Essays & Articles


Rethinking Design Thinking

This is the second of two essays on “Design Thinking” that I published on In the first essay, I say it is a bad idea. In this, the second essay, I repent. It is a wonderful idea. Confused? Read the two essays.

The first essay: Design thinking: A useful myth.

OK, I take it back. Well, some of it anyway.

In June, 2010, I posted an essay on Core77 entitled Design Thinking: A Useful Myth. (Got a lot of responses, that one did.) Since my essay was posted, I keep encountering people who jump to solutions and who fail to question assumptions– engineers, business people, and yes, designers (and design students). These encounters made me reconsider. I observed design students who were acting mindlessly, simply doing their assignments as presented. No creativity, no imagination, no questioning. That’s not what design thinking is about. As a result, I have changed my mind: Design Thinking really is special. Alas, it isn’t embraced by all designers, but where it exists, it is powerful. However, if we call this “design thinking,” then shouldn’t all designers do it?

I now have rethought that earlier article. I still stand by the major points, but I have changed the conclusion. My earlier essay should really have been titled: Design Thinking: An Essential Tool. Let me explain.

I’ve spent the last few months pondering the way designers work while I was hidden away, revising my book The Design of Everyday Things (DOET). The book is 25 years old, and although the fundamental principles described within it are unchanged, the examples were so much out of date that they referred to technologies today’s young generation of students have never experienced (phonograph, typewriter, slide projector, etc.). Moreover, design has changed a lot in the past 25 years and I, myself, have changed with it. When I wrote the book, I was an academic teaching in a department of cognitive science and did not call myself a designer. Today, I do (proudly) call myself a designer. Moreover, I am now experienced in the world of business. All these changes have informed the revision of DOET. In particular, I added two new chapters: one on design methods, the other on the reality of design practice in the world of business.

Design methods. Hmm. I originally called the design methods chapter “Human-Centered Design.” But the more I pondered the nature of design and reflected on my recent encounters with engineers, business people and others who blindly solved the problems they thought they were facing without question or further study, I realized that these people could benefit from a good dose of design thinking.

Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be (for example by using the “Five Whys” approach to get at root causes). Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking.”

Design thinking. Hmm. I decided it was time to rethink my position. I re-read my essay and all the many comments to it, most of them on the Core77 location, but some at other places as well. As before, I found the responses interesting (although some people didn’t realize that I am (always) intentionally provocative). Design thinking has been the subject of an incredible number of articles and books. What is it? Opinions vary, but I like the description given by my colleague Bill Moggridge in his essay arguing against my position: seven paragraphs, plus diagram. (Alas, Bill died in September, 2012.)

Although I still stick to my major point that design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators have practiced it—I now do believe that designers have a special claim to it. Design thinking has become the hallmark of the modern designer and design studios. Two powerful tools of design thinking summarize the approach: the British Design Council’s “Double-Diamond, Diverge-Converge Model of Design”; and the iterative process of Observation, Ideation, Prototype, and Test called “Human-Centered Design.”

Of course, there is more to design thinking than what is described by the double-diamond or the iterative cycle of HCD. One has to do with a deep understanding of the people for whom the product is intended, which means observation—not questionnaires, not focus groups, but observation and deep empathy with the target users. Another is ongoing experimentation—continual sketching, testing and trying out concepts and ideas. Another is the process of critiquing, whether of one’s own work or of others. And yet another is the emphasis on questioning: question the problem, question the assumptions and implications.

What should this collection of techniques be called? Design thinking, perhaps? So, OK, I admit it. There is something special about design thinking.

I was correct in my original article: what we call design thinking is practiced in some form or other by all great thinkers, whether in literature or art, music or science, engineering or business. But the difference is that in design, there is an attempt to teach it as a systematic, practice-defining method of creative innovation. It is intended to be the normal way of proceeding, not the exception.

The Power of Stupid Questions

One of my concerns has been design education, where the focus has been centered too much upon craft skills and too little on gaining a deeper understanding of design principles, of human psychology, technology and society. As a result, designers often attempt to solve problems about which they know nothing. I have also come to believe that in such ignorance lies great power: The ability to ask stupid questions.

What is a stupid question? It is one which questions the obvious. “Duh,” thinks the audience, “this person is clueless.” Well, guess what, the obvious is often not so obvious. Usually it refers to some common belief or practice that has been around for so long that it has not been questioned. Once questioned, people stammer to explain: sometimes they fail. It is by questioning the obvious that we make great progress. This is where breakthroughs come from. We need to question the obvious, to reformulate our beliefs, and to redefine existing solutions, approaches, and beliefs. That is design thinking.

Ask the stupid question. People who know a lot about a field seldom think to question the fundamentals of their knowledge. People from outside the discipline do question it. Many times their questions simply reveal a lack of knowledge, but that is OK, that is how to acquire the knowledge. And every so often, the question sparks a basic and important reconsideration.

Hurrah for Design Thinking

I close by quoting Moggridge: the last paragraph of his reply to my original piece:

The “Design Thinking” label is not a myth. It is a description of the application of well-tried design process to new challenges and opportunities, used by people from both design and non-design backgrounds. I welcome the recognition of the term and hope that its use continues to expand and be more universally understood, so that eventually every leader knows how to use design and design thinking for innovation and better results. (Moggridge, 2010.)

So three cheers for design thinking, for those practitioners and schools that are using these techniques, that encourage breakthrough thinking, and that encourage asking the stupid question. Not all schools teach design thinking in this way. Not all students learn it. Not all designers practice it. But for those who do teach, learn and practice all of the techniques of design thinking, it can be transformative.

Note: After the essay was published, one of the commenters (Elizabeth Guffey) told me about Lucy Kimbell’s article “Rethinking Design Thinking,” published in Design and Culture, November 2011. (The title similarity is pure coincidence.) It’s a great article: I recommend it.