Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong?

Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong?

Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong?

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Today, innovation agencies and educational institutions continue to sell design thinking to individuals, businesses, and organizations. In 2015, IDEO even created its own “online school”, IDEO U, with a bank of design thinking courses. But some groups, including the and IDEO itself, are working to reform both its principles and methodologies. These new efforts aim for a set of design tools that can fairly serve diverse communities and solve diverse problems in the future. This is a much more difficult and crucial task than the initial mission of design thinking.


The magic promise of design thinking

When design thinking emerged in the 90s and 2000s, workplaces consisted of cubicles and closed doors, and the term “user experience” had only just been coined at Apple. Despite compelling research on collaboration dating back to the 1960s, work was still mostly a solitary endeavor in many industries, including design. Design thinking has injected new and collaborative energy into design and the business world in general; it suggested that the work could look and feel more hopeful and be more fun, and that the design could take the initiative to do so.

When author and startup consultant Jake Knapp was working as a designer at Microsoft in the 2000s, he visited IDEO’s offices in Palo Alto for a potential project. He was struck by the inspiration of the space: “Everything is white and sunlight enters through the windows. There is an open floor plan. I never saw [work] do like this. When he started at Google a few years later, he learned how to lead design thinking workshops with a colleague who had worked at IDEO, and then he began to lead his own workshops on the approach within Google.

Knapp’s appeal was due in part to the “radical collaboration” that design thinking advocated. In what was a first for many, colleagues from all disciplines came together at the very beginning of a project to discuss how to solve problems. “Making it easier to exchange information, ideas, and research with product, engineering, and design teams in a more fluid way is really the unlocker,” says Enrique Allen, co-founder of Designer Fund, which supports startups seeking to harness the unique business value of design across industries. from health care to construction. Design thinking offered a structure for these cross-disciplinary conversations and a way to articulate the value of design within them. “It gave [your ideas] so much more weight for people who didn’t have the language to understand creative work,” says Erica Eden, who worked as a designer for innovation firm Smart Design.

It’s a good story to say that there is a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who leads it.

For Angela McKee Brown, who was hired by SFUSD to help bring to fruition the work done by IDEO on improving the school cafeteria, the design thinking process was a language the bureaucracy could understand. In a neighborhood that had suffered from a general lack of infrastructure investment since the 1970s, she saw IDEO’s recommendations spark a new drive for improvement that continues today. “The biggest role this process played for us was telling a story that showed people the value of hard work,” says McKee Brown. “It allowed me to have a much easier job, because people believed in it.”

The excitement surrounding design thinking had a lot to offer the public sector, says San Francisco director of digital services Cyd Harrell, who has worked as a design leader in civic technology for more than a decade. decade. Decades of budget cuts and a lack of civic investment have made it difficult for public servants to feel that change is possible. “For many of these often really wonderful people who have chosen service as a career and have had to go through times when things look really bleak,” she says, “the infusion of optimism – whether it’s some of these techniques, whether they’re a little sleazy or not, are really valuable.” And it’s a good story to say that there is a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who directs it.

Ideas rather than implementation

Execution has always been the sticky window of design thinking. Some versions of the codified six-step process even omit this crucial last stage of implementation. Its roots in the agency world, where a company comes in on a set schedule with a set budget and exits before or shortly after the pilot stage, dictated that the tools of design thinking would be aimed at the beginning of the design development process. products but not its conclusion or, more precisely, its consequences.

When Jake Knapp was leading these design thinking workshops at Google, he realized that for all the excitement and sticky notes they generated, the brainstorming sessions usually didn’t lead to products being built or, really, to solutions of any kind. When he tracked the teams to find out which workshop ideas made it to production, he heard decisions happen “the old fashioned way,” with a few lone geniuses working separately, then selling their almost fully realized ideas to the main ones. stakeholders.


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