Design Thinking, no thanks.

by Dries De Roeck on December 8, 2021

Every time I read ‘design thinking’ I experience a little puke in mouth moment. Not because I don’t believe in its strengths and underlying rationale, but because of the abuse that is and has been made using the term.

Let’s make it clear, once and for all : design thinking is not a tool, it is not a method, it is even not a synonym for human centred design. My mind has become so saturated seeing posts and arguments about how to ‘do’ design thinking or how it can/should be used (like this one, or this one, or this one, the list goes on and on).

Design thinking is a term productising a skilful craft. The craft of design.

Perhaps, what has started to bug me over the years of being involved in design trajectories of varying types and sizes, is that ’the design process’ is regarded as something having discreet ‘start’ and ‘end’ points. And while most literature argues this is not the case, that the process is iterative and non-lineair, I’m rather sure that by all the ‘design thinking workshops’ going round – this is by no means the message that’s carried across.
All in all, I’m not at all sure there needs to be a term like design thinking anymore. It’s just design.

An example!

Earlier this year, I spotted a marketing campaign by the Belgian railway company NMBS. It actually was a job ad, stating “on our way to a top-idea for travellers’ and depicts a person covered in post-it notes. The image used triggered the same aversion in my mind as when I read the term design thinking. The whole creative design process is being knocked to the floor with an image of someone with a bunch of post-its. There’s so much more to crafting a feasible, viable and desirable product idea than having a post-it session.

Images like these disrespect the challenges a real ideation process bring to the table, thereby (to me) not taking the profession of a designer serious enough.

Three issues

Top of mind, I see three issues when we keep regarding design thinking as a productised version of design methodology:

Issue 1 : Durable concepts

Products or services should not have the intention to be one-off things. When design methodology is productised, a possible risk is to start approaching design as marketing. When this happens, the focus shifts from durable products and services to one-off experiences which are fun for a while but won’t make it in the long term.

Issue 2 : Future implications

As products and services become increasingly digitally connected, a radical shift in the way we design is ongoing. In the past a product was defined before launch from A to Z, but this does not need to be the case anymore when parts of products and services exist digitally. Digital components of a product can keep changing, even when the product is already being used (app updates anyone?). This leads to design teams needing to think ahead of possible scenario’s and how these scenario’s impact todays’s design decisions.

Issue 3 : Organisational change

You can write all the post-its you want or create all of the lego mockups, in the end a product needs to be embedded within the strategy of an organisation. Taking the strategic perspective along from the beginning is important, definitely when the goal of a novel product or service proposal is to last for a longer stretch of time.

Design as a continuous act

A design cycle is often depicted as a circular something, with several steps in between which are iterated on. After the ‘last’ phase, the process starts allover again. But what if, there is no ‘last’ phase? What if the ‘last’ (or the delivery) phase of a design process is ever in flux, ever ongoing.

I’m increasingly interested in regarding the design process as something left open on purpose, ‘by design’. I think this opens up new approaches or ways of thinking to use a design driven approach to embrace the uncertainty we need to live with. A design driven approach is able to keep altering, keep changing a product and/or service offering depending on what is needed at a certain point in time.

I think this can’t be done by sticking posits on a wall during a 4 hour workshop. Design thinking is dead. Long live design thinking.

Why the statement?

My wife hates me making statements, yet I keep coming back to them. To me, statements like these force me to take a stance, have an opinion and attempt to convey that. I by no means want to convince others about this, all I want to do is open debate and, perhaps, introduce a new perspective.

Like many of your other posts, you’re not saying anything new – leave alone that you’re making sense, Dries.

Probably true. Perhaps I just wanted to make a provocative sticker. The reason I push out these ramblings is to make strands of thought in my mind more clear. By writing these things down, I’m forcing myself in at least trying to get my point across.
So, please, regard this as a starting point for conversation.


Hello Dries
Design thinking is dead long live creative facilitation!
So your post worked, I am starting the conversation.
I follow every issue and still I believe it is valid to teach, inspire and letting people know about design thinking (or other ways of creative problem solving.) The reasons why: (1) If you just inspire persons by the first topic of design thinking just being more emphatic this helps not just in their business but in live (2) As your sticker puts it “don’t complain suggest whats better” is a mindset that is thought during solution analysis phases of creative facilitation. And a mindset that inspires people not to go for the acid society. (quick thought maybe every time a tweet or a hln comment just only complains your sticker must appear;-)). (3) As it is a craft where we have a base of studying 5 years to creating such a mindset. Just doing a workshop of how to do design thinking in a day or 5 will not induce structural change. So evolving and learning is key and there you can use mentors to help you along the way. Especially if you want to go to continuous improvement and selflearning groups in the long term.
As always it has been too long. See you soon.

by Gert Dierckx on December 10, 2021 at 9:46 am. #

Gert! So good to read you here. It’s interesting, I’m really struggling with the idea of exposing people to design thinking in order to make them more emphatic towards the design process. I understand it, and value it … but I wonder how it can be done in a way that it is taken seriously. Thinking beyond the postitwall and the box of lego’s.
How do we emphatise with other domains? Like doctors? We take their profession serious ‘by defintion’, but is it because we all played little doctor when we were young? Design thinking is or shouldn’t be about playing designer for a day, right?
I really like your proposal to call out to creative facilitation instead, which feels a lot more powerful to me.
Let’s catch up soon, near some old fort in the south of Antwerp for instance!

by Dries De Roeck on December 10, 2021 at 11:50 am. #

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