Design thinking’s big problem

So-called “design thinking” is the new It-Girl of management theory. It purports to provide new ways for managers and companies to provide innovative, creative solutions to old problems. But design thinking alone will not solve these problems because a lack of creativity was never the issue.

The real issue is one of power.

Design is attractive to management because it is a de-politicized version of the well known socio-cultural critique of managerial practices. Design thinking is so popular because it raises only questions of “creativity” or “innovation” without ever questioning the legitimacy of managerial practice. Instead, design thinking aspires only to “better” management technique by investigating “contextual problems” or the truly innocuous “pain points.”

The inconvenient truth is that the science of management fails because it treats people as either mere inputs into the production process or as faceless “consumers” who have no real stake in outcomes. Design thinking allows for these truths to remain unaddressed, thereby avoiding any discussion of power itself. Workers are cast as something to be organized or “incented.” Consumers are to have their “needs met.” And neither group is granted a meaningful stake in the creative process.

Within this frame, design techniques attempt to solve managers’ typically tone-deaf executions of creativity without ever naming the root cause of workers’ and consumers’ dissatisfaction, which is their lack of meaningful participation in the design process. Managers’ ability to control both the organization of work and the availability of consumer goods is the true problem, not an inability to think “creatively.”

Managers have control over the working conditions under which creativity is supposed to happen, as well as the the distribution of the fruits of such labour. One significant reason workers’ creativity does not flow easily from studio or factory to consumers is because of management’s need to control costs and secure profits. Were it not for the profit motive, workers would be free to radically innovate continually and consumers would have unrestricted access to such new and innovative goods. But because profit stands as the pre-eminent benchmark of business success, both workers and consumers are thwarted in their pursuit of supplying and demanding innovative goods.

In other words, there is no shortgage of creative solutions to “unmet needs,” only a shortage of profitable ways to provide them.

Hence the inevitable ineffectiveness of design thinking, if applied in isolation to the problem of creativity. Designers must consider what role power plays in an organization’s inability to create innovative products. But more importantly, designers must be prepared to identify and name power and its sources (e.g., the pursuit of profit at the expense of innovation).They must not simply use ethnographic techniques to uncover “unmet needs”.

This is perhaps where designers will feel most out of their depth. It is a long leap from solving contextual problems to providing an analysis of inequality. All the more reason then, for designers to study the socio-cultural theory that underlies ethnography and other qualitative research methods.

In particular, designers should study feminist writers such as Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. Smith founded the method she calls “institutional ethnography,” which takes the standpoint of its participants and not that of the organization. This method frequently yields lived experiences that differ from the “official record” because it assumes that users of a technology, a product or a social policy lack meaningful access to those who record such records.

Ethnographic approaches are a good starting point for designers to cultivate empathy and hone observational skills. But it is in issues of power that rememdies to innovation bottlenecks will be broken.


55 responses to “Design thinking’s big problem

  1. Far from the Design Thinking I’m familiar with (which relies on the fundamentals of creativity):

    • But this is exactly my point. Design thinking about “creativity” or “innovation” limits the conversation to issues of creative thought or the process of innovation. What it does not do is open the conversation to one of the labour process, for example. If workers are constrained by an organizational requirement to secure ever greater profit, no amount of “creativity” discussions will solve this. Power is at the heart of it. Hence my beef with “design” instead of “organizational transformation” or even “capitalism.”

  2. Design Thinking is about solving problems…period. The focus of the problem is not specified — it is inclusive of ALL dimensions.

    I’m still confused by the ways in which you’re trying to ‘isolate’ the term. Organizational transformation can occur in one of two ways: haphazardly or by design. That doesn’t mean that the design cannot be architected to be organic or emergent.

    I’m still trying to figure out where the disconnect is in your understanding of the term, because the arguments you raise seem nonsensical. I’m not saying they’re not valid concerns — I believe that they are. But they are not relevant arguments against Design Thinking as a practice, which is intended to identify and embrace the realities in solving problems (part of the discovery).

  3. Your points are important, Paula, but I think my point is more subtle. The notion of “design” is a palatable and non-threatening aspect to organizational change. At the other end of the spectrum is “revolution.”

    I would argue that there is a reason why the word “design” is being used more frequently, instead of words like “socialism” or “bartering” or even “collectives.”

    Indeed, design thinking is intended to “solve problems” as you say. Yet it is being taken up by many to do exactly the opposite, that is, to avoid the underlying problem of power.

  4. Just because people engage in an activity does not mean that they engage in it correctly — self-made surgeons can be dangerous. Nor should the practices of self-made surgeons be stood up as what ‘surgery’ is. That seems to be what you’re embracing here — the bad behaviors of others as the definition of what something is?

    Design Thinking is necessarily empathetic — it has no other purpose. It is also contextual. If power struggles are part of that context, that is a critical component of the problem space to be considered.

    There is no accounting for bad design thinking approaches. If you want to criticize something — criticize ‘design thinking’ approaches gone awry — not wage barbs against something that can be the means to specifically address all the things you’re complaining about.

    Or you can continue to decide not to have cancer surgery because so many people have bad experiences with self-trained cancer surgeons.

  5. Paula–
    I find your commentary surprisingly defensive, and, well, largely dismissive of Sam’s point. And, well, ultimately beside the point.

    Design Thinking is no panacea, even if practiced super well. It has many shortcomings.

