What is design thinking? - A critical review.
Digital Media Management MA
WHAT IS DESIGNTHINKING?
WHAT DOES DESIGN THINKING MEAN TO PEOPLE ACROSS INDUSTRIES?
“Design thinking is a concept
used in both theory and practice.”
(Johansson-Sk"oldberg,Woodilla and cCetinkaya, p.121)
“Design thinking is the discipline of cycling through many
contextual exercises of placements to understand ‘how sense
can be made of something and given this, the designer is then
in a position to choose which contexts should dominate the
manner in which they should’ ”
(Wylant, 2010, cited in (Johansson-Sk"oldberg,Woodilla and cCetinkaya, p.128)
“The process of continuously redesigning a business using
insight derived from customer intimacy, persuasively argue
that it is a key capability for revolutionary innovators and a
potential source of sustainable competitive advantage”
(Martin, 2009, cited in (Liedtka, 2014 p.40)
“We do not believe that there is a unique
meaning of ‘design thinking’, and
accordingly we should not look for one.”
(Johansson-Sk"oldberg, Woodilla and cCetinkaya, p.132)
“Design Thinking is complex, emergent, and
diverse in its construction and application”
(Stewart S, 2014 p.517)
An “unwavering focus on creative
designs of systems”
(Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012 p.22)
“Design thinking is a model that allows firms to
integrate design into their core activities as a
spur to innovation”
(Martin, 2009, cited in Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012 p.
WHY CAN ‘DESIGNTHINKING’ NOT BE DEFINED?
From my research it has become clear that ‘Design Thinking’ has a different meaning for a range of people, depending on their
experience of the concept, the use of the tools and what industry or ﬁeld they work in. It has many different purposes and can be
used in many ways. This has caused a problem that the term ‘design thinking’ can no longer be described in one clear sentence.
Design thinking is used for many
• Problem Solving
• Team Building
• Internal Challenges
• A way to engage with customers
• Discovering new possibilities
ISTHEVALUETO DESIGNTHINKING APPRECIATED?
IS IT A PROBLEMTHAT IT CAN'T BE DEFINED?
Lidtka describes how design thinking can
be used as both a problem solving and an
innovation process. (Liedtka 2014) It is a
concept that can be used in both
theoretical and practical practices. This
allows design thinking to be used within
many different area’s of a company; from
a management level to designer level and
across many different sectors including
design fields, education and as a method to
try to solve many of society’s issues. I feel
that design thinking being looked upon as a
tool with multiple uses across different
fields, dilutes the value of the concept
within the academic fields and various
Although it could be argued that although many people would like a clear definition of design thinking,
‘such a quest for unity is counterproductive for the academic development of the area that it deserves’
(Johansson-Sk"oldberg, Woodilla and cCetinkaya, 2013. pp132)
With an increased interest, study and engagement with design
thinking, a simple way to discuss the concept is as two distinct
Stewart (2011) holds the view that, while architecture and
engineering have long professional histories with vast academic
research, many of the design fields have only become the subject of
academic research in the last decades of the 20th century.
Although it may seem to many that design thinking is a new concept,
there has been many studies carried out on the behaviour of
designers characteristics over the past 40 years. It’s within the
management discourse of design thinking that academic research has
recently developed (Johansson-Sk"oldberg, Woodilla and
cCetinkaya, 2013) and due to this, this is an area where I see a gap
and lack of understanding of the concept.
I agree that there is room for closer conversations between
researchers of design and representatives of other fields to develop
this concept further. (Liedtka, 2014) Without a further understanding
of these areas, there is the possibility for further misunderstandings
of ‘how’ and ‘when’ to use the tools design thinking provides.
Academic research can help to ‘define’ the areas of design thinking.
Kimbell suggests that the focus should move from individual
designers and their styles, towards cultures of designers as this
would help develop a better understanding and clarification of
knowledge practice. (Kimbell 2011)
When design practice and
competence are used with people
without a design background such
as management. (PPF)
The academic construction and
theoretical reflections on how
to interpret the designers.
Simplifying the concept of design thinking into these two discourses
helps to distinguish the different ways it is looked upon in society. It
may also strengthen the case that there may be little use in trying to find
a single definition or description of the practice (Johansson-Sk"oldberg,
Woodilla and cCetinkaya, 2013) as it clearly shows that design thinking
is more than just ‘one thing.’
Design thinking is proving to be an effective management tool
allowing design to contribute to innovation and gives the
management and companies the tools to deal with complex
(Johansson-Sk"oldberg, Woodilla and cCetinkaya, 2013)
Modern management through this approach is providing more
empathy, emotion, perception and imagination when facing
complex and difficult challenges, breaking down the ‘machine
like’ structure of organisations and giving design a more
prominent place. (Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012)
Liedtka’s (2014) research indicates that design thinking is a
problem solving process that can help any organisation;
internally with communication, externally with engaging with
customers and it helps with the innovation process of creating
solutions to problems that they have had difficulty with before.
WHAT IS DESIGNTHINKINGTODAY?
DESIGN THINKING HAS BECOME MORE THAN A ‘DESIGN TOOL’ BUT IS ALSO A PROBLEM SOLVING
TOOL AND A WAY TO PROVIDE NEW KNOWLEDGE TO COMPANIES AND INDIVIDUALS.
Tim Brown introduced the concept of design
thinking to a wider audience by introducing
the IDEO’s design practice, process and
methodology and suggests that ‘everyone
can do it’ by following the steps. This opens
the design thinking process to ‘anyone’ and
“present(s) the concept as an answer to
DESIGNTHINKING IN MANAGEMENT
to challenges facing organisations wanting to innovate but also
societies grappling with complex public issues” (Kimbell 2011, pp294)
A major criticism of IDEO’s work is the lack of wide research that the
book is based on, with “no published theoretical
framework” (Johansson-Sk"oldberg, Woodilla and cCetinkaya, 2013.
p127) Despite this, the work is gaining acceptance among
organisations, designers and government bodies.
ATOOL FOR ‘EVERYONE’
WHAT IS DESIGNTHINKINGTODAY?
WHERE DOES DESIGN THINKING “FIT” WITH BUSINESS AND INNOVATION STUDIES? IS THERE AN
UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IS CAN ACCOMPLISH?
A CHANGE OF MIND-SET?
DESIGNTHINKING AND INNOVATION
As innovation can be defined as a process, (Hobday, Boddington and
Grantham, 2011) argues that there is now a clear overlap with innovation
and design. They believe that design and design thinking should play a
central role within it. However instead, “design is either treated in
passing or, more often, is entirely overlooked,” (Hobday, Boddington
and Grantham, 2011 pp7) with design “largely absent from theory,
teaching textbooks and research.” (Hobday, Boddington and Grantham,
2011. p5) It seems to be difficult to identify why innovation studies don’t
have a focus on the design aspect. It is suggested that innovation studies
have focused on modelling what could be more easily measured.
(Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2011) If design thinking
needs to be defined and understood more clearly, its important
that those within the innovation studies field have a clear view of
the concept, its capabilities and an understanding how to use the
tools within the process. If there was an “innovation perspective
on design, and a design perspective on innovation, both fields
stand to gain” (Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2011. p5).
It is well documented that our brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left side logical / analytical verses the right side,
creative and imaginative. It can be argued that modern management and education fields have evolved strongly with the
logical and decisive emphasis, although design thinking allows those within these fields to be challenged and introduce
the creativity, emotion and imagination into their knowledge and practice. (Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012)
One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether everyone is willing to change their mindset as other factors
(such as cultures, habits, thoughts, values) will come into place that are unique to each person.
SO WHAT’S WRONG?
CAN ANYONE USE DESIGN THINKING?
Although Brown’s framework of design thinking has caused a
growing interest in the concept, a serious weakness is the
possibility of a less capable, less experienced and less skilful
designer who doesn’t understand the process or methodology
meeting problems that they can not overcome.
The ‘designer’ may become tangled in ‘wicked problems’ – a
“knotted clusters of interdependent problems or challenges,
occurring under conditions of uncertainty and having multiple
(Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012. p19)
ISTHE ‘BUZZ’ DAMAGINGTHE POSSIBILITIES?
Stewart (2011) believes that design thinking has become a buzzword within the business world for
the strategic potential has towards management and business innovation and notes how this change
has effected the design community. There is concern that this representation of a ‘fad’ damages the
real opportunity to explore the possibilities that design thinking could have on different sectors.
The capabilities of the engineers, designers, and workforce needs to
be considered including; their experience, influence and knowledge
on a subject field, as the problem will be “more” or “less” wicked
depending on their capabilities.
(Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012)
This is especially important in the corporate world that we live in. It
may be questioned if management in-fact have the capability to put
each design principle in place with restrictions of client deadlines and
timeframes, knowledge of briefs from the beginning, freedom to work
as needed and a true knowledge of the design tools to implement the
WHAT NEEDSTO CHANGE?
WHAT IS THE VISION AND WHAT CAN IMPROVE?
The question if design thinking needs
to be defined or not is debated within
academic journals and there are strong
arguments for both sides. I feel there
are ways that education, innovation
fields, management and design
thinking can work stronger together to
cause a change and strengthen the
With a wider acceptance of design, the innovation
field could add its knowledge to help the design
field to study and gain a better understanding of
wicked problems and identify what needs to be
improved. (Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2011)
I feel there is a broad approach towards the methods of
how design thinking is taught in education, depending
on your field. This may be due to a narrow limited
approach with little creativity, but if design thinking is to
be used in across the managerial, innovative, business
and design fields there should be a similar understanding
to help communication and collaboration.
