Reports Of Design Thinking’s Death Were An Exaggeration

Though some have said we’ve moved past design thinking, its most exciting extensions move beyond the concept in its most narrow sense. Many wouldn’t even be projects you’d expect from the IDEOs and Jump Associates of the world.



A few months back, my friend and longtime colleague Grant McCracken posed a question to Fast Company readers: “Is design thinking dead?”

Grant’s answer to the question? Channeling his best “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (which makes me wonder, what would Austin have been like if he were “The Canadian Rattlesnake”?), Grant offered a resounding, “Hell no!” And I couldn’t agree more.

Grant was responding to a pronouncement Bruce Nussbaum made in a Fast Company article last year that design thinking was “a failed experiment.” In his article, Grant contends that it “might be the wrong time to declare the design-thinking era over,” when companies are “headed for open water and a perfect storm, a great confusion filled with black swans and blindside hits.” Instead, Grant concludes that “design thinking is just getting started. And a good thing, too: we need this approach more than we ever did.”

I agree with Grant’s call. Sure, design thinking has sometimes had its name used in vain, applied too liberally to projects far and wide and executed sloppily in many cases. In other cases, people may have held too closely to what they saw as the tenets of design thinking, opting to keep a purist definition of what is or isn’t design thinking in ways that didn’t allow the concept to adapt and evolve as it entered new realms of the business world. (See, for instance, Lara Lee’s BusinessWeek piece from a few years back about how design thinking must be an element of overall business strategy, not the end-all, be-all.)

To Lara’s point, the most exciting extensions of design thinking move beyond “design thinking” in its most narrow sense. Many of them wouldn’t even necessarily be projects you would expect to come out of the IDEOs and Jump Associates of the world. Instead, I’ve been heartened to see the many hybrid ways in which the tenets behind design thinking have infiltrated other worlds.


For instance, Lee (a Jump Associates alum, and formerly VP of Enthusiast Services for Harley-Davidson) has focused on helping companies understand how to build relationships with their most passionate fans by thinking about the community and the company from the enthusiast’s point-of-view. In a Harvard Business Review piece a few years back, Lee and colleague Susan Fournier at Boston University wrote that, “A brand community exists to serve the people in it,” not “to serve the business.” Lee’s work has demonstrated how building community among customers ultimately must focus on serving the customers’ needs and wants, not selling the company to them.

Or look at what David McQuillen did first at Credit Suisse (and now is continuing at OCBC Bank in Singapore) in the realm of customer experience. McQuillen took an experiential approach to getting company employees, all the way up to the C-suite, immersed in how the bank looks from the customer’s perspective. McQuillen drew from the design thinking tenets of empathy and creativity to help bank employees begin to understand things from their customers’ point of view. For instance, he asked employees to spend the day in a wheelchair to better understand life from the perspective of disabled customers. Other times, he had senior executives stand in line at bank branches to understand what their customers went through. Then, he worked with his colleagues to develop pragmatic solutions to the problems they encountered based on what they went through as customers or to understand what new decisions might look like from the customer’s eyes. (See Ian Wylie’s profile of David McQuillen in Fast Company for more.)

I’ve been greatly inspired by the writing and thinking of Carol Sanford, who speaks about the design of businesses that have a commitment to responsibility at their core–primarily by focusing on serving first their customers, then their employees and partners, then the earth, then the community, and finally their shareholders. In her work, Sanford applies the tenets of empathy, creativity, and pragmatic problem-solving to make a strong case that it is completely rational to make responsibility to these stakeholders a core commitment of any organization and employes throughout the company should be immersed in this way of thinking, no matter their division or rank. Rather than leave the design to designers or the strategy to strategists, Sanford argues that such an approach should be seen as simply “the way employees think.”

Certainly, Grant McCracken’s own work can be seen in this light, as having been heavily inspired by some of the tenets of design thinking. McCracken’s call in his last book, Chief Culture Officer, was for companies to hire people whose job it is to listen to what is happening in culture, the patterns taking place in the world around a business that they might be oblivious to, focused as they are only on their products and services or the concerns of their sector. His forthcoming book, Culturematic, focuses on helping people develop a spirit of innovation and pragmatic testing when creating culture–whether that be marketing, entertainment, or any other type of content.

We might even see the current push toward transmedia storytelling in this light. (See this Fast Company piece from my mentor and coauthor Henry Jenkins on transmedia storytelling, for instance.) Transmedia storytelling focuses on developing a story that has continuity and which develops over multiple media platforms, with different facets of the story being told through the platforms which best convey that part of the story and which create the best means for the audience to engage with and immerse themselves in the story. For years now, entertainment creators have been experimenting with using this approach to find new ways to tell stories that best serve audiences. And, these days, people like Maurício Mota and Mark Warshaw with The Alchemists are hard at work at helping companies think about how transmedia storytelling leads to them designing stories across all their communication touchpoints which engage, inform, enlighten and connect with readers, rather than focusing on using their communications platforms to tell audiences what they want to say.


None of the projects listed above may be “design thinking” in the narrow box we often confine it to, but they illustrate how a hybrid of this approach has been used to create new ways of thinking in customer service, corporate responsibility and business innovation, marketing, community engagement, and corporate strategy.

Of late, I’ve found design thinking of particular use in my world of communications strategy and public relations. Peppercom’s cofounder Steve Cody was speaking to a group of 75 heads of marketing and communications some months back for the Association of National Advertisers and asked how many of those communications professionals had ever experienced their brand from their customer’s point of view. Three-fourths of the respondents said no, leading us to believe that many of us communicating with an audience on the company’s behalf had become disconnected–or perhaps never actually been connected–with the communication experience of the audiences we seek to reach. (See more about the thinking behind this project here, here, and here.)

In response, we partnered with Emily Yellin–whose book Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us was how I first became acquainted with David McQuillen’s work at Credit Suisse. She has both helped Peppercom put this way of thinking at our core and worked with us to develop an offering to help companies start approaching their marketing and communications work by putting themselves in their audience’s shoes–whether that be customers, employees, recruits, or other key groups. (See more about our offering here.)

While I wouldn’t consider myself a trained designer by any means, our approach has been greatly inspired by taking the questions design thinking brings to the table and applying them to corporate communications, public relations, and marketing. As we embark on our launch of our “Audience Experience” work (which officially launched this week), and as I look at the work being done across so many sectors of business strategy as described above, I once again echo Grant’s assessment. “Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No!”

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies program. He was recently named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is coeditor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.


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[Image: Flickr user Trey Ratcliff]

About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee