Design Thinking’s Triple-B Future

Design Thinking is entering a new era that will be more contentious and also more promising because of three ‘b’s’ affecting its evolution.

Design Thinking is at an interesting place in its evolution.

After more than a decade of popularity, Design Thinking is reaching a new stage of maturity that is perhaps bringing it to the place where it can finally achieve its potential as a vehicle for supporting innovation. Amid a global pandemic and restructuring of institutions, markets, and entire sectors from charities to governments, the need for new ways of thinking and creativity has never been higher.


I belong to a Design Thinking group that has become a forum for ‘debating’ various definitions and methods with many flogging their own brand and model proclaiming what it ‘is’. My view is that if you need to vigorously promote your definition, there is probably something wrong with it (it’s too complicated, doesn’t make sense, can’t be measured, is too proprietary, the founders are too precious with it, it’s too restrictive, or maybe it just doesn’t make things useful).

A good, useful definition rarely requires much argument: they stand on their own and people can take it or leave it.

That is really the problem. There’s so much invested in the ‘brand’ of design thinking among some that the promoters have lost much of the plot about what it’s really all about: design + thinking about design. Thus, the concept of Design Thinking has risked becoming meaningless with these different terms and definitions using language that sounds familiar, but in practice is largely useless. It’s not because there needs to be one definition above all, its that however we define this thing called Design Thinking, it needs to have conceptual, logical, and evidence-supported backing. This is where we arrive in the land of BS.

Design Thinking: The BS

I recall a tweet from someone on my ‘Design Thinkers’ list that boldly stated: “Design thinking is what glues all disciplines together“.

The quote is most likely a mis-reading of something that IDEO co-founder Tom Kelly has said before about design thinking being a means to bring different disciplines together, functioning much like a meta-discipline. It’s also a whole lot of nonsense. Seriously, this doesn’t make any sense at all as anyone who’s tried to bring medieval studies, chemical engineering, social work, and forestry together might attest.

Why I got upset at reading the original tweet was how senseless it was, not that it was an incorrect quote. These kinds of pithy and meaningless quotes are one of the reasons why Design Thinking has been called by some designers (myself included): bullshit.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Yet, there remain these cottage industries devoted to peddling Design Thinking in forms that have little more than offering creative brainstorming, lots of sticky notes, and pithy phrases and concepts like “create wild ideas” and “fail fast to succeed sooner” with little more to help Design Thinking actually embed itself in an organizational culture of innovation or exist beyond a set of one-off workshops.

Real Design Thinking is about persistence, not a one- or two-day corporate retreat.

Design Thinking: The Benefits

Until recently, one of the biggest issues for Design Thinking was the absence of evidence to support the promotional rhetoric. This has changed as scholar-practitioners around the world begin to articulate the foundations of Design Thinking and measure, monitor, and evaluate this process and its outcomes. The evidence, while still emergent, is starting to confirm, challenge, and expand what we think about Design Thinking.

This is how fields of practice evolve from a loose collection of ideas into disciplines of practice. This kind of inquiry involves gathering data and making it transparent so that others can examine, challenge, and confirm what is found and build on it.

The benefits of Design Thinking are largely in the ways that it helps people frame problems and see them differently. It provides a framework for tackling the exploration, idea-generation, creation of trials and prototypes, and generation of products and services that get implemented and have impact. Of these different stages or phases of the process we have different amounts of evidence, but the early conclusions are that Design Thinking as a loosely bound set of practices and methods provides greater innovation return than doing things haphazardly.

The key is that Design Thinking requires clear leadership to bring about. A one-off workshop is a great start, but insufficient if we want to embed the ideas, methods and tools into organizations or regular practice. The benefits are that we know that with leadership it can be done.

Design Thinking: The Beautiful & Beyond

With the multi-layered challenges posed by COVID-19 and the myriad effects it has brought to the health, wellbeing, and stability of our economies, societies, and healthcare systems the need for innovation is at its most amplified. Whether you’re in food service, performing arts, sporting entertainment, retail, philanthropy, education or finance — we are seeing a global transformation in the structure of entire sectors. Many players will not survive in their current form.

As with every crisis, there will be new entrants and new ways of working that will come in and replace or shift what we had. In every case, innovation is required. Most of us are not trained in innovation methods and tools. Design Thinking is an entry point to that world. While insufficient on its own, Design Thinking is enough to get people interested in and starting down the path toward more disciplined, systemic, and sustainable innovation.

Considerate, thoughtful, and rigorous training — the kind that we would provide to any other endeavour that is important — is a new frontier. We will see new means of creating, innovating, and evaluating in the years to come as training programs get serious, go beyond the BS, and people begin to learn and distinguish between the meaningless self-promotion and a core set of valuable approaches, methods, tools, and mindframes that can support real innovation and real results. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

The publication of books like Organisational Aesthetics by Steven de Groot add to this by offering evidence and practical strategic advice for how Design Thinking can support making our work, our industries, as well as our products and services more beautiful and thus, more humane. In doing so, Design Thinking is not only a means to innovate, but as a means to heal and grow. After a year that by most people’s standards was ugly beyond any others in recent memory, our need for beauty, sustainable and responsible businesses, supportive communities, and viable, service-forward industries needs this.

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