    I live with a social scientist, and I know how much y’all love to obsess about power. What’s not clear in your post is how you think “design thinking” is practiced.
    In my work, we try to get as many people as feasibly possible involved in our design exercises. This sometimes means workshops with 10-15 people in it. And individuals representing all aspects of the organization. So, it’s not just the purview of management.
    Something else — while power doubtless inhibits innovation in many organizations, it’s also what drives it in others. If you look at Innovation’s Poster Child, Apple, that is a company very much driven by the power of a single individual, and the trust he places in an *extremely* small group of anointed folks. Workers and customers are definitely not involved in the design process.
    The reason Apple is innovative is because the seat of that power is an innovative force. This is where Apple is different. Typically, power is located in places that limit innovation.
    My point is that I think that power is just one component of understanding how organizations innovate, and I don’t think it’s *the* important one. I’ve grown increasingly interested in how organizations adopt customer experience perspectives, and I can tell you that the only way an organization will truly succeed to be customer-driven is if there are advocates for it at the top and in the trenches. It’s not an either/or proposition, but a both/and.

    • Peter,

      Good points about Apple. I agree that power is not the ONLY facet of innovation within organizations, but it is conveniently the one left out of many corporate discussions (as your partner likely attests to you, day after day, after day…).

  6. It all depends on who is representing the concept of Design Thinking and how it’s being positioned and taught.

    Chances are high that most ‘management’ or ‘strategy’ types that have jumped on the Design Thinking bandwagon come to the table not as design thinkers, but as strategic thinkers hoping to capitalize on yet one more tool in their arsenal.

    If you come to it from a design perspective, however, you know what the real problems are — as as you point out — they are top-down problems rather than bottom-up ones (though that’s not exactly how you are presenting it).

    In my Design Management class, we go straight to the root of the problem, directly to leadership & vision. Without proper vision and the right leadership from the very top of the organizational chain, Design Thinking has nowhere to go.

    So, again, it all depends on who’se representing the concept and how it’s being positioned and taught.

    • Very true, Raymond. You echo Peter’s comments about the importance of senior management and what they do to innovate. I guess I still have difficulty with an organization that has a vision for innovation (perhaps like Apple) yet never questions the legitimacy of those people or systems or processes “anointed” to exercise power. We do not name this specifically in design processes and I believe we should.

  7. Actually, the Apple example — while useful to anyone promoting Design Thinking for obvious reasons — is a bit problematic due to the fact that the company is so secretive with regard to its process.

    The outing of Jonathan Ive as a key spokesperson (even if only as a marketing tool) was probably a turning point for Apple — a move away from Steve Jobs as the all-powerful creative/executive force and a hint at a much more complex process, but one that — nonetheless — hinted at Jobs ability to ‘hand pick’, ‘guide’, ‘let go’ and ‘reign in’ those he trusted in a manner similar to how an orchestra conductor might do it. Few CEOs operate in such a fashion. Few CEOs are as **passionate**, which I may add may be equally as important as vision and leadership. But I digress. 🙂

  8. Perhaps one of the points that Sam wanted to get to, which is relevant from this conversation, is in how Design Thinking might be approached: as an inherent part of the culture (e.g. KAIZEN is TOTALLY part of every aspect of Avery-Dennison, it’s obvious as a visitor, artifacts are everywhere), or as a ‘project’.

    Often the ‘foot-in-the-door’ is sold as a ‘strategy’ — immersion is required for cognition here. I’ve been having a separate but related argument about similar attempts using the title “Innovation” as the campaign d’jour.

  9. In order to fully understand Design Thinking, one must understand and appreciate design and the design process itself. It is quite a totalitarian exercise, if you come to think about it.

    The most celebrated artists/designers (pick any) are egomaniacal, tyrannical primadonnas. Few designers pass the threshold of letting go the ego in order to experience the true needs of ‘the user’ as opposed to assuming they know what the used needs (regardless of whether or not the user is ready for it).

    So in order for Design Thinking to work at its highest level/potential, it must be administered in an ego-free environment. This is why the Apple example — to me — is somewhat flawed, and this is also why — to me — the Internet has done much to humble today’s designers to thinking more holistically (user centered thinking).

  10. I *think* what I’m hearing as the underlying message from Sam is that design thinking has been co-opted as a tool for use by management to accomplish its own ends. To the point of defensive designerly people (Paula, that’s you!), there appears to be something wrong with design thinking, when in fact the issue is how design is being used as a vehicle to accomplish an underlying objective that may not be explicit.

    What that suggests to me is that the deeper question (and maybe Sam’s next post?!) is not ‘what is wrong with design thinking’ but rather ‘how is design thinking being leveraged / repurposed / coopted to achieve management objectives’. What I’m hearing is that perhaps it’s a new discourse with the same ends in mind.

    I am working on a similar storyline for a blog post, about how I’m using the momentum of a new corporate discourse around Lean Management and The Voice of the Customer to more effectively position User Experience research with my management team. I am, in essence, using that discourse to advance my own interests in user research and user experience. I am sure that designers are guilty of that too, and are (perhaps inadvertently) helping to perpetuate the misuse of design thinking. Keep an eye out for that at

    But then again, I’m also trained as a social scientist, so I see the issue as one of power and discourse, too. 🙂

    • Excellent point, Natalie. You are right. Maybe I should do that next post! Paula’s bringing up of Kaizen is a case in point. American companies used Kaizen but failed to also guarantee meaningful decision-making for workers, and also did not include lifetime employment which was so common to Japanese companies (at least in the past). Lean production *can* provide non-alienating work but often times it produces deeply alienating and unfulfilling work, and not enough creativity.

