The limitations, criticisms and new pathways for Design Thinking – Part two

This is part two of my thoughts that came out of investigating and researching design thinking in the past couple of weeks. Part one is here.

Within these two posts, I want to provide my thoughts, bridging the present and pointing towards a better design thinking future, one that in my opinion, is urgently needed.

These two posts are not intended as a mapping of the present DT landscape, they are reflective posts coming from what I researched.

The ‘product of my work’ itself is presently being worked through to be available as an e-book in the coming weeks. It has not been easy and often I found a level of confusion that kept forcing me to dig some more and I’m still not sure I have the answers, perhaps just lots of open questions. I think design thinking seems presently fairly messy and I feel is in need of a complete reset.

The intent of the e-book is to offer a practical, direct takeaway of design thinking, more of the present practices and then where it is possibly heading. I tried to go linear, gone circular, gone holistic and at times ballistic and sought out tactical and strategic design, recognizing how its orientation has moved through product, service, experience, business model and is lifting design into new ways of orientation at tactical and strategic levels.

As I found out from my research, there is an awful amount of “noise” and “hype to work through to find the past, present and future positions of design thinking. In summary, I think design thinking is undergoing a revolution, a certain maturing but it is littered with a very messy, highly competitive present.

I would suggest that design thinking is a current ‘burning platform’ and the term ‘design thinking’ is so loaded it might need to be reworked under different banners to allow it to evolve but it needs to be restated and deepened in its skills, practices, and methodologies.

I certainly get the impression that there is an immense interest in design thinking as being a valuable contributor to being part of a solution within organizations but for the majority of interested parties, it is difficult to sort through the good from the bad in design thinking. Often you miss that certain clarity of knowing where DT can contribute, what it all means to achieve better solution outcomes.

It needs to break free of the magic ‘black box’ and evolve into its promise of being increasingly important to use, open and transparent in what it can achieve and its limitations. It is to balance this out and point to the need to be integrated with other skills, capabilities, and methodologies that tackle real, often complex problems within organizations.

So part two of my reflective summary:

Design thinking becomes the best friend to innovation, strategically and tactically.

When DT is applied to business or social issues it is by making creativity logical, you have its power of contribution, it can transform our innovative solutions. Design thinking is a highly creative problem-solving approach with a toolkit of methods but more a specific mindset where adapting is constant. By doing the same just over and over again brings the same results or dampens the potential to spark different ideas and solutions. Design thinking as something far too prescribed ‘dulls’ the process.

There is hope, actually, it is well beyond a glimmer, we are seeing design thinking recognize it needs to step up and take design thinking into a more strategic position. This will mean that design thinking will change in the future, into a greater, fuller “thinking” mindset that can be applied to these more complex problems at an organizational level and contribute this creative thinking to numerous challenges organizations are facing today. It needs to evolve, otherwise, it simply fades away, into the background of being just ‘helpful and useful’

Where Design Thinking Can Earn its Place

Where design thinking makes its contribution is through a good understanding of the users, making sense of ambiguous information, reframing opportunities, ecosystem conceptualization, prototyping to fail early and often. All this adds up to a creative process. Creativity is one of the key essences contributing to innovation.

Much of DT is working in a parallel space with many different paths to work through broad phases of investigative work. This makes DT seem “fuzzy, ambiguous and strange to many who are more trained in being analytical, often with backgrounds in science and engineering. It is bringing a degree of art and creativity to science and rational thinking. This combination must constantly search for a common language.

The need is for deeper immersion, for synthesis, for conceptualization, for constant evaluation, for exploring prototyping and it is seeking the right combinations that help blend all the different thinking into those valuable solutions. This is why DT can stand alone but is better in a broader system thinking approach. It can be so simple to tackle a specific customer problem, product design or service need, no question, where its design lies in its four elements to work through: of define, create, refine and repeat (as optional but likely) to eventually move towards a winning solution from the work of the combined thinking. The point is today organizations are asking for more out of their design thinking to tackle complex issues as well.

The constant danger is these different “open” steps or stages are equally a strength but also a weakness. For so many, these steps seem so insufficient and unconnected to their past reality. It is the need to connect this all up, to show it is real, it is the intuition, chaotic, divergent, naturalistic inquiry form and we need to offset our current more linear, sequential and reductionist inquiry mindset, so dominate in organizations today. Design thinkers need to tack on this challenge.

Lastly here, as complex problems become ever-louder in need to solve at both tactical and strategic level we must recognize their root causes are:  “often multiple issues, all tangled together, often hard to identify the critical parts and more than often hard to extract from the effect as solving one part often can worsen another or have greater consequences. Breaking up complex problems is tough as they are dynamically linked and deeply nested” (Quote from Chris Lawer in his paper on design thinking and healthcare)

Strengthening our thinking through processes.

The strength of thinking needs to be constantly working at creative blending a design and business thinking,  each time that will need to be different applying different techniques and frameworks. We need to move from that ‘one’ correct answer, often blindsiding us, into the many solution possibilities that take innovation out into new realms of solutions that meet a more integrative thinking that connects ideas more to customer needs.

It is that search for involvement from the diverse voices of users and inventors, it needs to be analytical and intuitive, it needs a blend of deductive, inductive and adductive thinking and that needs huge space and time to allow the thinking to work through. This divergent and convergent thinking, to zoom out, zoom in and connect all the diversity within the thinking and design of the ultimate solutions. The ability to connect, to manage this is the ‘art’ of the design thinker leading the facilitation process.

We often lose sight that if we lack customer or outcome focus we are more likely to fail, and if the construction and framing of the design thinking are not well stated it simply becomes a failure potential before any investment is made.

