The reality beneath the trend Design thinking criticism

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Design thinking, as a strategic design and creative problem solving process, is still quite popular in design and business circles and has gained mainstream status, especially as an enabler of innovation. Yet evidence is emerging regarding the failures of the method, leading design and business professionals to become its harshest critics. Genuine practitioners of design thinking regard it as an exploratory method that is more focused on the process than the end result. They work on enhancing the outcomes of so-called “wicked problems,” the complex situations encountered in modern society. Design thinking practitioners also favor the incorporation of end-user perspectives early on in the design process, as well as working in interdisciplinary teams in order to generate a multitude of ideas for possible innovative solutions.

To that effect, the design thinking methodology, as popularized by design and consulting firm, IDEO, comprises five iterative stages: (1) Empathize, or make the design process human-centered by learning about the end-user circumstances and behaviors, and uncovering their unmet needs; (2) Define, or characterize end-user objectives and the scope of the situation to be addressed; (3) Ideate, or brainstorm to generate different ideas for possible design solutions or interventions; (4) Prototype, or build simple representations of select ideas; and (5) Test, or share the prototypes with end-users as well as business and technical experts for feedback, before moving back to the ideate and prototype stages as necessary. This process supposedly allows for the emergence of products and services that are more likely to be successful when launched, as they would have already been vetted for desirability, technical feasibility, and viability.

In theory, the design thinking process and its core elements are quite valuable as a catalyst for innovative ventures. In practice, however, design thinking suffers from major drawbacks that often render the process ineffectual and affect the quality of its outcomes.

First of all, design thinking creates the illusion that everyone is or can become a designer. This has led to the design thinking fad. Design thinking workshops and executive courses—with a duration that varies from a few days to a few months—are now offered internationally by leading educational institutions. These educational programs do not equip attendees with any tangible design or business capabilities besides familiarity with the process itself. Professional designers, on the other hand, undergo rigorous training in design skills and research.

Furthermore, by democratizing the design process and including end-users and experts from a variety of fields, design thinking effectively replaces the traditional lone genius model of creativity and innovation with a creative problem solving process and interdisciplinary project teams. But does democratizing design create better designs? Not necessarily. Only in very few instances is the crowd actually able to produce a truly brilliant idea, the proverbial needle in a haystack. This is in contrast to the work of genuine and talented designers, who can regularly and intuitively address complex design conditions by using a variety of holistic approaches to devise solutions.

Moreover, making end-user needs the focal point of the design process, and downplaying the role of scientific and technological advances, results in relatively minor solutions and not radical discoveries.

Organizations of various sizes have also been quick to adopt the design thinking trend, even creating chief design officer positions, in their effort to remain effective and relevant in a fast changing marketplace. However, design thinking is often adopted internally by organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, in a way that ignores their current realities and innate social dynamics. Bureaucracy, departmental silos, fear of failure, and managerial interference often hinder design thinking’s inherently exploratory process. This becomes evident when an organization is more established, i.e. more conservative and inflexible. IDEO is known to have “fired” some of its consulting clients—prominent global conglomerates—claiming that these organizations were too slow in adapting to the design thinking process. Also, in the case of for-profit organizations specifically, design thinking’s essence, the exploratory process that aims to add value to end-users first, often conflicts with corporate profitability and the organizational schedule of deliverables.

International NGOs (such as the nonprofit IDEO.org, and numerous others) have likewise attempted to implement design thinking to tackle global challenges such as poverty, the environment, education, and migration. While design thinking has delivered noteworthy small-scale solutions at the group and community levels, addressing global crises is not as simple. What the design thinking process uncovers in terms of population needs and aspirations does not necessarily correspond with what those in positions of power covet. Large-scale design thinking projects have therefore been mostly failures, due to political interference in the outcomes and red tape in the implementation phases.

The most significant drawback of design thinking is its fan base: the design thinking evangelists who believe it can reliably provide innovative results in any field or setting. They apply it uncritically, without paying attention to contextual nuances disregarding other tools that scientists and designers have at their disposal.

Most design thinking enthusiasts have forgotten its origins in the consulting world and the fact that it is a process that is fundamentally about commercialization of products. Design thinking should be a complement, not a substitute, for other problem solving methodologies and traditional R&D as drivers of innovation. Design thinking, if applied on its own, can collapse under its many shortcomings, but combined with other tools and approaches, could constitute a powerful and holistic creative methodology.

REINA ARAKJI SOLH is a design and innovation strategist leading advisory projects that build innovation opportunities in situations of economic, social, and cultural transformation. She was previously assistant professor and director of the Strategic Design and Management program at Parsons School of Design NYC and assistant professor of Information Systems at the American University of Beirut.

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