Time for Design Thinking to Grow Up

Design Thinking is moving out of adolescence and needs to act like a grown-up. There’s evidence that’s happening.

Design thinking is not new anymore. From that early (and legendary) ABC Nightline episode where the world first really saw what this new idea was first shown outside of the small cadre of (mostly) Silicon Valley firms using it.

Since then, design thinking has been called everything from a failed experiment (with demands to move on to something new) to outright bullshit. I’ve argued that design thinking needs to move past this ‘bullshit phase’ if it’s going to have value moving forward. My argument is simply that design thinking hasn’t evolved much beyond sticky notes, double-diamond models, and catch-phrases like “fail fast to succeed sooner ” and other failure fetishism qualities embraced by Silicon Valley.

Growing up isn’t meant to be a paternalistic slant. It’s meant to say that the developmental trajectory of design thinking is ready to evolve to a new stage of maturity.

There are signs that this is happening; it’s about time.

Show, Don’t Tell

One the popular maxims of design thinking is ‘show, don’t tell.’

This is meant to encourage people to bias their actions toward making, rather than dwelling in thoughts about making. Underpinning this suggestion is the idea that we learn by making and through that process we learn faster, better, and in ways that are more germane to what we’re making. Active learning and inquiry has substantial evidence behind it and this is partly where maturity comes in.

Since design thinking first gained traction across different disciplines, there’s been a near blind assertion that design thinking works. If we reserve the concept of what ‘works’ for a moment, we are still left with much practice-based assertion of effectiveness, but little firm evidence.

That has recently started to change. Research by Jeanne Liedtka and others have looked into what design thinking actually generates and has found empirical evidence of effectiveness for using methods considered to be ‘design thinking’ versus more standard approaches to problem-solving. From better ideas to innovation outcomes we are seeing emerging, real evidence that design thinking is having positive impact.

Pathways to Change

While evidence of effect is useful, it doesn’t fully explain why design thinking is said to work. “Trust us, we’re designers” is not a sufficient statement. The truth is that the culture of design is anchored toward tangible products and fuzzy processes. When design is evaluated on its products alone, we lose a sense of how or why these products were produced in the first place. We need coherent, useful theories to help us ask better questions and get useful answers about what design thinking is, does, and produces.

This is also changing.

Jeanne Liedtka recently wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review explaining why design thinking works. Another recent article by Leigh Thompson and David Schonthal from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has looked at the social psychology of design thinking, articulating the psycho-social and behavioural aspects of how and why design thinking produces effects.

Kimberly Elsbach and Ileana Stigliani have applied design thinking to organizational culture and reviewed the research and theoretical foundations for both to illustrate ways in which they intersect while design scholar Richard Buchanan has extended exploration of design thinking to systems thinking and illustrated how conceptually the two fields complement each other in ways that can inform systemic practice.

These are big steps — it’s theorizing design thinking more fully and tying it to the work in other disciplines and fields.

Practice-Based Evidence

Evidence of effect and theories of change are good, quality case examples. Chithra Adams and John Nash published one of the first comprehensive studies of practice use of design thinking by looking at its application to evaluation.

A review of practice and use of design thinking by Pietro Micheli and colleagues found core concepts, tools, and approaches that were shared across contexts and supported in the literature by using a card sort methodology. Their conclusion was that there was evidence for a foundation of design thinking as it is practiced while also providing some further conceptual clarity to the varied uses of terms within the field.

Through individual case studies, reviews, and synthesis projects, a body of practice-based evidence is starting to emerge. Designers and innovators are beginning to share their work and expose their methods, processes, definitions, and uses to the world rather than keeping them hidden.

Better Definitions

Coming back to our issue of whether design thinking ‘works’ we are left with one last frontier for the practice and that is a clearly articulated definition. This isn’t a marketing or PR definition (or even for practice), but one that is held up to some form of scrutiny that we can begin to debate what the core structures of design thinking actually are. This, too, is improving.

A recent set of articles in the peer-reviewed design journal She Ji looked more closely at the ways in which design thinking has been articulated, debating the merits and inclusion criteria by drawing on theory, practice, and evidence. This hasn’t been seen before because we lacked the theory, the evidence, and the practice-based examples. For the first time we are beginning to see a set of definitions that have some articulation that can be challenged, adopted, added-to, and studied in some systemic way.

It’s time for design thinking to grow-up. A grown-up field has vigorous debate based on theory, practice, evidence of effect, and a transparent research base. It’s one that goes beyond slogans to where academics, practitioners, and consumers of all types (etc., product users, clients of design services, policymakers) can feel confident that an idea has merit, value, and significance and better use and apply what design thinking has to offer.

Welcome to adulthood, design thinking.

Design thinking is best done in a structured, flexible manner and requires attention to practice and evaluation for true innovation value. If your organization is looking to use it and build in the evaluation structures to support learning through it, contact me. I can help.


Adams, C., & Nash, J. (2016). View of Exploring Design Thinking Practices in Evaluation. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 12(26), 12–17. Retrieved from https://journals.sfu.ca/jmde/index.php/jmde_1/article/view/434/416

Antle, A. N. (2017). Making Sense of Design Thinking. She Ji, Vol. 3, pp. 92–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2017.10.003

Barsalou, L. W. (2017). Define Design Thinking. She Ji, Vol. 3, pp. 102–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2017.10.007

Buchanan, R. (2019). Systems Thinking and Design Thinking: The Search for Principles in the World We Are Making. She Ji, 5(2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2019.04.001

Elsbach, K. D., & Stigliani, I. (2018). Design Thinking and Organizational Culture: A Review and Framework for Future Research. Journal of Management, 44(6). https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206317744252

Liedtka, J. (2017). Evaluating the impact of design thinking in action. 2017 Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, AOM 2017, 2017-Augus. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMBPP.2017.177

Liedtka, J. (2018). Why Design Thinking Works. Harvard Business Review, (September-October), 2–9. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-design-thinking-works

Meinel, M., Eismann, T. T., Baccarella, C. V., Fixson, S. K., & Voigt, K. I. (2020). Does applying design thinking result in better new product concepts than a traditional innovation approach? An experimental comparison study. European Management Journal. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2020.02.002

Roberts, J. P., Fisher, T. R., Trowbridge, M. J., & Bent, C. (2016). A design thinking framework for healthcare management and innovation. Healthcare, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hjdsi.2015.12.002

Salmi, A., & Mattelmäki, T. (2019). From within and in-between – co-designing organizational change. CoDesign, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/15710882.2019.1581817

Shah, J. J., Vargas-Hernandez, N., & Smith, S. M. (2003). Metrics for measuring ideation effectiveness. Design Studies, 24(2), 111–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0142-694X(02)00034-0

Thompson, L., & Schonthal, D. (2020). The Social Psychology of Design Thinking. California Management Review, 62(2), 84–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/0008125619897636

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash and Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

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