  11. Sam,

    Obviously you’ve struck a nerve, given the collection of comments above. But I think there are some sloppy claims in your argument.

    1. Your critique of design thinking as either the cynical manipulation of creativity to secure power by other means OR a mistaken approach to correcting the ills of the economics of expropriation is surprising unempirical for a social scientist.

    I think there would be much to gain in a social scientific examination of the discourse and practice of design thinking. My own experience suggests that the discourse is swallow, unsophisticated and largely consists in boosterism. The practice is more diverse, interesting and fraught with tensions and contradictions. There’s a cool project there. Maybe you should scope it out.

    2. I think it is facile to dismiss all that flies under the banner of design thinking by attaching it to an equally facile and antique Marxian caricature of consumer capitalism. Even if we were to grant that the entire of “the science of management fails because it treats people as either mere inputs into the production process or as faceless “consumers” who have no real stake in outcomes”. It does not follow that design thinking is corrupt on that account.

    3. I think your concept of power, though thinly drawn here, is also quite outdated. It seems to belong to a long discredited discourse that opposes the powerful and the powerless. Critiques of racism, sexism and classism have evolved long since from that dualistic opposition.

    I get your point, though I don’t think you have made the case for it, that you don’t think that design thinking has an analytic of power. As an empirical point, I’d agree.

    I tend to think of design thinking as a normative critique of what we might call, in Maxian terms, the alienated paradigm of design. Design thinking is, I believe, a loosely specified and held set of convictions that design should put humans and their needs at the center of the design process. I’m not sure whether you’d find fault with that.

    Anecdotaly, I would dispute your suggestion that “design is attractive to management” as a tool of management. Design thinkers would love to believe this is so, but most practitioners would concede, I suspect, that management still considers design to be an add-on and design thinking as either a dark art or more likely exuberant hooey.

    Finally, the most interesting work in design thinking has nothing at all to do with old problems, but to the contrary, makes claims to having been invented to solve new types of problems that existing paradigms of management and design are inadequate to confront.

    • Well Michael, thanks for not pulling any punches. If I were to adequately make up for all those critiques, I could not do it in a blog post! In fact, you should read my astonishingly long papers instead.

      Your point about Marxism is perhaps understandable, given that I link to a Marxist source. But in reality, this type of critique a) is not outdated and b) is actually more on the lines of Critical Management Studies. Just because Marxian analyses are “old” does not mean they are outdated. They underpin much of CMS studies, complemented with poststructural analyses. In fact, I’m most interested in your use of the word “discourse.” Of course this implies a Foucauldian critique but it also conjures up Weberian ideas of rationality, as well as Habermasian notions of communicative action. All of these ideas I do use to inform my thinking, and write about in other places, but not for this audience.

      Your critique of capitalist analyses as “facile” is interesting. I have yet to find any understanding of capitalism that does not have production and consumption at its root. Perhaps there is another component that I miss?

      Thanks for the comments — but trust my “A” game is elsewhere.

  12. One illustrative case of the effective application of designing (whether design thinking or not you can decide) in management education (whether that’s related to management you can also decide) is Lucy Kimbell’s work at Oxford

    That said, I take your critique of the paucity of discussions of power (and would add values more generally) in management, Sam, as an important one. We must get better at being honest.

    As for processes involving more than a few people, some of my colleagues routinely bring together hundreds, and even at times thousands, of stakeholders to engage in design-oriented explorations .

  13. michael davis.burchat

    So Let’s just raise a simple wikipedia challenge here shall we? Can you source a definition of Design Thinking that you would put forward?? Don’t worry about th exhaustive paper. It would appear that the FC article jumps the gun a little. Your paraphrase doesn’t appear interested in, or capture the essence of, the idea either.

    Doing so would let some of the hot air out of the argument and the knock-on effects that it has generated. Everyone seems to be dancing around the topic, without your having centered it first. As the provocateur I think you owe it to your readers to cough one up.

    As some have tried to point out already, the first aim of Design Thinking is to achieve a state of methodological transparency.

    Finally, I disagree with your argument that the real issue that Design Thinking faces is power. The Ford Motor Co. is an interesting case in point. William Clay Ford Jr. is its President. And up until 2005 has been the CEO for a number of years now, arguably the two highest seats of power in Ford. Yet, on his watch the Ford Motor Co failed to overcome market orthodoxies that would change the way Detroit, or the larger transportation industry innovates. No new business models. No new enabling processes. No new ways to think about the product or related services. No new ways to think about the way the brand or the experience of transportation. Apparently, influence and power are not the same in Innovation.

    Ford is still very much a car(styling) company, and not very much a transportation services company. And I might add facing unusually difficult circumstances.

    My point is only that power and influence (to make enduring change) aren’t mutually inclusive. Rather, I think the real issue Design Thinking seeks to make sense of is: corporate transformation.

    Another related issue that is worth considering is the balance between randomness and structure. To paraphrase your words: “creativity was never in short supply beforehand”, but the meaningful coordination of it, however sure is.

    Thanks for the fun!

