Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No

Bruce Nussbaum may have delivered his eulogy, but design thinking—in its best forms—still has a lot to offer.

Recently, Bruce Nussbaum rang the bell on design thinking and told us he is moving on. I was surprised at this. Nussbaum is one reason why design thinking exists in the first place. Following his lead, people staked their careers on design thinking. Corporations like Procter & Gamble have invested, hired, and re-organized to accommodate it. Yale created a course, Stanford a program, and the University of Toronto reshaped its B-school curriculum. IDEO and Jump nailed their colors to the mast.

Why the recantation? He says he’s got grounds. First, design thinking "has given the design profession and society at large all the benefits it has to offer." Second, the corporation attempted to mechanize design thinking, diminishing it in the process.

Is Nussbaum right? Has design thinking delivered all the benefits it has to offer? Should we move on?

Design thinking brought something precious to the corporation: versatile problem solvers who worked well with messy data, complicated problem sets, and shifting business models. The corporation was beginning to grasp the immortal words of Van Morrison: "No guru, no method." It was beginning to see that no simple orthodoxy (from McKinsey or elsewhere) was going to get the job done. Designers were good at mixing and matching perspectives and solutions. They were good at what Roger Martin called "opposable" analysis. They appeared to cross the hemispheric divide between left and right brains at will. They could "speak" the languages of "creativity" and "analysis" with something like equal fluency. As it stands, designers are the odds-on favorites for the Daniel Pink award in intellectual mobility.

This is not to say that design thinking is without fault. Take it from an anthropologist, some of the work it calls "ethnography" is fraudulently bad. The training is substandard, the practice is sloppy, and the true promise of ethnography—the nuanced understanding of how people think and feel—too often goes undelivered. Designers talk a good game about culture, but it is rare to see them address this critical deficit of the design-thinking model. As the Peter Arnell-Tropicana debacle shows, designers are sometimes still more interested in design culture than American culture. The designer can’t realistically talk about knowing culture unless this is made a systematic study, the object of a complete mapping. And I don’t ever hear the design community taking up this challenge. We can only imagine what design thinking could be if it put these things right.

Still, this might be the wrong time to declare the design-thinking era over. The corporation, after all, is facing a new order of difficulty. It is headed for open water and a perfect storm, a great confusion filled with black swans and blindside hits. CEOs as accomplished as Andy Grove and thinkers as brilliant as Michael Raynor have declared the future inscrutable. Innovations once optional are now obligatory. New opportunities (a.k.a. blue oceans or white spaces) and constant self-transformation have become structural necessities. The business of management was once rule-bound, hierarchically organized, defined by precedent, governed by gurus. Now, it feels more like operating an aircraft carrier at night without the benefit of arc lights or radar. It’s scary out there.

In this world, designers can continue to create extraordinary value. They are the people who have, or could have, the laterality needed to solve problems, the sensing skills needed to hear what the world wants, and the databases required to build for the long haul and the big trajectories. Designers can be definers, making the world more intelligible, more habitable. But this won’t happen if, confronted by the inevitable difficulty of the early days, they take their balls and go home.

In sum, it is wrong to say that design thinking has given us "all the benefits it has to offer," and it’s wrong to call it a "failed experiment." I think we should be arguing that design thinking is just getting started. And a good thing, too; we need this approach more than we ever did.

[Image: Flickr user jcoterhals]

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  • John Davies

    " The corporation, after all, is facing a new order of difficulty. It is headed for open water and a perfect storm, a great confusion filled with black swans and blindside hits." beat the record for regurgitating the largest amount of used-to-be-cool-mean-nothing, business-babble expressions in one sentence. This is just terrible...really terrible stuff. That's the form.

    On the content, get real. Design Thinking is not dead because it never existed in the first place. It's just an inappropriate tag for a mechanism that, granted, is difficult to define but deserves more than simply being slapped with what's down with the cool kids this season. Design Thinking is a very poor concept pieced together by a couple of ''business gurus'' in need of a new thing to talk about. Why can't these people help solve real problems instead of creating mental farts all over the place and stinking up the world? Stick to the scientific method. Believe in facts. Everything else is a working hypothesis at best. Facts don't die. Gravity doesn't just go away or become uncool. 

    I would rethink know what Mr McCracken...just step away from the computer...just step away and stop everything for just a couple of minutes. Don't even think...just take a couple of minutes to breath and get back to reality.  

