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"Design Thinking" Isn't a Miracle Cure, but Here's How It Helps

The term has come in for a lot of scorn. But it's because we haven't been clear about what it actually entails, argues Helen Walters.

[This is a follow-up to Helen's previous article on design thinking, The Seven Deadly Sins That Choke Out Innovation ? Ed.]

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.

Eager onlookers were left baffled about replicating this success.

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.

Design thinking captures the qualities that drew designers to the field.

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.

Designers were quite happy to bask in their new status.

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 wholehearted 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 okay 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.

Reframing failure in terms of learning is not just a kooky and quirky.

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.

[Top image by Karin Dalziel]

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  • Tim Geoghegan

    Design thinking is so easy it's ridiculous. But so hard for many businesses to grasp it because it requires empathy and insight. Ie; being and understanding what it's like to be a vulnerable human being. This is something design thinkers deal with naturally, every single moment of their lives. On the upside, we get to charge for it.

  • Jean-Claude Vandonghen

    For those of you who can read French, here are two interesting articles on the topic that reflect the local mindset in most "Latin" European countries (ie southern Europe) : http://getoffthebox.wordpress.... ("putting design thinking to the test") and : http://innovation-design-think... (I suppose this is a hint at George Clinton "Free your mind and your a.. will follow" - the French are known for being rude sometimes and very keen on American music of that kind).
    Anyway I also like in your article the extensive and repetitive use of apophasis, for if we can not positively tell what design thinking entails with certainty, at least you mention what it is not. That's a start.

  • dwmfrancis

    While looking for examples of legendary creativity, don't overlook Walt Disney. There are some strong similarities between Walt and Steve. Both were perfectionists and dreamers.  Both were called tyrants by those who were closest to them. Both had passion for the product and strove to delight the customer.  Both failed miserably but kept going. Sadly for the rest of the world, both died long before their creative juices were expended.  d.thinkers and D'Thinkers have a lot in common for a reason. They saw the unseen, discovered the unknown and invented the future.

  • LinoLourenco

    "Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a
    process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern

    I agree. I marketed Six Sigma and Design Thinking (for Katharina Berger) at
    Deutsche Bank as the innovation-marketing guy. The benefits are more than just
    the great products.

    It was a jaw-dropping experience to witness teams of four
    barely-out-of-school-interns churn out AMAZING products. In four months, and facing
    gut churning deadlines and challenges that'd scare a Steve Jobs. 

    I wanted to narrate the wider story of what that
    Design Thinking "process" meant for an organization. In the hundreds
    of innovations I marketed over six years, from all ports, departments, tribes, of
    Deutsche Bank, I saw a massive distance between the tiny entrepreneurial design
    thinking teams. And the stuff churned out by Six Sigma and Big-Rock IT


    Nor had the adoring sponsors. For proof of
    that enthusiasm, see these energized students and thrilled sponsors: 

    Compare that to your usual corporate snore–story.

    For me, the MAIN story, was not just, significant as they were, the
    paradigm-shattering products produced on shoe string budgets. Products that
    even the massively funded internal department could not produce in their
    wildest dreams—phenomenal in itself.


    No, it wasn’t the fantastic products. It was the
    ENGAGEMENT of the students.

    The authenticity, the esprit, the empowerment—which
    I saw in the pride glittering in students and stakeholders eyes, about the creations
    of hot services and spicy products they’d mid-wifed.


    It was about wheeling in Trojan entrepreneurs, catalyzers
    innovating from within walls of complacency.

    It was an amazingly empowering process. Transforming wet-behind
    the-ears-students to master entrepreneurs, shining in a sea of me-to corporates,
    way too scared to actually dare to speak to the customer and do something different.

    So I think the sub text, the unseen story here, is this: The empowering effect
    it has on freeing people to engage and bring out the best. You had Apple
    quality products (such as an HR onboarding app) that even a HR department could
    sell, if they wanted to, for hundreds of millions. After all, how many big orgs
    are out there recruiting? That was a product that came out not from the IT
    department. Nor from Apple, but from a bunch of rookie students who created
    this amazing product from what started out as a minor challenge—“improve a form
    finding process for HR”.


    Had they been entrepreneurially inclined, they had
    effectively created a prototype factory that could easily have been linked in
    with a venture capital fund, or a crowd sourced funder like LinkedIn.

    Great as it is, the place Design Thinking has is more than producing great
    products as part of a mechanically followed process. It’s a way for
    corporations to put the people back into organizations.


    Great article. By the way.

  • jan dirk snel

    I think more is written and talked about "design thinking" than thought.

  • RalfLippold

    @Jack, thank you for pointing out the viewpoints on viewpoints of knowing, thinking and doing. Only when intertwined together will there be what in public is known as DESIGN THINKING.

    Putting the tangible (doing) + intangible (knowing and thinking) together is the REAL challenge!

    #InternetOfThinking, which coined in my emerging white paper back in 2010 is mainly covering the knowing part. What is covering the thinking part? Is it EmotivEpoc or similar brain reading device? Can we learn more at mid-May in Dresden? #mcdd11

  • Gene Lee

    Design Thinking has definitely caught on as a hot topic. I'm currently reading Change by Design by Tim Brown, in which he shares anecdote after anecdote of how design thinking has improved a product or service and benefitted a client company.

    What I find to be the beauty of design thinking is how it incorporates the customer more thoroughly into the product/service experience. Designers utilize art and aesthetics to authenticate the human connection to products. Design Thinking brings this belief to the forefront and articulates the strategy that select companies have utilized for years, even decades, to remain competitive.