(Hobday, Boddington and Grantham, 2012)
As design is now a recognised field of research that is
supported by national funding agencies, its important
that design educators stay in touch with design
researchers to ensure a better understanding and
knowledge base can be built up for what is involved in
design. (Dym et al., 2005)
As a designer with several years experience in the field and through my
experience on this masters course at Hyper Island, I’ve found that there are
many unforeseen conditions within each client brief.
Experience has shown that people of mixed abilities are able to use the
design thinking tools that Brown (2009) has set out, although I question if
they can be put to best practice to gain the best possible outcome, if there’s
a lack of understanding or knowledge in place.
With design thinking becoming widely used there is a curiosity and a
‘want’ for the term to be better defined. It’s not surprising that those within
the public and business sectors have problems understanding it, as its
questionable if designers fully do. Design thinking may be just a different
name for what good designers have always done. (Kimbell 2011) I have
been introduced to the concept of design thinking and the tools of it while
studying my masters degree at Hyper Island and most of it has been new
theory. However, I sometimes found that tools and approaches that are used
within this concept where ‘standard’ within my daily routine as a designer.
I have been analysing and learning the design thinking concept while
working on client briefs, within a team who holds a diverse skill-set. It was
only through experience that we learn’t ‘how’ to use the tools and ‘when’ to
put each into practice.
At the start of the process our inexperience of the concept was obvious
with disorganisation and confusion, which lead to difficult group
dynamics and decision making techniques.
As we became more confident with the tools, we were able to introduce
more creativity, structure, emotion and imagination. This allowed us to
overcome challenges, work more effectively and become motivated.
I’ve learnt the importance of knowing when to put a tool into use. After
developing our ideas we created prototypes to gain feedback from
members of the public. I found this an extremely useful tool to gain an
insight and it allowed us to analyse, iterate and change our concept for
customer needs at a sooner stage. If companies where to implement this
tool they would be able to test their concepts with real customers instead
of presenting to the management hierarchy; this could lead to better end
results and products and satisfaction within the team.
I’ve experienced the effect that design thinking can have on a designers
process of problem solving, using it as a base to gain more knowledge
and insights and the affect it can have on group dynamics and team moral.
This has all been a positive perspective of the concept although its still
important to note that this all happened once we became familiar with the
tools. A team with inexperience and a misunderstanding of the concept
would most likely lead to different results.
I believe I have been able to illustrate that design thinking is a
complex area and have shown that it can’t be defined within one
term as its not just ‘one thing.’ It is used across different sectors
for may purposes as a problem solving tool, a way to gain
knowledge, for business dynamics and team work and recently as
a management tool.
It may be argued that a definition for design thinking isn't needed
(for now), as the current misunderstanding and confusion of the
term will lead to a more research within the design field. I agree
that a deeper knowledge, showing the effects of design and
culture changes within a company, is necessary, although for this
to happen there needs to be more collaboration between the
innovation fields, design fields and researchers to see what they
can learn from each other.
Design thinking has been presented as; a way for management
within a firm to become more creative or can described as a
‘toolbox’ ready for use, however, such explanations tend to
overlook the fact that ‘creativity’ is only one part of a designers
job and it assumes that the person who is going to use these tools
have the skill, knowledge and training to put them to use.
(Johansson-Sk"oldberg, Woodilla and cCetinkaya, 2013)
The problem that design thinking faces by becoming
commercialised and looked upon as an answer to many problems
is the possibility that its value has been diluted.
It’s clear that the concept is becoming highly recognised and
accepted among designers, organisations and government bodies,
mainly due to Brown’s publications of IDEO’s practices although
Kimbell (2011) indicates that some of the industry observers are
beginning to question whether it has become a failed experiment.
In my opinion, for design thinking to develop and maintain a
strong position within the field and not to be a modern day fad or
buzz word, there needs to be an agreed approach on how students
and organisations are taught the concept.
If a closer collaboration is needed between academia and industry
to develop the concept then everyone needs to have a similar
understanding of what it can achieve and how to use the tools.
Dym, C., Agogino, A., Eris, O., Frey, D. and Leifer, L. (2005).
Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning. Journal of
Engineering Education, 94(1), pp.103–120.
Hobday, M., Boddington, A. and Grantham, A. (2011). An innovation
perspective on design: Part 1. Design Issues, 27(4), pp.5–15.
Hobday, M., Boddington, A. and Grantham, A. (2012). An Innovation
Perspective on Design: Part 2. Design Issues, 28(1), pp.18–29.
Johansson-Sk"oldberg, U., Woodilla, J. and cCetinkaya, M. (2013).
Design thinking: past, present and possible futures. Creativity and
Innovation Management, 22(2), pp.121--146.
Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and
Culture, 3(3), pp.285–306.
Liedtka, J. (2014). Innovative ways companies are using design
thinking. Strategy & Leadership, 42(2), pp.40--45.
Stewart, S (2011) Editorial, Interpreting Design Thinking.
Design Studies 32 (2011) pp. 515-520
Brown, T. and Kātz, B. (2009). Change by design. 1st ed. New
York: Harper Business.
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