  • GK VanPatter

    I’m certain that you mean well Grant but with all due respect, enough already with this kind of writing from Fast Company & company. Please, please, please no more. If what you are talking about here has any relationship to the edges of design today we might as well all go home.

    Please tell me in what other professions do students of the subject define what the subject is? Why would we want to be worrying about what students on a steep learning curve understand the subject to be when it remains in large part beyond their viewing and experience range?

    Since when is the pace of student learning the equivalent to what the subject is?

    Why would we have writers running around writing articles about what students of the subject think the subject is? In what other knowledge arenas would such perspectives be positioned as leading news without a peep from anyone in the industry? 
Come on people! Wake up!

    How strategically dumb is the design industry really?

    Is no one strategically home in any of the design communities at all?

    Time for readers to expect more. Time for the design journalism community to grow up and wake up but it is unlikely to do so as long as the design community itself is in large part strategically asleep. This stuff will go on and on and on unless there is a wide spread awakening.

    Related for those interested:

    Beautiful Diversion: Response to Nussbaum’s “Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?”

    Beyond Hostility: Finding and Creating Inclusive Models for Co-Creation

  • Maggie Greyson

    Hi Grant,
    Thanks for defending the birth of the movement.  There is a lot to learn from design and the process is just only beginning to permeat the mainstream.  It may say more about Bruce than the concept that he has moved on. 

  • Nathan

    If you're interested in the long term, the way to build meaning around words is to use it correctly and as often as is relevant, not to abandon a perfectly good phrase just because others misuse it. It's Memeology 101. Once you let the ignorant win, you've both lost your opportunity to teach and lost everything of value. EVERY new term and word goes through this phase.

    The term "Experience Design" almost succumbed to meaning merely "screen design for the Web (and sometimes mobile)" right when the first dot.bomb crash hit, taking with it most of the hype and giving it room to grow meaningfully.

    "Design Thinking" is perfectly fine and nothing like the Kardashians. It has substance, meaning, and purpose. It's been around a lot longer than they have and will outlive them for generations (especially at this rate).

  • rrw

    The term "Design thinking" is kind of like the word "Kardashian" - we just are tired of hearing it and no longer trust it. Like any other catchphrase, the ones who invented it and live by it need to change it once it is worn out by those who use the term in words only and not in actions.

  • Mlorson

    I think Nussbaum is bored and moving on to the next big thing, but that doesn't mean that design thinking is dead or irrelevant for the rest of us.
     Long live design thinking!

  • Dom Celentano

    Hi Grant, I use IDEO in my MBA Entrepreneurship classes to
    add a bit more creativity to problem solving and critical thinking. My class
    created awesome strategic plans using the Desirability, Feasability and Viability
    So maybe some corporations will move… entrepreneurship programs are
    best served by adding design thinking to the curriculum.


  • C Branzaglia

    Good point Freds. As usual, business culture is clever in using some useful aspects of design culture and in transforming them into mathematical formula , easier to be undertood by companies but assolutely non effective in terms of innovation

  • David Carlson

    Sometimes I get embarrassed when thinking of design. Strange how fast it went from being a solution to being part of the problem…

  • Freds

    Design thinking is and will always be a good tool as long as it's driven by design related persons. When an economist holds the marker and sets the priorities and criteria it goes rarely wrong.

  • John McCreery

    Great job, Grant. Gets in the critical point, the need for better (should we say "real"?) ethnography sandwiched in praise for the overall project. The difficult point remains. If ethnography remains focused on the is and has-been, does it spur the designer's imagination or become an obstacle to it?

  • Grant27

    Reply to Nathan,
    Very well said.  This is one place we don't want to be fashion driven.  It's about the long haul, not the idea of the day, the fashion of the moment.  I hope you are right about design being "built in" to the way people do business.  I think a lot of people have yet to get the news.  Or they didn't care for the first iteration.  All the more reason to press on and improve Design Thinking.  And thanks for the heads up on Philly U.  Best, Grant

  • Judd Morgenstern

    When an experiment fails, you don't abandon science.
    . . . . . . . . . 
    The fact that Nussbaum calls Design Thinking a 'failed experiment' and is therefore moving on to something new makes me think he is missing the very point of Design Thinking.
    I respect that he was an original champion of the theory, but perhaps not the practice. If the Design Thinking experiment failed, then great! As science shows, we often learn more when we fail than when we succeed. (

    So, the question is, what did we learn through failing successfully? And how can we iterate to improve the theory and the practice?

