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Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What's Next?

Bruce Nussbaum, one of Design Thinking's biggest advocates, is moving on to something new. Here, he begins defining "Creative Quotient."

The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ. I am writing a book about Creative Intelligence, due out from HarperCollins in fall 2012, and I hope to have a conversation with the Fast Company audience on this blog about how we should teach, measure, and use CQ.

Why am I, who at Business Week was one of Design Thinking's major advocates, moving on to a new conceptual framework? Simple. Design Thinking has given the design profession and society at large all the benefits it has to offer and is beginning to ossify and actually do harm. Helen Walters, my wonderful colleague at Business Week, lays out many of the pros and cons of Design Thinking in her post on her blog.

Design consultancies hoped that a process trick would produce change.

I would add that the construction and framing of Design Thinking itself has become a key issue. Design Thinking originally offered the world of big business—which is defined by a culture of process efficiency—a whole new process that promised to deliver creativity. By packaging creativity within a process format, designers were able to expand their engagement, impact, and sales inside the corporate world. Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process.

There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Call it N+1 innovation.

CEOs in particular, took to the process side of Design Thinking, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes. I had a conversation with IDEO's Tim Brown at Parsons recently and his analysis is spot on:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process. In a few companies, CEOs and managers accepted that mess along with the process and real innovation took place. In most others, it did not. As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low.

The success rate for design thinking processes was very low.

Yet, the contributions of Design Thinking to the field of design and to society at large are immense. By formalizing the tacit values and behaviors of design, Design Thinking was able to move designers and the power of design from a focus on artifact and aesthetics within a narrow consumerist marketplace to the much wider social space of systems and society. We face huge forces of disruption, the rise and fall of generations, the spread of social media technologies, the urbanization of the planet, the rise and fall of nations, global warming, and overpopulation. Together these forces are eroding our economic, social, and political systems in a once-in-a-century kind of way. Design Thinking made design system-conscious at a key moment in time.

I don't think the rise of Humanistic Design would have been possible without Design Thinking. And for all my concerns about it, Humanistic Design is a huge advance in the field and the great work done by the Acumen Fund, Project H, Parsons' students at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Stanford's K-12 initiative, Ideo at the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente would not have occurred without the advent of Design Thinking. The new programs in Social Innovation at Parsons, School of Visual Arts, Stanford, Columbia, and elsewhere would never have been developed.

But it was creativity that Design Thinking was originally supposed to deliver and it is to creativity that I now turn directly and purposefully. Creativity is an old concept, far older than "design." But it is an inclusive concept. In my experience, when you say the word 'design' to people across a table, they tend to smile politely and think "fashion." Say 'design thinking,' and they stop smiling and tend to lean away from you. But say ?creativity" and people light up and lean in toward you.

Everyone likes creativity because everyone believes they are, or were, or can be creative. And they are right. The truth is that the best scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, soldiers, CEOs, sports coaches, hockey players, and World of Warcraft players are all creative. That scaffolding of Design Thinking, that collection of behaviors is the heart and sole of creativity. It includes being attuned to the people and culture you are immersed in and having the experience, wisdom, and knowledge to frame the real problem and—most important of all perhaps—the ability to create and enact solutions.

Design Thinking broke design out of its specialized, narrow, and limited base and connected it to more important issues and a wider universe of profit and non-profit organizations. I believe the concept of Creative Intelligence expands that social engagement even further.

Everyone believes they are, or can be, creative. And they are right.

So what is Creative Intelligence, or CQ? Let me start by saying it is a concept in formation and I hope our conversation over the next months will give it a true, deep meaning. Above all, CQ is about abilities. I can call them literacies or fluencies. If you walk into one of Katie Salen's Quest to Learn classes or a business strategy class at the Rotman School of Management, you can see people being taught behaviors that raise their CQ. You can see it in the military, corporations, and sports teams. It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space—our lives today.

At this point, I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned. I place CQ within the intellectual space of gaming, scenario planning, systems thinking and, of course, design thinking. It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.

Let me end by telling you my dream: It's 2020 and my godchild Zoe is applying to Stanford, Cambridge, and Tsinghua universities. The admissions offices in each of these top schools asks for proof of literacies in math, literature, and creativity. They check her SAT scores, her essays, her IQ, and her CQ.

