Review and critique of past and current  topics

“What is Design Thinking?”

One would be forgiven for believing that this is a simple question and necessary to answer in an article on the topic. However, for reasons to be discussed, it is clear that no one answer is conclusive.

Design thinking in its most arbitrary form is the act of “thinking like a designer”. However, despite extensive literature on the topic, there is no singular agreed upon definition. Kimbell concluded that “even on cursory inspection, what design thinking is supposed to be is not well understood by the public or those who claim to practice it”. This disparity first stems from the word ‘design’ itself, which many believe to be impossible to truly define due to the vast variety of thoughts and practices it covers, from the work of professional designers to the design-like tasks humans face daily.

The seemingly endless application of design creates a need to better understand the thinking that underpins it. Research concluded that even designers themselves cannot often express how they arrived at a final solution. The steps and methods followed can be explained, but what and how they were thinking is much more difficult.

In an attempt to theorise this rhetoric and as a counter to earlier efforts to ‘scientise’ the design process, Rittel and Webber (1973) constructed the ‘wicked problems’ approach to design thinking. A theory that design problems are born out of fundamental indeterminacy, meaning the problems have no definitive conditions and so for every problem, there is always more than one possible solution. Although in contrast, it was also argued that despite this appearing true, no one is yet to prove why design problems are indeterminate (wicked), so the theory remains incomplete.

However design problems are interpreted, it is instead the act of overcoming them that is of most value. It has been identified that in the ongoing attempts to explain a designer’s approach to problem-solving, the focus often falls to their ways of doing rather than thinking. This focus on the actions of designers makes it easier for non-practitioners to learn, adopt and utilise their creative tools to solve their business challenges, removing the need to first profoundly “understand design”.

IDEO, the world’s largest design company, arguably led the crusade for the implementation of design thinking within non-design businesses. Kelley and Brown, IDEO Founder and CEO, have both spoken and written extensively on the topic, regularly affirming the belief that “design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”.

The popularisation of design thinking as a tool for innovation resulted in large global corporations adopting design disciplines into their ways of working, for example Google, Samsung and IBM. Despite this acceptance in business, the answer to “what is design thinking?” is still considered ambiguous.

Researchers in 2013 assessed all the relevant literature on design thinking and established two distinct discourses:

  1. Designerly Thinking — the theory and practice of design rooted in academia
  2. Design Thinking — the practical application of design to non-design fields, such as management

They concluded that despite earlier concurrent sub-discourses on designerly thinking, the later trend of management-led design thinking had no clear links to this previous work, thus weakening the latter’s perceptions of effectiveness.

Earlier research from Kimbell had come to a similar conclusion; recent popularisation of design thinking in most parts ignored the earlier academic literature, but she chose to divide the various discourses into three categories:

  1. As a cognitive style, where the role of the designer is to problem-solve
  2. As a general theory of design, where the purpose is to overcome wicked problems
  3. As a resource for organisations in need of innovation

The disconnect between academic theory and managerial application, plus a lack of hard evidence of success due to “wicked problems”, means support for design thinking has reached a crisis point. Even some early adopters and endorsers, such as Bruce Nussbaum believe its success has stagnated and have disregarded its application in business as “a failed experiment” that is beginning to do more harm than good.

Social media has also given a platform to design practitioners to discount design thinking in an informal environment. For example, Alan Cooper, founder of Cooper — a leading interaction design consultancy which even sells design thinking training, recently tweeted:


To add to that Pentagram Designer, Natasha Jen, took to the stage at this year’s 99U conference to argue that “Design Thinking is Bulls***” believing it has become a buzzword rather than an effective tool for change. Even original design thinking activist, Tim Brown, was quoted saying so much of my life has been wasted prostrating myself before the false idol of design-thinking…I should have been thinking so much less, and feeling so much more”. For all design thinking sceptics, their problems lie with the over-importance given to the process of reaching an end-result, rather than the creativity required to get there.

Design Thinking as a Process

Many have attempted to formalise the core principles for design thinking application within organisations via process models and . Despite endless modifications and mutations, there are three enduring models:

ONE: The five steps of design thinking by D.School, Stanford University’s Institute of Design


TWO: The three overlapping phases of design thinking by IDEO.


THREE: The four-phased ‘Double Diamond’ process by the Design Council.