    • Michael, you bring up some great points. I think Natalie really pointed out best my approach. I’m referring to design thinking as problem solving based on contextual insight, with a particular eye to iterative, incremental innovation. When conceived of in this way, there seems to be no problem with design thinking as a discipline. After all, this leads to problem solving regardless of the problem, as Paula points out.

      However, I am also interested in “Design Thinking” as a discourse, which is Natalie’s point. When “Design Thinking” is evoked as a discourse, it plays a structuring role in the organization. This can be for good or for ill, and I’m pointing out that if power is not central to its evocation, then it can be co-opted to be used primarily NOT as a problem-solving mechanism, but as a ideological frame to marshal support and squelch opposition.

      Marketing, for example, was originally formed as a discipline to explore the problems of monopolies or “access to the market.” Few of us would recognize this as marketing, because it was quickly co-opted to be used within firms, not without them, to marshal support and squelch opposition. Marketing used and uses terms of “listening to customers,” yet it frequently masks the reality that products are not designed for customers but for ongoing profit.

      Returning to “Design Thinking” as a discourse, then, I am arguing that is is a frame that CAN be evoked to obscure the fact that firms enjoy the privilege of not listening to their customers, not providing them meaningful designs, and not allowing their workers to be creative. How do they continue? Well some do fail, yes, but others enjoy a quasi-monopolistic position over the product category or its distribution or its accompanying products.

      Which now brings me to Ford. William Clay Ford Jr.’s inability to shift the sands under Detroit’s feet is not indicative of “Design Thinking” as failing, nor does it indicate that “Design Thinking” is more apt to be “revolutionary” than Detroit would like. Rather, this is a classic case of structure and agency. Though I may have my doubts about Mr. Ford’s personal commitment to becoming a “transportation company,” his failure to have achieve this is indicative of the enormous power of entrenched interests. This is, I would argue, inevitable when you have enormous enterprises, organized bureaucratically, and embedded within a contentious political economy of oil, road, and auto parts production.

      Finally, design thinking is not the problem but the discourse “Design Thinking” indeed IS the problem. Let us be wary, lest it go the way of Marketing, which once was held up as the great hope of putting people first.

  14. In thinking about your comments on the place of design thinking in management I recall design’s long and intimate relationship with industry.

    “…design came into being at a particular stage in the history of capitalism and played a vital part in the creation of industrial wealth. Limiting it to a purely artistic activity has made it seem trivial and relegated it to the status of a mere cultural appendix [Forty, p. 6].”

    And on design (thinking) as discourse:

    Despite differences among individual interpretations and constructions and among object worlds, participants do communicate, negotiate, and compromise; in short, they design. That they are able to do so suggests a common structure, shared by all participants across object worlds, for patterning explanations and fixing what counts as an explanation of consequence and what is relegated to “background” noise [Bucciarelli, p. 81].

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  16. Ah, now if we want to engage in some Marketeering bashing, I’ll pay handsomely for a front row seat, as too many Marketers know nothing of markets (which I believe you alluded to somewhat Sam).

    But I also hold ALL of this accountable to an even larger problem that some of us talked about on Twitter today in discussing E2.0 challenges — and reminding me of the article I continue ‘not’ to write — There is No Enterprise. We continue to make the assumption that there are Enterprises and that there are departments such as Marketing — but in reality, often size is such an issue that the only thing ‘real’ are budget numbers and which resources are aligned to those budgets. Meaning, there might be any number of groups of people aligned to something ‘called’ Marketing, but they never see each other, know not what each other does and have no common visions at all (I’ve either witnessed this over and over again with clients or lived it inside corporations).

    I have to think that at some level, these vagueries of organizational design have more to do with the things over which Sam laments, than the topic of Design Thinking. But it’s not my intention to put words in her mouth. She continues to do a good job of chiming in to suggest what it is and what it isn’t she’s really concerned with — which I admire considerably.

  17. I see your point…. change needs more than cheap talking and concepts. I agree with that. Same issue happened with Project Management, beautifull concept most organizations claim to embrace it … but in reality PM’s doen’t have any power and ven the good ones have to manage by manipulation and leadership skills insted of empowerement as a PM was supposed to have.
    Design Thiniking is in the core business of some companies… but in the most of them it is used as a topping to keep business as usual.

    In that.. tottaly agree.

  18. Sam, this reminds me of the part of Jesus Christ Superstar where Judas is arguing with JC and Mary Magdalene about why they used oil on his feet and hair instead of using it to raise money for the poor. To Judas’ criticism Jesus replies:

    Surely you’re not saying
    We have the resources
    To save the poor from their lot?
    There will be poor always
    Pathetically struggling
    Look at the good things you’ve got!

    (with funky 70’s rock and dancing)

    All to say, perhaps power dynamics and societal inequities are the norm. And maybe design is the oil. Good for soothing our sore feet but not the answer to the inequities of the world.

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  20. Brian Sullivan

    Sam —

    I think your premise makes some VERY LARGE, gross generalizations that are not always TRUE. Your point about:

    The inconvenient truth is that the science of management fails because it treats people as either mere inputs into the production process or as faceless “consumers” who have no real stake in outcomes.

    My MBA in MIS is nothing like the picture that Sam painted, at all. We were never taught to treat people in the way that Sam wrote about it. In fact, my MBA classes were about treating people with Trust, Respect, and Dignity.