Now, please join me in a conversation about Creative Intelligence. Where should we go with it? How should we shape and measure it? What kind of stories do you have to illustrate its power? What K-12, college and grad schools are trying to teach it? Where do we go with it? I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

[Top image by Kevin Dooley]

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  • Tim Carlin

    Interesting addition, yet the truly creative will most likely shutter at the idea of a quantitative measurement of creativity! Your last sentence speaks to the American ideal of comparative measurement of ability. Creativity should be left to subjective assessment, unless ultimately you are about tapping the multibillion dollar industry of ranking an rating. If that is your motive, my suggestion is to start with gifted and talented testing such as CogAT before recreating the wheel.

  • Cristian Go

    Timely piece . I Appreciate the details ! Does anyone know if my company might be able to obtain a sample Calendar version to work with ?

  • Raj Peddisetty

    How could observing and understanding users with empathy to gain insights could be a failed experiment. Yes, it would be a failed experiment if you are misguided that just by hiring few design consultants you would be able to double your revenue overnight. If you try to improve anything that is saturated and matured, marginal returns may not be great. I believe you need to use "Design Thinking" with a grain of salt. It should be employed for situations such as an existing business trying to expand into new areas, a start-up figuring out its target market and users, etc. Design Thinking should be one your tools to improve a business situation, it's not a panacea. In the worst case, I would suggest we use the term "not sufficient" rather than "failure".

  • Like to share this book Complete Design Thinking for Successful Professionals. It has really good and easy step-by-step insights on how to solve problems creatively using proven design thinking tools.

    Download PDF Book here: Download iTunes eBook here: Preview Book here:

  • If we are talking about going beyond the concept of Design Thinking, I think we fall short by limiting the scope to CREATIVE INTELLIGENCE .... I refer it as something broader and validated, perhaps empirically, and call it SOCIAL CREATIVITY as this concept is more linked to factors of social and cultural interaction to which reference is made. In the end, we are talking about a framework higher level where you can frame to design thinking and many of today's socio-cultural phenomena .... even the development of cities.

  • I think design thinking as a framework that encourages collaboration, interaction between people to reach more convenient solutions for the parties. The end is a social process based on a framework for the solution of problems .... something that humans do innately in their social interactions, like family.

  • Design thinking never started out as a was a concept. It was only consultants such as yourself that made it into a process of diminishing returns. If you want to see how DT got corrupted. Look in the mirror.

  • Companies like to say they use design thinking the way some development shops say that they are Agile. They blame the process for it's failure before they take the time to understand the fundamentals.

    Like Agile, Design Thinking is iterative. They are both frameworks, not processes. That is why they get "implemented" badly.

    Consultants are the worse! When I read that some consultants want to certify design thinking practitioners I knew that things had gone off the rails.

    I have always hated the term design thinking because it disrespects and misconstrues the meaning of design. Design, by definition, means problem solving. To problem solve, one must think.

    So, I say good by and good riddance to design thinking. What's next? Strategic Design! Innovation without execution is creativity. Strategic Design rises above processes to force businesses to think about the whole business not just product development when it comes to innovation.

  • Darrick Hildman

    I get frustrated when I read titles like "Design Thinking is a failed experiment" when obviously it is not Design Thinking that failed, but a rigid, hierarchical business structure that is a failing model. If we look at all of the ideas and processes that these businesses have discarded, it would be a mountain. Just because you repackage the name does not mean that they won't mess it up.

    Maybe what we should do is use Design Thinking, Creative Intelligence, Innovation or what ever we want to call it to not only create a new model for business, but to figure out a way for businesses to evolve and adapt a culture that that welcomes innovation and listens to their employees instead of a quick fix to make more money.

    And for those businesses that don't evolve or adapt, to label them as the "Failed Experiment" and to hold up those businesses who innovate as the new model, instead of trying to repackage innovation.

  • Istiak Habib

    Fascinating discussion. Eric Stein is a professor in the business school at Penn State who has spent the last several years researching creative behaviors, teaching business students how to express creativity in the workplace, and identifying critical success factors for innovation.