    I agree with many of Nussbaums' points in the article, but by declaring Design Thinking a failure and moving on to a new framework lends credence to companies' quest for a silver-bullet solution. Design Thinking is a process, not a plug-and-play solution.

    That is not to say Design Thinking is perfect in its current state, as this article nicely points out. But fortunately it provides a framework for fixing itself. Ultimately those that can analyze their situation then experiment through creative prototypes (and endure failures) will find a solution. And that is, I think, the point of Design Thinking.

  • Nathan shedroff

    It's very designerly to denounce something just when it started gaining popularity ("I liked their first album better"). Design thinking (or doing or intelligence or whatever you want to all it) isn't new. It's been newly discovered by the mainstream of the business world and it's processes and tools have been refreshed, reimagined, and described in better ways with better tools so that more than merely designers can "do it."

    But, talking about design thinking as being in or out, living or dying, is like talking about hearing suddenly being dead because photography is so popular. It's part of how we think holistically and some of the missing pieces so long absent in the business world (including business schools). You can add sustainability to that list, as well as real leadership skills, and a lot more.

    The trick is to integrate learning of all of these skills, not to tack them onto an existing curriculum as if they're optional electives. It's like trying to plan spontaneity. Roger's program at Rotman is one of the few places this is happening (it's a required course, though it hasn't yet transformed all of the school's courses). PhillyU is going even further, merging three entire schools together, making design an approach taught to all incoming students, and spinning-up wholly new degrees at the intersection. It's the approach we've taken in the DMBA program to make these new skills relevant, in context, and to change the perspective of why business is important in the first place.

  • paul pangaro

    Is design thinking sufficient for innovation? If not, what else is needed? Instead of spending time defending it, can we supplement it?

  • Rotkapchen

    Grant: Thanks for beating me to the punch. I had a similar article in the works for several reasons.

    + We have a LinkedIn Design Thinking group that grows ever more vibrant (over 8000 members)
    + In August, we held an unConference in Vancouver BC that was so successful, it immediately got sponsorship for 2012
    + At that conference we heard from a number of practitioners and more surprisingly some amazing field work from academics (especially remote work in Africa from 2 different institutions -- both local to Vancouver)
    + Many of academic programs had just started or were starting in September
    + We were thrilled with the number of students involved and their energies around the topic
    + One of our panelists at the event had gone to lunch with Bruce to update us on what his 'real' thoughts about the topic were
    + From all accounts and observations, it would appear that Design Thinking hasn't even really started to make its way beyond the early adopter curve

    I was particularly pleased to see your observations as to how modern designers have been falling short in the topic themselves (esp. ethnographically). In our discussion group we often lament that unlike 'classic designers' (a distinction that Tim Brown even makes in his book), modern designers often lack the contextual rigor of their predecessors -- design thinking attempts to bring that back to the table, and apply it to non-product output.

    We also try to make the point that business more and more will rely on design thinking as a means to help them make their way through new possibilities -- because more and more all the classic methods they have relied upon are being conditionally challenged in ways that the original models never accounted for. Design thinking is a means by which businesses can continuously challenge their own status quo, particularly when it fails to serve their needs as it has in the past...generally, because there are underlying assumptions that have now become flawed.

    We welcome all who can join us as we continue the @designthinking conversation.

  • Dave

    Thank you for this.  I thought Bruce's article was very, very weak.  His position seems to be that because Design Thinking has been misunderstood and misapplied by corporations as a fix-all (which it never was), that it's a failed methodology.  Even while he points out a number of design companies have and continue to use it successfully.

  • Benjamin

    In terms of hybrid approaches, there are two other design methodologies we try to mix into our process @svaixd that haven't been codified or acknowledged as bonafide "processes" to the extent that design thinking has or at least haven't gotten the same press. Those are 1) "entrepreneurialism" or the product focused, creator-as-user, MVP/MLP, tech startup process, and 2) what I call "material exploration," for lack of a better term, practiced by the hacker community and studios like BERG London through deep engagement with the medium. Both these paradigms have practical implications different from, and sometimes contradictory to, design thinking but in my experience offer unique utility in the hunt for the holy grail of innovation.