    The managers and leaders that I have worked for (and with) do generally care about the people that report to them. Plus, they do care about thier consumers, clients, customers, and users.

    Yes, you will encounter managers that are all about power. Man, they are easy to see and read quickly. But, I do not think this is AWLAYS the case. Ironically, Sam’s premise does not event talk about SERVANT LEADERSHIP or even leadership, in general.

    You do not have to be a manager to be a leader within your organization.

    You can have a groundswell of support that can make design thinking a part of your company culture.

    I am not a manager. But, I will be DAMNED if I am going to wait for my manager to direct me or the folks I work with into Design Thinking.

    Some people like and want diretion from their managers. (And, now for my gross general belief): I believe that people who generally care and desire to be design thinkers are going to do it, anyway.

    Who cares if managers co-opt the term: Design Thinking? Seriously, does it really matter? Who cares if they actually are design thinkers, too?

    At the end of the day, it is the work the matters. We are trying to solve problems with design thinking.

    If the managers give you the support and funding you need to do the work, that is all that matters. If you are not getting the type of support you want, it is time for you to educate them.

    Make it a partnership with your manager. It is ultimately about relationships, anyway.

    In my mind, you have created a TURF issue for the sake of politicizing a viewpoint with some gross generalizations about people that I do not see in my interactions.

    I am more in line with how Peter works. Get a small group of key stakeholders and work with them. In most cases, these small teams will only have one manager (occassionally). For the most part, we are able to get the work done in a creative fashion.

    We have created some creative and innovative new products and/or enhanced some legacy products. We enhanced one legacy product by tweaking some messaging (making it actionable to upsell)–it accounted for 20% of revenue year over year for the past 8 years in this space.

    These key stakeholders are empowered in these groups. Work gets done. Creative solutions occur. We don’t care if our managers understand what we do. We just want the work to get done.

    Paula, I do know and work with Marketers that do know their markets (yes, some still have to learn). These are smart, smart people that are committed to serving their customers and creating solutions.

    They do not care about who gets credit or power. They are more interested in the solution. It is not always idyllic. It is alot of hard work, too.

    I just do not see the world in the same way as most of the people in this thread. Peter, I think our worlds are similar.

    Design thinkers sometimes spend alot of time just thinking. Kick a rock (philosophy reference there).

    At the end of the day, it is the work that gets produced that is remembered, not who gets credit or who has power. Credit and power are all temporary things, anyway.

    I think my mantra is: Don’t Think Design, Do Design!!!


    • thanks, Brian for your thoughtful comment. You’re totally right: I am making generalizations. I’m doing it in part to be provocative (clearly I touched a nerve) but also for the reason of examining “ideal typical” examples.

      I’m looking at organizations as a phenomenon, managers as a category, and “design thinking” as a discourse. How are all these things thought of in the “average” or “typical” sense? This matters because it guides how we define the different, and how we define “what should be.” I am arguing that “design thinking” as a discourse can provide a cover for why things don’t change within organizations. I am also arguing that “design thinking” can hide the fact that we are not looking for truly innovative solutions, i.e., NON-capitalist relations.

      How many managers really question the notion of profit? Or that higher status workers “deserve” more money? Designing for solutions ought to mean questioning the fundamental value systems we have.

      Chris’s point is well taken, though I’m not sure I agree. I think design, or even policy, or research, or many things, CAN be everyday solutions to poverty and inequality, if we question the very foundations of our system of allocating resources.

  21. Sam, thank you for your thought-provoking piece.

    It is true that many managers want to treat design thinking as one of many toolkits for creativity. And, I agree that such an approach leads to a very unsatisfying outcomes — not only to the designers, but also to the managers who brought in the designers. It is because most organizations fail in innovating not because of the lack of ideas, but because of the way they are organized. Most M-form organizations (invented and perfected by GM) are based on the organizing logic that is to reduce variances. On the other hand, the organizing logic of design thinking is to create variances. Because of this inherent tensions, many of interesting and creative ideas never see the light.

    What designers must do is to expose this inherent tension and remind the managers that one must ask structural questions. And, power plays a very important role in this tension. I see a similar pattern in the way organizations adopt Web 2.0 and open innovation. These ideas are fundamentally in conflict with the ideology that governs most big organizations today. The changes that these ideas propose in organizations are radical and fundamental in a similar manner that we see in the political revolutions from a monarchy to democracy. In those political struggles, people lose their lives and shed blood. Likewise, bringing in these ideas — design thinking, open innovation, and Web 2.0 — into today’s big organizations will require similar commitment. People in power — those in the boardroom and c-level officers — will not give up their power without a fight. In many cases, they will try to embrace these new ideas in order to strengthen their power grip. It will be like many of those “democratic” countries where basic human rights are regularly ignored.

    • Thanks Youngjin! Your point about controlling for variance is quite interesting. I have been thinking lately that the demand for design is actually an underlying dissatisfaction with modernist, rational approaches in general. Science has reached its limits; now it is time for art.

      But what is art if it too is marshalled and deployed for specific reasons, vis a vis control? What is design if all you are doing is “solving” the problems of GM making more money, without questioning why GM should be making all that money to begin with? Obviously that’s an outdated argument! Perhaps another example might do.

      I may be perhaps more optimistic than you — I have been seeing cracks in the foundation. Technology use seems to affect power, if not actually topple it. It remains to be seen how this plays out.