    The bottom line is that many schools and companies are just not doing a good job at nurturing creativity. However, his work indicates that creativity can be fostered. Check out for more info.

  • Continued: To continue, I read in the comments that the school system does not foster creativity or 'Creative Intelligence' and that is so true, although I have notices since my grandchildren have been in school there is a push to learn more math and science and computer languages as well.
    I think an example of creative intelligence that I saw was sadly on a TV program where one of the young people in this science fiction show was very intelligent so much so that an alien predicted that he would 'transcend' or become something better. What I am trying to say is that until schools and parents and humanity become aware of their own potential and abilities, there will be minimal fostering of creative intelligence.

  • Dear Dr. Nussbaum: I am not quite sure what design thinking is because I have never done anything remotely associated with design, but I was 'listening' as I read what you had to say and also some of the comments.
    In your article you talk about DT as a framework for creativity. That is something that I understood, to be creative you really don't need much but maybe an idea to germinate and become something. If you use a picture to generate an idea and then follow a process to create that idea then I think that is what you are talking about. Sort of like a person who can draw a stick figure and can make it look like something but with a little more color or outline it really becomes a person.

  • My view is that DT was never meant to enable creativity, what it enables is a group of already creative people to work together effectively. DT was never a creativity tool and it was not an attempt to rationalize the creative process either." - abridged from the Brown book of Design Thinking.

  • Ankit Jain

    My first step into the river of discussion:

    When you mention that CQ is more than DT, you say that CQ is more about learning by doing and not only thinking. The way I perceive DT is exactly what you defined CQ as; thinking about the problems and solutions and then learning through iterations.

    Where is the difference?

  • Vasco Avillez

    Great conversation starter. 
    I definitely believe this is the conversation we should all be having.
    However it should go deep into its routes and this I believe is where the crowds disperse.
    Let's just put this way. 
    How can we (HCW - get it) talk about creativity inside organizations, industries, even governments, when our (global) education system is literally designed to produce automats. As Ken Robinson puts it, it kills creativity.
    I say we need a revolution, spark, trigger like design thinking in the educational system. And that conversation no one seems to be having.  

  • Horia Sas

    Dear Bruce,

    I think there are 2 aspects to be considered:
    1. It is too early to assess the DT method, as only few non-design companies started to use, in the last couple of years. I do not  think that many companies heard of DT yet.......
    2. I am afraid that when assessing the success of the DT method we have to check if the companies applied it correctly, encouraging their employees to provide creative ideas/solutions. I am not sure that the companies with Analytic Thinking management, focused on short term tangible results, such as those from the financial sector, were happy with the DT method.

    I do believe that the DT requires an open, collaborative, CREATIVE and organized mindset for its users, and also that is not a one-size-fits-all companies method.

    So, we may assume that DT was not fully successful in various companies, because many of its users / decision makers did not match the profile mentioned above. 

    The same issues we may observe with the Open Innovation as well.

    On the other hand, I believe that in the near future we'll see more companies / communities using the DT and OI, due to the mindset of the generation Y/C.

  • Emer Beamer

    I was prompted to write this blogpost : Why you Should use design thinking approaches in education! after reading this article and two others criticising design thinking. 

    I actually totally agree with Bruce's arguments here. Only not with the conclusion.
    Creativity intelligence, thinking etc. is the central concept of both design thinking and creative intelligence. and in DT it is possible to abuse it, to do it, step by step, while it's the creative open attitude you need. Unfortunately it will also be possible to do a creative intelligence process badly too.The key is in the authentic doing. Any process, when done consciously with methods continually under development and adapted to the caucus at hand, by experienced practitioners will deliver quality.

  • Richard Scherer

    Thanks, Bruce. I can't wait to read your book. The conventional wisdom barely scratches the surface of this issue. You touched on one key point here: "We face huge forces of disruption,.......". That's because the entrenched system model has "ossified". True innovation will inevitably lead to creative destruction, which is necessary for developing a sustainable new system, and creativity must be an intrinsic element for its long-term viability. In my opinion any other approach will be an exercise in futility.

    Good luck and godspeed with your new book!

    Richard Scherer