interrogation had left many… well, exposed. The design thinkers had been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.”

The disconnect between the design department, the D-suite, if you will, and the C-suite is still pretty pronounced in most organizations. Designers who are looking to take a more strategic role in the organization, who should really be the figures one would think of to drive these initiatives, need to ensure that they are well versed in the language of business. It’s totally reasonable for their nervous executive counterparts to want to understand an investment in regular terms. Fuzziness is not a friend here. And yet, as I’ll get into in a moment, sometimes there’s no way to overcome that fuzziness. Leaps of faith are necessary. But designers should do everything they can to demonstrate that they have an understanding of what they’re asking, and put in place measurements and metrics that are appropriate and that can show they’re not completely out of touch with the business of the business, even if they can’t fully guarantee that a bet will pay off.

The two worlds of design and business still need to learn to meet half way. Think of an organization in which design plays a central, driving role, and there’s really only one major cliché of an example to use: Apple. But what Apple has in Steve Jobs is what every organization looking to embrace design as a genuine differentiating factor needs: a business expert who is able to act as a whole hearted champion of the value of design. In other words, Jobs has been utterly convinced that consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for Apple’s products, and so he’s given the design department the responsibility to make sure that every part of every one of those products doesn’t disappoint.

He is also notorious for his pickiness. I’ve talked with Apple designers who say he would scrap a project late in the game in order to make sure something is exactly as he thinks it should be. Now I don’t know about you, but how often does a project come back and it’s not quite how you wanted it but it’s ok and it’s really too late to make the changes to make it great and so you go with it? I know I’m guilty of doing that. Jobs doesn’t countenance that approach. And he’s set up processes to ensure that problems are caught, early, and the designers have enough time to get back to the drawing board if necessary. This commitment to excellence has helped turn Apple into the world’s most valuable technology company.

Note too Jobs’ approach to customer research: “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Jobs is comfortable hanging out in the world of the unknown, and this confidence allows him to take risks and make intuitive bets that for the past decade or so have paid off every time. And he’s instilled this spirit in his team. New company leader Tim Cook is renowned for the creative way in which he worked on supplier issues.

So now we get into something of a problem of terminology, because more than likely, Steve Jobs doesn’t consider Apple’s approach to be “design thinking”. Yet he’s the consummate example of one who’s built an organization on its promise. This approach of risk taking, of relying on intuition and experience rather than on the “facts” provided by spreadsheets and data, is anathema to most analysis-influenced C-suite members. But you need this kind of champion if design thinking is to gain traction and pay off.

I once heard a discussion between the current director of the Cooper-Hewitt museum, Bill Moggridge, and Hewlett Packard’s VP of Design, Sam Lucente. Sam was talking about how design thinking had helped him and his team to redevelop the design of one particular product that had done badly in the marketplace in order to produce a later, more successful version. The way he told the story, design thinking meant that this couldn’t be seen as a failure, because every moment had been one of wonder and learning. My interpretation was initially a little less poetic, that in fact design thinking no more guarantees the success in the marketplace of a product than any other tool or technique.

But actually, reframing failure in terms of learning is not just a kooky, quirky thing to do. In and of itself, it’s perhaps a useful exercise. By taking the pressure off design thinking and not expecting it to be the bright and shiny savior of the world, those trying out its techniques will be empowered to use it to its greatest advantage, to help introduce new techniques, to give new perspectives, to outline new ways of thinking or develop new entries to market.

In fact, I would argue, beware the snakeoil salesmen who promise you’ll never take another wrong step again if you buy into design thinking. While some executives have been running their businesses according to its principles for years now, the formal discipline is still pretty new, and individual companies really have to figure out how it can work for them. There’s no plug and play system you can simply install and roll out. Instead, you have to be prepared to be flexible and agile in your own thinking. You’ll likely have to question and rethink internal processes. For there to be a chance of success, you’re going to have to ascertain what metrics you want to use to judge whether a program has been successful or not. And you’re going to have to figure out how to allocate resources to make sure that an initiative even has a chance of taking off.

I know some of you are familiar with the work and thinking of Doblin’s Larry Keeley, with whom I’m working now. For a long time, Larry has been at the forefront of the movement to transform the discipline of innovation from a fuzzy, fluffy activity into a much more rigorous science. His thinking in that arena holds for design thinking too. It’s time to move beyond the either/or discussions so often entertained within organizations. This isn’t about left brain vs right brain. This is about the need for analysis and synthesis. Both are critically important, from data analytics to complexity management to iteration and rapid prototyping. But even with all of this, there’s never going to be a way to 100% guarantee success. The goal here is to be able to act with eyes wide open, to have a clear intent in mind and to have systems in place that allow you to reward success and quickly move on from disappointment—and to make sure that your organization learns from those mistakes and thus does not repeat them.


23 thoughts on “Design Thinking Won’t Save You

  1. Helen – I’m seriously impressed by this post. I head up Fjord’s ‘Business Design’ practice in London and strive hard for a sense of realism about how to get good design to get traction in a business sense. Your post here is full of fantastic insight and hard-nosed realism. I got very carried away in 2007 or so by a lot of the publications that appeared at that time, and I particularly like your way of articulating the need for design as a discipline to make sense within particular organisational cultures and business environments.
    Really, great stuff.

  2. Hoi Helen, I like your cautious view on design thinking. You mention important points, particularly that change does not happen when you introduce a new process. A fool with a tool is still a fool.

    And another point is that you we often ask the wrong questions in the design thinking process. If we frame our question already around our current business model, there will be not disruptive innovation coming out of this process. We need a culture that accepts the changes. Take a look at two article I wrote about design thinking and
    But we can learn a lot from the design approach like how to find customer insights and that we should develop lots of options before we later decide which option we should follow.

  3. Design Thinking is one of those terms that is easiest (yet not easy) to define by describing what it is NOT.
    I don’t think it is a new way of thinking. It is rare, but now new. I see it as willingness to lead, and take risks, and change whatever needs to be changed to achieve what you believe to be the desirable outcome. Why it is called design thinking, I’m not sure. I don’t think design has much to do with it. It is creativity and innovation realized. And has always been.
    In your article, you hit the nail on the head with “what Apple has in Steve Jobs is what every organization looking to embrace design as a genuine differentiating factor needs: a business expert who is able to act as a whole hearted champion of the value of design.”
    Design thinking is just like customer service – a way of thinking that cannot be inserted into a company from the middle, and most certainly not from the front lines. It is always dependent on the leaders’ strength of conviction. If it is just words, it will not stick.
    Leaders that have changed entire categories, or created new categories — through what is now for some reason called “design thinking” — include Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Guy Laliberte, John Lasseter, maybe even Henry Ford! All leaders who were and are willing to lead, to champion, to do. Questioning “what is” and asking instead “what if” is the thinking behind it. Designing new processes, new technology, new things, is just one part of the process.

  4. Spot on as always, Helen. The unspoken irony is that Design Thinking is overdue to have its own tenets of observation and prototyping pointed upon itself. Time to say, ok, we’ve prototyped this thing, what’s working and what’s not? What’s working (when it works) is teasing out new consumer needs and compelling product solutions. But there’s a baked-in tendency to miss the needs of the business, or even dismiss them. Like any piece of prototyping, Design Thinking’s road test has shown what the next model should do that this one doesn’t. Some of us have already drunk the convergence Kool-Aid where analytics and creative synthesis are joined at the hip, to far greater effect than either alone. Maybe it’s time to pour it around.

  5. Thanks so much, all, for your thoughtful comments. @John Oswald, thanks so much! I’m glad this resonated and best of luck with your own practice. @ Patrick Stahler, thanks for the links and for my new favorite phrase, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” ;) @ Tuija Seipell, seems to me like reframing a problem is at the heart of the design process. And you’re bang on, leaders are critical–the good ones know they can’t delegate the job of creativity to others. @Mark Payne, YES! I’m excited about the next prototype of design thinking and look forward to watching you serve up your wisdom from a larger stage.

  6. Great post. It points out the main problem with design thinking – it is not a single thing, yet people throw the phrase around as though they are talking about an agreed-upon entity.

    My other problem with design thinking (and I come from a design/sociology/writing/strategy background, so I am a fan of both design and thinking) is that it is something that is neither exclusive to designers nor universally practiced by them.

    DT is a loosely defined collection of techniques, processes and mindsets – but these can and do exist in other disciplines, and are certainly not universally done by designers.

  7. Helen, nice article, but it is really something a lot of us have been discussing for quite some time.

    I’ve been working to foster design thinking with businesses, gave talks and even supported government lead design initiatives for some time now. In my mind, the real issue here is not the “who” or the “how”. It is more the “why” and the “so what?”.

    There is a lot of discussion on how to view DT, integrate it, the relationship between design and business, etc., but the real challenge is we need better results and outcomes. The Apple story is rather tired at this point in time. Everyone, including designers need to do a better job with DT. And if we are hoping that more businesses are going to adopt DT, they need to know that it works, and not only in companies like Apple.

    I agree with you, there can never be 100% success with DT, but success (and “results” as I mentioned above) is how we define it. Us creative types tend to focus on the process, building the team, the problem at hand and the overall experience of doing it, but it is time to focus on the results for a change rather than being fluffy about it all the time.

  8. Great post. My favorite sentence:
    “The two worlds of design and business still need to learn to meet half way”
    As designers we tend to think only about our users and sometimes forget we are part of the business.

  9. Helen, I loved reading this. You do a great job of pointing out the snags we run into as so many of us work to infuse business with more design. Design’s etymology, in fact splits, in modern English into two conflicting pieces: 1. intention (DT) and 2. pattern drawing (design’s serious image problem, as you tweeted yesterday.) I think that as designers need to redefine and publicize design as an intention-oriented practice, where the outcome could be a new compensation structure for employees or an evolution of product formulation or experience just as easily as sleek objects, logos, and pack designs.

    Religion, government, and business have been practicing design (designation — or the exercising of intention, — which has recently been re-labeled design thinking) for thousands of years, as entities have designed rules and systems for the benefit of themselves. That is, designers need to get used to the fact that businesspeople are designers too.

    In truth, the elusive results that design thinking and innovation are both looking for lie in fairness and sustainability — without sacrificing profit. We need to design a new generation of organizations and systems, which are truly win-win for EVERYONE and all species on the planet.

    In accomplishing this shift, designers, as you mention, definitely need to become more business-savvy. May I suggest a goal of educating every designer in business, public policy, and sustainability? A shift of this kind in design education would go a long way toward undoing design’s serious image problem. Indeed, we are not a bunch of effete, air-headed hipsters, whose concerns revolve around ever-evolving notions of what’s cool and what’s beautiful.

    The emergence of design thinking as a business term is clear evidence that those of us with design backgrounds are ready to help change the world.

  10. Hi Helen, i really liked the way you have described Design thinking and I could clearly associate with the confusion one undergoes while practicing or being part of a Design thinking process. I have a question in terms of its application… like ‘where should one use Design thinking and where should one not’, any experiences attached to it..

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