  22. Sam et al,

    What a fascinating discussion.

    Sam I’d like to touch on just one part of this very long and excellent thread: something you bring up in your previous comment.

    “I have been thinking lately that the demand for design is actually an underlying dissatisfaction with modernist, rational approaches in general. Science has reached its limits; now it is time for art.”

    I believe quite firmly that what we’re seeing is a recognition that this modernist, rational approach is suitable for only some problem-solving activities; and that there are times when such an approach is entirely unsuited. Those situations, I believe, are ones when we face a great deal of uncertainty and discontinuity.

    Two examples would be the launch of a new product or service; and facing large-scale disruption to the socio-economic environment – such as we’re experiencing now, but also the Oil Shock in the ’70s; the 1987 property bust; 1991-2 recession; 1997-8 Asian currency crisis; 2001 tech crash being the most recent examples. But we could go back further and cite two World Wars, the Great Depression, as less recent examples.

    The point is that the standard, rational approach to problem-solving – with its incremental, step-wise progression – works extremely well in operational, business-as-usual situations. But we’ve been trying to apply it to more situations because its the one with which we’re most familiar (we = the business/management community).

    The application of Design to solving problems will continue to gain momentum if and only if we can demonstrate its applicability and greater success in such situations.


    • Steve, thanks for this great comment. You have nailed it, I think. Rational thought is based on the scientific method, which does have its own version of iteration. But fundamentally the scientific method is about prediction and control. We are in uncertain times (I might even argue that we must necessarily uncertainty to have capitalism, but that’s another issue).

      How do we cope with uncertainty? By getting a Black Belt in Six Sigma? No, that’s about operational effectiveness, which has its place, of course, but not as you say with new product design.

      The end of rationalism? The “unfinished project of modernity” continues to revert back to rational models especially in uncertain times. I’m hopeful that we have an OPPORTUNITY to make real change. But I hope also that we don’t do it for all the same vested interests.

  23. sam et al
    i must say that this thread is among the most interesting i’ve read in the multi-glob brainspace that is “designetcetera”. first, thanks for being so bold to begin with, and more thanks for the stamina you’ve demonstrated in the follow-on sparring.

    i’ve not much to add, other than i think the gist of what you’re saying is right, and disagreements may be in the details.

    baty and ferg sum up more or less any response i’d have about the “current debate”. but call me a cop-out, but i think the current debate is tired and design thinking as a nascent philsophy of practice (my phrase) is fine in the same way that platform shoes is as legitimate a philosophy of shoeness as any other.

    i am, however, most interested in all the corner cases (like you perhaps) that design thinking just doesn’t make that many headlines in…apropos baty, in art, for example, apropos dila, in philosophy, apropos my own experience in symbolic finance.

    i believe design thinking as it was hatched and is perpetuated unabated (i prefer the word ‘perpetrated’ instead, but that’s just me being randy) is a two-pronged longing (and you touch on this) one, to be heard, and two, to be utilized, which i would argue is the want of all. so, to me, there’s a poignancy to the whole discourse (if it is that at all), but is not as much an advancing statement as it is a self-reflexive one.

    there is nothing that design thinking wants that is different from what the actors in said capitalist system wants. the terms of engagement may differ, but at the end of the day, the common lingua franca is products, services, or some frankensteinian hybrid of the two. the real path of inquiry is the SUBTEXT of design thinking and i think it maps back to my 1 and 2 above but for the actors of designer and social scientist individually. well, actually, there is a third – just to get paid for something understood tacitly as valuable. nothing wrong with that, but again, you/we’re playing by the same rules, but speaking the game with a different accent and (over) specialized terminology. same play, different headliners.

    i do not want to come off as not caring about how this can work better in the system we currently operate in, but i cannot help but ask if we might be able to reconceive the system within which we work in the first place. perhaps we can, perhaps we are so much a product of this system, anything else would also require a redefinition of ourselves and our worth in society.

    buckminster fuller (who i know only marginal characters admire) said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    apropos baty again (hey i think i like this baty fellow) – art is a body of knowledge and practice that is totally relevant here. something you should consider as one area in art’s milieu has in common with this discussion is the idea of “working out formal problems within a specific context or frame of reference”. simply stated, as art moved from realism (driven by religion) to much more abstract and conceptual endeavours (driven by the market) you can see the frame getting smaller and focussing much more on the innovation of new techniques and abstract formal problem sets (what is the optimal line that can be placed on a white canvas that reveals the dialectic between positive and negative space? and so on). i see every commercial design project all variants of this problem-within-frame situation, and by adding the noggins of social scientists, you’ve maybe expanded the frame a little, predisposed the subject matter (humans, of course), but that’s kind of it. where i am going with this is simply wondering whether or not the frame is now fixed, with design thinking being the state-of-the-art in discourse about what we do. the reason why your commentary is so interesting is that you are challenging this frame.

    and all i can do is send you a virtual hug for doing so.

    can we meet in toronto? dila invited me the week of may 3, am speaking on may 7. would love to meet in person, if i could. i will be speaking on these themes specifically.

    gong szeto in new mexico

    • Hi Gong,

      Thanks for taking the time to write such an interesting reply. Part of what I love about this post (ok, most of what I love) is the comments. The “frame” as you put it is part of how we think of everything really. How do we unthink? We must see the phenomenon not for its semblance, not its mere appearance but its essence.

