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The Trouble With Design Thinking

In a new book, Fahrenheit 212’s Mark Payne chides companies for their approach to design thinking–and suggests a different approach.

The Trouble With Design Thinking
[Illustrations: Nattle via Shutterstock]

In a new book out this week, Fahrenheit 212 cofounder Mark Payne exposes the perils of design thinking. This user-centered approach to solving problems has been employed by companies all over the world. But in How to Kill a Unicorn, Payne argues that the way many companies execute design thinking today falls short. “Design thinking is awesome, but it’s not enough,” he says in an interview. “It’s 100% effective at 50% of what is needed to actually get an innovation to market.”

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The Myth of Design-Based Problem Solving

In the early days of Fahrenheit 212–which now designs ideas for everything from Middle Eastern banks to personal lubricants–strategy teams were spinning grand visions that weren’t going anywhere. “We know how hollow that feels, that pang of, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got something huge,’ and seeing it not happen,” Payne says. “You end up feeling like a hamster on a wheel.”

via Fahrenheit 212

His team members immersed themselves in the needs of users, employed traditional design problem-solving, and found that their great ideas were still dying in the client pipeline as they made their way up the rungs of approval.

For one early client, the Fahrenheit team devised a grooming product for men: a shaving cream that slowed the regrowth of beards, allowing a shave to last longer. It was perfect for guys who hate shaving. But on the business side, it was a disaster. The company in question didn’t have the technology to make the idea a reality, which would’ve required millions of dollars in research and development. Plus, a shaving product that reduces the demand for shaving products didn’t fly with the client. The seemingly brilliant idea was DOA.


Payne realized ideas that design solutions for the user are still as unlikely to reach market as those created through any other method. “Design thinking in the hands of brilliant designers does really good things,” he says. “When it’s air lifted into other contexts, it produces a lot of heartache.”

In other words, placing too much emphasis on one side of the design equation had invited its own struggles–the most glaring being that without a viable business strategy built right into an idea at the outset, great ideas that benefit consumers would never reach those consumers.

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Post-Design Innovation
Payne and his team say the next chapter of design-based innovation must be “two-sided.” Two-sided innovation must permeate everything from internal hiring to how you set up your offices to how you approach big meaty business problems. The business side isn’t just brought in to approve what creatives are planning, it’s part of the research and development that leads to a mutually sanctioned idea.


A perfect example is Progressive Insurance, Payne says. Where competitor Geico is the minimalist, operating with little frills and overhead and advertising heavily slashed rates, Allstate and State Farm are at the other end of the spectrum. They tout concierge-like service and more inclusive plans. But before an important innovation from Progressive, none of the largest auto insurance companies had identified a way to bar high-risk customers from purchasing their products.

Cue the online rate comparison tool from Progressive. It allowed auto insurance shoppers to quickly calculate a quote, allowing low-risk drivers who were receiving attractive rates to quickly purchase insurance online. But most importantly, the technology ensured that high-risk drivers were fed high rates that sent them running from Progressive to their competitors. Thus, a solution that was attractive to (most) users and the business.

Payne also cites an example from Fahrenheit 212’s own work–the first time Samsung presented his team with translucent LCD technology. Business and creative simultaneously got to work, researching markets hungry for innovation alongside idealistic applications for see-through LCD screens. Then, they mapped impact and feasibility on an XY axis, weeding out ideas that weren’t transformative enough or doable in the near future. What they landed on–translucent LCD panels on grocery store freezer doors that tell users what’s inside before they open the door–wasn’t the most exciting idea they had, but it shot straight to market because of its potential to save energy and provide a new platform for advertising and digital coupons.

“We’re designing the consumer proposition and business proposition in real time,” says Payne. “This is what’s next after design thinking.”

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