Making sense of Design Thinking: Three definitions, two problems and one big question.


It won’t surprise anyone who read this blog that I am not an admirer of the Design Thinking phenomenon. I will call myself a skeptic observer. However I am not directly oppose to it. If you wonder how come, you should consider the confused and blurred presentation of Design Thinking throughout the design world - I don’t know if I’m ‘against’ or ‘for’ something so ill defined. So while trying to refine the point for myself, I am defining it in three ways, noting two major problems and asking a question.


First, Design Thinking as Synthetic thinking.

At first, in 1960’s, researchers from the field of Cognitive Psychology (notably Herbert Simon - used Design Thinking in parallel with the term Synthetic Thinking - the combination of ideas into a complex whole. The general notion is to define a philosophical difference between the traditional scientific analytical thinking and a type of thinking specializing in convergence, rather than divergence. Implicitly it should be noted that Design Thinking is not new and has nothing to add to the well-discussed subject of the limitation of analytical thinking and management. In fact, I was first exposed to the term over 20 years ago by my dad, an architect. Today I find it more than ironic that the people who promote the Design thinking notion are among the more analytical, systemic and process-driven persona in the design world. After all, the notion of Design Thinking, as well as Synthetic thinking, was originated to a degree as the antithesis of Analytical thinking. Naturally as a ‘classic’ designer, I am fully on-board with the notion that the convergence of ideas into a cohesive whole, or to be precise, the Quality of such convergence, is at the core of what I do as much as any designer work since Brunelleschi. I also believe non-designers acting and implementing Synthetic thinking daily, throughout many aspects of life. Possibly any large complex problem is by definition solved through Synthetic/design thinking since by analysis alone you get nowhere.


Second, Design Thinking as a Methodology.

Over the last decade, in part because of the growing recognition in Design, the methodology of design was gaining credit as a worthy management method. This lead to formulating Design Thinking as a methodology - the prescribed process of Define-Research-Ideate-Prototype-Choose-Implement-Learn ( Again, there is nothing new about it since it resembles any design process description I heard off. I have two major problems with the Design Thinking methodology-

a. I think Design thinking is regressive and risky for design since it is placing thought (‘define’) always before action (‘prototype’) and analysis (‘research’) as the precursor to creativity (‘ideate’). I simply don’t believe the wheel was created through this process. In fact, the real challenge designers face is the opposite - a recognition that action (prototyping, sketching) often precede thinking and many products, inventions and great companies were born out of a burst of creativity and not through a regimented thought process. Furthermore, the notion of linear process as the absolute gold-standard for proper management and creativity is, in reality, one big fallacy. Linear process’ are seldom the way the world works. The non-linear and even chaotic nature of creative thinking is curtailed by a false presentation of a sqeeky-clean linear process.

b. I find it disingenuous to retroactively assign ‘design thinking’ label over the work of some of our best entrepreneurial thinkers. The ‘Design Thinking’ community is full of that.  I recently read in a blog that both Steve Jobs and Philippe Starck are among the top-20 design thinkers. These are two great creative individuals yet we simply don’t know if they are ‘design thinkers’. I will more than surprise to find Starck’s legendary-quick artistic process is actually a premeditated Design-thinking act. Steve Jobs is obviously one of the best technology leaders we are blessed with. Jobs’ Apple is a brilliant continuum of visionary business leadership, yet it could be called ‘Design thinking’ only through an act of jarring revisionism: Apple or the Macintosh platform was not envisioned by a declared design-thinker, following the process mentioned above. So the problem here is simple - where is the proof for Design thinking efficacy? It will be nice to see real examples of true ‘design thinking’ process succeeding in real life, delivering the true proof-in-pudding for the efficacy of design-thinkers as business leaders. 


Design Thinking as a Marketing slogan.

Third and last is the hidden definition - what is not said clearly and is not discussed openly is quite the obvious, that Design thinking is a marketing slogan adapted by a very large and influential Innovation consultancy to redefine its services to be somewhat-similar to Business consulting. Nothing wrong with that except that it’s not clearly discussed and acknowledged. The transformation of a message from ‘Innovation’ to ‘Design thinking’ is therefore also an amazing business strategy transformation through PR and marketing campaign. The large Innovation agencies of the early 2000’s transformed their message for ‘Design thinking’ not only because of a sudden discovery or change of heart - simply put, they had to. The business of a large creative agency at the early of 2000’s was based on Product Development (aka ‘Innovation’), or to be precise, selling Engineering hours. These expensive billable-hours went to China and something new had to be found. Luckily for them, the MBA methodology was overhyped and too expensive with results varying and less than perfectly quantifiable. And here laid an opportunity: Creating a new strategy based on old corporate in-roads from the ‘Innovation’ era with more tangible results compared with McKinsey’s. The transformation of large Design agencies to a worthy competitor of the large management consulting firms is a very interesting phenomenon. I am sure that if it is truly successful, design as a whole will gain some additional respect, maybe to level MBA grew to become the preeminent management methodology. However, there is some hesitation by the large Design thinking agencies to clearly position themselves as direct competitors to McKinsey, Boston Consulting and such. This hesitation is telling and perhaps a sign of weakness, possibly due to clients reaction. Lately I was privy to two cases in which very large clients received the results of a large Design Thinking project and... opted to continue with actual design work with a more traditional design house. It looks as if in reality clients perceive ‘Design Thinking’ as Think-but-don’t-Design, not as Think-then-Design as suggested.


So here comes the big question - why won’t Design Thinking be presented as service, on par with Business Consulting?


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  • Just read this and wondering if this authors' views have changed on the subject since the field/method/process of design thinking has gained much more traction and has become way more mainstream than it was 5 years ago.

  • Gadi Amit


    Thanks for the feedback - you deserve credit for a good post on the top-20. I understand the Mau'ist view, yet I am trying to get to the point of establishing a true credential/proof for Design Thinking impact. I think that Jobs or Strack will be great examples of creative/aesthetically driven 'synthetic thinkers'. In that sense we can call them Design Thinkers if we apply the first generic definition.

    In any case, since the DT issue is so blurred it's an excellent start to define basic point-of-views more clearly be it 'Mauist', 'IDEOist' and so on... we got to start somewhere...;-)
    That's what's on miy mind.



  • Nicolae Halmaghi


    Nice Posting. Nothing better than a critical and authentic look on this topic.

    I compiled the Top Twenty Design Thinkers list that you referred too.
    Your remarks are valid and I would like to respond. The list based on my understanding and defintion of DT. http://www.designthinkingexcha...
    In essence:
    The minimum requirement to be considered a Design Thinker is to be fluent in design. Once one masters these tools whether, as a traditional designer, or as a skilled critic or curator, and applies them in a conscious or intuitive way across different discipline and industries he falls under my definition of Design Thinker.

    In addition to understanding design, they had to meet two more criteria:
    Their work had to induce massive change and the results of their contribution had to be quantifiable – not necessarily in form of dollars but in form of creating and influencing entire value systems.

    DT is not about business. DT can be applied to business.

    In the last couple of years I have noticed the crystallization of two very distinct fractions within Design Thinking. I like to call them The “IDEO-sts” and the “Mau-ists” (inspired by Bruce Mau’s philosophy expressed in his groundbreaking work Massive Change)

    I’m a “Mauist” …