      What does design thinking want? Nothing other than capitalism wants, as you say? Perhaps. But perhaps also it wants to allay fears, abate anxiety, provide an “artful” solution to the modernist, rational horror show that was the 20th century and the fragmented, noisy, volatile war zone that is the 21st.

      Would love to meet in Toronto! I am not in Toronto in the first week of May! Bummer and a half.

  24. By the time you guys have been discussing and dissecting what Design Thinking is and should be, IDEO has probably better the world in more ways than one. “Just do it”! Thanks Nike.

    • Well put, Kirk. “Just do it” has its place, I completely agree. But I would also argue that deliberation has its place too. I’m much more of a practitioner than many of my academic colleagues, so I do agree with you. Yet if we run head long into doing with NO time for deliberation, where do we end up? Perhaps in a credit crisis?

  25. Good point!

  26. Sam and crew, great post and discussion!

    I’ve been trying to quantify exactly how often “a lack of creativity” (or at least a lack of ideas) is the problem. “Rarely” is probably fair, but, Sam, your assertion that it “is never the issue” is inaccurate. Please see the preliminary findings here:

    Sam, regarding your statement in the final paragraph:
    Most of the successful designers and innovators who I’ve worked with have no shortage of empathy and have remarkable “observational skills.” However, they are typically still viewed by the management as being dissociative. What is the real problem?

    I wholeheartedly agree that the design thinking “It-Girl” needs to grow up. However, I think that we need to be adequately nuanced and holistic in our critiques. Otherwise our charges of unsophistication and big-picture-blindness suffer from the proverbial stove-kettle credibility crisis. Please let me know if I can be of service in the vetting and refining process.

  27. Pingback: User Solutions | Design thinking’s big problem

  28. No doubt this has been a fascinating discussion.

    Sam – In DT you need to define the problem as the first step. For defining the problem questions need to be asked so that a correct problem definition emerges. Therefore questioning the legitimacy of managerial practice is valid as far as DT goes. It is just that there are only a few people who are ready to bell the cat.

    For DT to succeed in the problems or issues related to power calls for exceptional courage, integrity and transparency by people who are in power. And who wants to drop an axe on their legs?

    But how does it imply that DT is at fault?

    • Hi Rajeev,
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that managerial practice must be a legitimate subject of study. The question is: why are so few people unwilling to “bell the cat” as you say? I argue it’s because saying “Business breeds greed,” is threatening. Or “Managers don’t care about workers,” is also hard for people to say because it’s politically threatening.

      Design thinking *itself* is not “at fault” as you say but it is the co-opting of design thinking that is at fault. Why all the interest in design thinking these days? I’m arguing that it’s because it’s “nicer” than saying “business breeds greed.” I’m arguing that it’s not as confrontational as saying “law firms are sexist.” These are harder to say than, “we need more innovation,” or “we should listen to our customers.”

      I should have perhaps said, as Natalie has suggested, that it’s the discourse OF design thinking that is the problem, not design thinking per se. I still believe, however, that power is missing from design thinking as an approach, and it must be included in a concerted effort. In sociological research for example power is always part of the discussion. In design thinking, it is possible to not discuss, say, sexism in product design without it raising too many eyebrows.

  29. Regarding design thinking, I can certainly understand the intersection of power and design thinking… pros and cons…. the advantage of a seemingly directed and deliberate process, controlled, repeatable, and perhaps leaning toward the appearance of being scientific.
    In design thinking, if I understand it, you have a process, into which you shove data, information, the operator pushes and pulls a bit, perhaps circles around the idea again to gain some purchase on mastery of the problem… then after a sufficient amount of pushing and pulling, the operator produces a few solutions. The best solution is picked, with any luck, before the finish line is crossed.

    It is a nice model, but it looks a lot Like the Wizard of OZ when he is caught behind the curtain by Dorothy and the crew … claims to be nothing. After all isn’t it the quality of the operator in the end. Doesn’t design thinking have to do with who is operating the “problem” and their, as a previous writer noted,… power of observation and assimilation. Doesn’t it come down to strategy (creativity) on a game board. Without the strategy (creativity) the game becomes less well played and the design, though done is less well done.

    • Well put, Rae. I completely agree that the operator matters. That was Paula’s original beef, I think, that bad design thinking doesn’t mean that design thinking is inherently bad. I would argue in addition, however, that design thinking should explicitly consider power itself when framing the problem. When it doesn’t, you get “design” that can exploit producers or extort consumers.

  30. Dear Sam, I’ve been following your blog and in particular this interesting discussion. As a designer, I very much dislike the recent use of the term “d-thinking”, and I’m wondering whether the issue is that the term is being widely used to improve the way we do things, instead of actually changing what we do.

    I’m afraid that we may pull ourselves out of this crisis just by doing more of the same and, inevitably, falling into an even worse crisis sooner rather than later.

    I like your idea of learning to unthink, if by that we mean leaving behind the way we think today about business, production, consumption, progress… (and design).

    Another issue that I find amusing is how designers think it’s all about design (, hence the pride with which designers celebrate (and exploit) the “d-thinking” fad…

    • Hi Ricardo,
      Thanks for the link and the ping backs!

      You’re right — we must continue to question the fundamentals of our business, our economy and what underlies the way we do things. Design itself is not enough to change things but it is a start.