The diagrams and vocabulary might differ but there are clear themes seen in all design thinking models:

  1. Human-Centered — Discovery and inspiration phases focus on research of the proposed user — who are they? What do they want/need? How do they behave? It is about the project team building empathy with the end-user and gaining an understanding of who they are designing for.
  2. Iterative — Develop, delivery and implementation phases focus on removing the weakest ideas and enhancing the strongest through prototyping, testing and optimisation — “Fail early to succeed sooner”.
  3. Interdisciplinary — All models show a journey that diverges and converges to, at least, an initial solution. Each phase is not owned by one team with set tasks; instead, a collaborative project team embarks on the journey together. It is important to note that interdisciplinary teams differ from multidisciplinary ones in that each has collective ownership of the project and its success, rather than advocating for just their own speciality area.

Each phase of the design thinking process, regardless of model, has its own methods and tools and with that its own critique and debate too. The rest of this article will focus on the right-hand side of the double diamond — iterative implementation through prototyping and user testing. However, it is important to note that one of the greatest mistakes is to omit the left-hand diamond and end up solving the wrong problem.

Prototyping — Why? When? How?

If an idea becomes a piece of private property, it is likely to grow stale and brittle over time. If it migrates throughout an organisation, undergoing continual permutations, combinations, and mutations, it is likely to flourish.(Brown, 2009)

A prototype is a preliminary version of a concept, product, service or system. There are no rules for what medium constitutes a prototype and they do not always have to be physical, from a sketch to an acted-out scenario to a beta app, as long as it can be tested it is of use. The purpose of a prototype is to provide creators with feedback by facilitating “hands-on” visual learning of what works and doesn’t, to quickly evaluate a design’s validity. Prototypes are often referred to as design artefacts — supporting creativity, encouraging communication, allowing for early evaluation and ensuring usability.

As seen in the previously discussed process models, prototyping is an essential fourth step to move a design from ideation to testing, or from ideation and development to implementation and delivery. In these linear models as the prototype moves through the process its fidelity increases. There are four dimensions on which prototyping techniques can be measured:

  1. Representation — the form it takes, i.e. paper, software, service reenactment
  2. Precision — the detail it contains, i.e. rough or close to final
  3. Interactivity — the extent a user can interact with it, i.e. view, touch or click
  4. Evolution — the life stage it is at, i.e. early brainstorm or late iteration

As iterations increase and the design moves further towards an end-result, each dimension rises exponentially from basic paper ideas to highly polished prototypes which closely resemble their expected final form.

For businesses, the most significant benefit of prototyping is the ability to test early and cheaply, putting something tangible in the hands of the user to gather data and spot potential issues early in development. Many companies iterate ideas and designs internally, but in design thinking methodologies the focus is “human-centered innovation”, so the product must be taken out of the hands of designers and stakeholders and put into the hands of the expected end-user. However, it is at this point that prototyping can become costly if testing isn’t implemented efficiently. Nielsen concluded that “the best results come from testing no more than five users and running as many small tests as you can afford, noting also that “zero users give zero insights’ but as soon as one user is introduced insights jump significantly:


Testing prototypes with users is a meaningful way to gather data, however, how this is undertaken and the language used to describe it is often debated. Some argue that “user testing” should be replaced by “user research” as it is the design being tested not the user. The belief being that the semantics are important as how we talk reflects how we think and “if people can’t use the thing we’ve made, that’s a reflection on us, not our users”.

To build on this thinking, “validation research” should also be discounted as the action of validating implies a pre-disposed opinion, it disregards the option of failure. Opinion can be detrimental from both researchers and users, opinions are not evidence” and are rooted in bias. Instead, it is behaviours and feelings that are important and they should ideally be observed not tested via questions. This is due to the occurrence of response bias, in particular, social desirability bias where the user wants to please or look favourable to the researcher skewing their true response. Despite a ‘true response’ being favourable for reliable data collection, it is important that researchers recognise ethical considerations when looking to learn from user behaviour.

Afterword: This article was originally written as coursework required for the ‘Hyper Island’ Digital Management Masters. A Harvard referenced version and/or complete Bibliography is available on request.

Design Thinking: A Beginner’s Guide to the History, Terminologies and Methodologies was originally published in Prototypr on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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