We move from consuming the idea of design thinking into a deeper participation as it synthesizes our thinking by allowing us all to have imaginations, thus feeding the roots of creativity that leads to innovation that tackles those complex issues we all face. We get equipped to bring all those cross-disciplinary thinkers together to break down the problem in a human-centered design construct.

Presently we are in the middle of this change, seeing how it evolves.

As I have finished in my e-book, I really feel design thinking is about to evolve. I feel I’ve not captured that change sufficiently but the e-book was constructed as more to assist in current DT understanding giving a background to why we need to change within the framing, so it built on a better understanding of the foundations of design thinking.

Within the e-book, currently in the ‘production works,’ I have taken the work of two different design thinking consultants or organizations to ‘cast’ out design thinking into a possible future. They offer more upstream strategic design thinking or take the view that that design is increasingly circular. Both are trying to shift the current race-to-the- bottom narrative you see in many design thinking suggestions into more strategic and broader system thinking levels, recognizing the need for greater change to tackle a growing complexity and mounting frustration that design thinking can’t stand on its own.

One is the collaboration between Ideo and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, focused more around the concept that design is increasingly circular.The Circular Design Guide is a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO

The other is Humantific who are taking design thinking out and forming it around a more robust set of thinking methodologies, way beyond ‘just’ design thinking but more into “sensemaking” through these different approaches and framing and methodology techniques.Humantific takes a  hybrid approach that looks to integrate the best of human-centered design thinking, strategic problem solving, and information visualization.

Pointing towards a future.

That future can happen if design thinking wants to evolve itself and I think we would all want that, it needs to move beyond its current present often caught up in a “fad” and “hype”. We need to develop it out and put it to use as more advanced problem learning capabilities, that challenge the desire for quick, handy “quick fixes” and think more deeply in strategic design terms to achieve better, more sustaining outcomes. Today, many of the outcomes get ‘push back’ as they did not account enough on the broader context, the system impact, they defined the challenge in far too limited ways and the results were limited, even though their was a lot of creative energy.

In this recent report by RSA an action and research centre called “From Design Thinking to System Change

“Great design doesn’t always generate impact. As we show in this report, innovations attempting to scale and create systemic change often hit barriers to change, sending them catapulting back to square one. We call this the ‘system immune response’. The particular barriers will differ dependent on context, but might be cultural, regulatory,  personality driven or otherwise…..

“Design thinking alone will not be enough. The core insight of this paper is that solving our most complex problems will require augmenting design thinking with a systems thinking approach as the basis for action”

I think this is our present problem with design thinking as outlined in the RSA report:

“In reality what happens all too often is that the route from innovation to scaling, and thereby systems change, is fraught with obstacles”…..and we create system immune response”

“The point is that scaling is usually far from a linear inevitability and the development of a product or service innovation may be just the beginning of a process of generating impact”

“While design thinking alone provides a compelling process for idea development, it fails to recognize that without due consideration of systemic complexity and power dynamics, even the best ideas can lie on the shelf unused, and thus without impact”

We fail to gain the impact we wanted or identified as we did not fully account for all the system dynamics and all that was necessary to make sustaining change. We end up often just moving the needle just a little and today, that is not good enough.

The recognition of change within design thinking is growing momentum

In a forthcoming online festival, called the Disruptive Innovation Festival organized on November 6th to 24thby the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this might be interesting. They have three main themes. One of these will be on the Future of Design where you can join from anywhere for free, sign up by clicking on the above link.

To quote : “Design has changed forever. Rather than just creating a single product for a single customer, designers of today have a new challenge: to create better systems adapted to a world of connected citizens, unpredictability and digital disruption.”.

There is this increasing need to understand the systemic conditions, the interconnected dynamics at play, the impact on the value chain and the ecosystem, on the business model and understand the organization and societal conditions in which this problem and challenge plays out. These need this deeper thinking so design thinking can marry the impact and understanding these more complex challenges require.


Design thinking has become a major methodology, it is presently running ahead in the expectations of what it can deliver and does need to re-think on how it is going to take this concept forward. The (real) design thinking community is racing to catch up and respond. The challenge for it is it has multiple voices all offering a wide choice in the past, what ones will emerge to give us a different design thinking future?.

We are presently in need of “buyer be (very) aware” otherwise you end up with a result that does not do the job you had in mind or more critically did not help solve the problem in your or worse still your customer’s eyes. Investing time in knowing what you expect as outcomes mean designing the problem or challenge in far more thoughtful ways, before you embark is critical in any design thinking journey.

Yet be even more ready if it evolves in ‘sudden and amazing’ ways you never expected but to have a clarity of original purpose ever-present keeps design thinkers in that constant analysis, to then be able to embrace the synthesis.

“Holding the course” or “breaking out of the mold” both need the courage and a real trade-craft to systematically test and iterate concepts until they ‘feel’ right. To both ‘conceive and make stuff’ can be really exciting.It is so human-centered and that is what design thinking is all about. How design thinking evolves will determine its position in our innovating world.

Get comfortable with this thinking alternative and what it can potentially give you in tackling your challenge or problem. Also remember DT is increasingly needed to be a more worked at a system level, beyond ‘just’ product, customer experience or service level. This is where the future of design is focused and where much of the current confusion lies, we are in the middle of these changes and they are being worked through in multiple ways, it seems.




















One thought on “The limitations, criticisms and new pathways for Design Thinking – Part two

  1. Pingback: Rethinking the Value of Business Ecosystems | Ecosystems4innovators

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