    I echo the thoughts you've articulated so well in your article, and would like to add that people view design thinking as a shortcut strategy to success. I think what is essential with design thinking is that it is a unique perspective often left out of business and a way of seeing the world that needs to be developed. My mind keeps wandering to images of US auto companies copying Toyota manufacturing practices without fully understanding why those processes were created in the first place and the deeply imbedded belief system within the Toyota Way - the Toyota Kata. I can see companies doing the same with Design Thinking - having post-its covering walls, a few prototypes without full commitment to discovery and execution.


  • Jack Ring

    Thanks for surfacing this topic.
    I suggest that design be considered from the viewpoints of knowing, thinking and doing. Design thinking won't suffice if the design is never materialized. Likewise a completed design that does not reflect good principles is DOA in the marketplace.
    It isn't time for design thinking to die. It is time to bring it into focus as a component of a system that designs.
    Also we are well advised to notice that the extent, variety and ambiguity inherent in the situation which motivates design greatly influences the modality of design. Design modalities may range from design of a simple logo to the design of a better form of government for a million person nation.
    Big Hairy Audacious problems may not be suppressed by the first design. It may take one or two tries before the real problem and best response emerge. So the first design gets some credit even if it doesn't suffice.

  • Peter Jones

    Helen, this article is quite ready for the time and is being passed around by colleagues. I'd like to make a point in favor of Design Thinking and a point against the current use of the term. In the courses we teach at OCADU's MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation, we make a really clear distinction about the origins of the term, and especially Buchanan's use in his 1992 Design Issues article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking." he is very careful to distinguish DT as reflecting the ways designers actually think in terms of the placements available among the four orders of design (essentially communications, artifacts, services and systems, and larger social systems). Designing power is gained from the degrees of freedom to move between these placements and to use them to expand the canvas for articulation of concepts.

    Design thinking has been kind of co-opted recently as a business term of art, and that has rankled designers, but for the wrong reasons. The problem with 2010 era design thinking is that business and others interested in "doing design thinking" believe now that its a methodology and a series of steps. IDEO and other popular firms have created simplified methodological diagrams that are assumed by others, often others not keen on the literature, who just relate their work to a series of steps and methods (1. Hear 2. Create 3 Deliver OR 1. Ideate 2. Prototype 3. Evaluate 4. Build and so on).

    I published an article in 2010 relating Design Thinking to the history of systems thinking and it comes out in favor of DT in the ways you describe.

  • David Kendall

    Great article and discussion on what’s behind this driving need for “design thinking” and the implications for organizations. For the most part, I think we all desire innovation, perhaps because it feels like we're embracing or, at least acknowledging, change in some sort of proactive process. However, innovation by its very nature is ill-defined. All too often, we tend get stuck or fixated on the end goal and then are frustrated by the inevitable mistakes that happen along the way. However, designers seem to be quite familiar and comfortable with engaging in the constant feedback loop as they progress along the design process toward that illusive goal of success. And even then, I don’t think we are ever completely satisfied. We’re the most optimistic pessimists!

  • Tuija Seipell

    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. This may sound simplistic, but the last thing we need is more theory.

  • Rod Brazier

    Organizations have always -- and, I suspect will always -- seek "magic bullets." And there will always be "snake oil salesmen" ready to come to the rescue of beleagered C-suiters with the next great thing. These generally come nicely packaged, and with a snazzy turn of phrase or acronym. Witness TQM, BPR, SAP, et al.

    While I don't dispute that these "programs" and others have benefited some organizations, they have failed miserably in many others; and in so doing the baby (the useful "stuff") has often been thrown out with the bathwater (poor implementation & results.) I fear "design thinking" may be at risk of a similar fate.

    The underlying driver here is executive desire to bring about change that will lead to the success of the enterprise, success that is defined by mission, measures, strategies and the like. A noble -- and pragmatic -- purpose. However, as Helen's article points out, often the very real "potential" contribution of design thinking is discounted by executives when designers are unable to bridge the design-business divide (i.e. the "relevancy" gap.)

    But there's more to it than that.

    Most change initiatives/programs/projects founder when their proponents and practitioners fail to appreciate and respond to a basic truth about organizations: they are interdependent "systems" in which multiple factors and dynamics will influence the success of any significant change initiative.

    I believe the remedy to this IS, in part, the adoption of Design Thinking -- writ large. That is, an approach to organizational challenges and opportunities that emphasizes understanding the nature of relationships among the factors and dynamics operating in the organizational system, and designs responses in that context. Any new business practice or structure must be designed; and design "thinking" must precede design practice. Adding systems thinking to design thinking will result in a more robust approach to organizational change.

    Ironically, there has existed for decades a discipline for which design thinking has always been central: organization development (OD). OD's purpose is improve organizational health and productivity, and its principles and tools include systems thinking (interdependence, cause & effect), stakeholder engagement, collaboration, strategic thinking and the like. OD practitioners typically have a broad understanding and appreciation for both business and human dynamics, and can be a great asset to any C-suiters contemplating change -- a great alternative to the magic bullet!

  • Daniel Ferrara

    Great article Helen! My thoughts are that"Design Thinking" is a coined statement that some design firms use as a sales tool to camoflage and confuse a process that has always been used by a creative, intuitive, perfectionist, risk taking, person,not necessarily a "designer" to produce an excellent outcome no matter what it takes. These "design firms" have many failures and overcooked results.


  • Bryan Fuhr

    Thanks for writing this. It's a great piece on the acceptance and adaptation of new business strategies for growth. The importance of experimentation underscoring your argument is wise. I wonder if you have any examples other than Apple to share.