    • …and that link is CRAZY. Do people really think Obama’s success is due to “design thinking?” I would say it’s because of his understanding of political economy and social transformation.

  31. I agree with Ricardo Sosa’s sentiment and I find Bruce Nussbaum’s cavalier attitude with which he throws around the term ‘design thinking’ regrettable. I see this industry-wide thread/meme going the way of ‘innovation’ unless it’s contained and controlled. The wost thing that can happen to design (and the thinking related to it) is for it to be associated with propaganda and political (or corporate communications) spin.

    In so far as we’ve had “change that is deceivin'” rather than “change we can believe in”, I’d hate for the manipulation of public sentiment toward a seemingly different yet only less horrible alternative to be associated with ‘that which designers do and that which business can consider as an important asset in its mixed bag of tricks.’

    This is not to say that design is not used as a political, propaganda and perception management tool of choice, but that positioning it proudly as such — to me — is a dangerous game to play. Design (in all its manifestations, be it thinking or doing) is a powerful force that can be used for good, or evil. We’ve seen what it can accomplish in the employ of tyrants (See “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State” by the prolific Steven Heller at

    This is *not* the way to position the ‘value’ of design to the world of business… LOL (leading to the slow drip of a single tear).

  32. We could coin the term “design-washing” akin “greenwashing”. The misleading and superficial use of design+creativity to justify deceiving change. Regrettably counterproductive.

    • Love the idea Ricardo! Here’s another idea: “Desigeneeering,” which is “re-engineering” but only with a design name.

  33. I live in several worlds – education, business and design. Just as in business, education is calling for more innovation (replace with design thinking here) in how we structure our schools down to how we teach our kids. But funding for schools is still dependent upon how a school performs (assessment). So just as the primary problem for business is increasing profitability, a school’s primary problem, under this structure, is to increase test scores. It shapes the questions we ask. Unless you frame the question so that it addresses the primary problem, it will never be heard.

    Business can reframe questions that address both the profit motive and the need to treat customers and employees as human beings. But it ain’t easy, and it takes time and it requires business to see beyond the next quarterly report. I said it wasn’t easy.

    Sadly, opportunities rarely exist in K-12 education to reframe the problem so that we not only increase test scores, but we deliver on our primary objective to help children be happy, productive, thoughtful and engaged members of a greater society.

    Thank you for making me think.

    • Hi Clyde,
      Your parallel to “teaching to the test” is really very interesting. Thanks for making *me* think!

      I think it boils down to fearlessness. Believe that if you teach with compassion and integrity, your students will still perform well on the test. And believe also that if you create and sell a wonderful product or service, delivered with integrity and authenticity, you will still make money.

      Is this possible? Perhaps not in all cases. But I would venture it’s more possible than we know, mostly because we’re afraid of “The Test” or “The Bottom Line.”

  34. Pingback: ĐŁ тебя этого нет…

  35. In the complex, multifaceted act of design, the designer has to be aware of the larger cultural context as well as the special characteristics of a given design task. At the same time, the “thoughtful designer”, understands her own role in the design process which enables the efficient reflection and iteration of design ideas and related values.

    Design and the presence values – I would like to recommend an enlightening book related to the topic: Löwgren, Jonas & Stolterman, Erik (2004). Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    The book provides (among other things) illuminating insights related to the role of the designer and her responsibilities regarding the design process.

  36. Pingback: Design thinking’s big problem « // David Ikuye

  37. Thank you Sam for initiating this conversation about the application of design.

    I am a forester, land use planner, and community organizer. I facilitate informal collaborations/groups/partnerships of people to improve their success in the field of land protection and land planning at the regional and landscape scale. Think groups of 30 towns, several counties, thousands of square miles, a couple of states, etc.

    Many participants are excited about the possibility of achieving great things from working together and the innovation that will follow. They are also focusing on how to achieve a really big and bold vision: half of Massachusetts (as an example) in protected forest as both large wildland reserves on mostly public land nested within a matrix of protected woodlands on private lands managed for all the services and values we get from forests like clean air and water, carbon storage, recreation, fuelwood, timber, etc. The vision and effort is described at

    So in a sense we have a design to follow, to shoot for, but we believe to succeed we need innovation. Because we believe the vision will be realized from grassroots efforts not by government regulation, the team for making this happen is made of citizens as well as conservation non-profits and academics. In this informal effort, where people are encouraged to hook their dreams to the W&W wagon, innovation is both our fuel and the bricks upon which we will build the foundation for the solutions to follow. This is a 30 year vision I am talking about. Solutions for how to achieve the vision are being designed and cultivated by practitioners in the fields of conservation, finance, community organizing, policy, etc. We are learning through practice and sharing our lessons to evolve faster, or at least that’s the idea.

    I am interested in learning how might we inject the capacity for design thinking into our effort. One idea I had was to locate someone in the Massachusetts area that might be interested in helping to not only shake up our thinking but bring a whole other community of people to the “partnership” to innovate in order to protect society’s green infrastructure.

    • Bill, you should consider looking up John Robinson’s environmental planning framework called “backcasting.” He’s a prof of sustainable development out at UBC. I have used that framework in the past to help companies plan their future visions, but it would be a delight to see it used actually for environmental planning!

      Sounds like you need a combination of social capital development, participatory action research, and some insight gathering. A local person might definitely be a good idea, though off the top of my head, I don’t know anyone who would fit that bill.

      Best of luck!

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