Why we think Design Thinking projects fail.

Updated: Sep 11

I don’t really believe in Design Thinking.

Let me clarify that a little bit.

Design Thinking has influenced a lot of what we do at DNA Design. Design Thinking is a huge influence of the Design Sprint. And of course IDEO has helped all of us think differently. Without IDEO and Design Thinking the entire industry will be thrown back quite a bit. It has indeed been a huge influence on all forms of design.

It remains an amazing philosophy. That’s the thing though, Design Thinking is a philosophy. It isn’t a (scientific) process that you just plug ‘n’ play. Unfortunately that is how it is being sold to companies. “Want to innovate, grow? We’ll teach you how to do Design Thinking.” What’s the problem with that? We see this happen often: They do their workshops and their (hundreds of) post-its and then a couple of months later and a chunk of their budget later they are left alone to create products (and services) using what they have learnt about Design Thinking. But, they’re stuck. They make their personas and all that stuff but then get stuck in how it translates into what they actually want to build as a product or service. What they create doesn’t translate practically to building a product or service especially if you’re talking about building digital products.

Design Thinking is a fantastic approach if it is thought of as a philosophy, as a mindset. But when it is thought of as a system or a process I don't see it working. It is too broad and too vague and too fluffy. I actually think Design Thinking undermines what design actually is. When organisations see Design Thinking not working then they end up having less faith in design work, in being design lead. Organisations then call us in to help them fix stuff only because they have to, not because they believe in design.

So how do we fix this?

We think Design Thinking is something to be thought of as a mindset and then a system or process needs to be in place to actually do the systematic work that needs to be done. Design Sprints and other User/ Human Centered Design approaches (Discover, Research, Ideate, Test, Repeat) come into play.

It’s like baking a cake. Design Thinking is the recipe. It shows us the ingredients required. Design Thinking is baking the cake. The method is a process (like a Design Sprint( that we follow. That is where the magic happens, where the cake is baked.

We will never tell organisations to spend money or time on Design Thinking and then have them hoping to innovate. It won’t work. We’d rather have Design Thinking as a top layer (the mindset) and then for the bottom layer we will implement a Design Sprint or a similar UCD process.