Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No |

by Grant McCracken

Bruce Nussbaum may have delivered his eulogy, but design thinking–in its best forms–still has a lot to offer.

Recently, Bruce Nussbaum rang the bell on design thinking and told us he is moving on. I was surprised at this. Nussbaum is one reason why design thinking exists in the first place. Following his lead, people staked their careers on design thinking. Corporations like Procter & Gamble have invested, hired, and re-organized to accommodate it. Yale created a course, Stanford a program, and the University of Toronto reshaped its B-school curriculum. IDEO and Jump nailed their colors to the mast.

Why the recantation? He says he’s got grounds. First, design thinking “has given the design profession and society at large all the benefits it has to offer.” Second, the corporation attempted to mechanize design thinking, diminishing it in the process.

Is Nussbaum right? Has design thinking delivered all the benefits it has to offer? Should we move on?

Design thinking empowered versatile problem solvers who worked well with messy data.Design thinking brought something precious to the corporation: versatile problem solvers who worked well with messy data, complicated problem sets, and shifting business models. The corporation was beginning to grasp the immortal words of Van Morrison: “No guru, no method.” It was beginning to see that no simple orthodoxy (from McKinsey or elsewhere) was going to get the job done. Designers were good at mixing and matching perspectives and solutions. They were good at what Roger Martin called “opposable” analysis. They appeared to cross the hemispheric divide between left and right brains at will. They could “speak” the languages of “creativity” and “analysis” with something like equal fluency. As it stands, designers are the odds-on favorites for the Daniel Pink award in intellectual mobility.

This is not to say that design thinking is without fault. Take it from an anthropologist, some of the work it calls “ethnography” is fraudulently bad. The training is substandard, the practice is sloppy, and the true promise of ethnography–the nuanced understanding of how people think and feel–too often goes undelivered. Designers talk a good game about culture, but it is rare to see them address this critical deficit of the design-thinking model. As the Peter Arnell-Tropicana debacle shows, designers are sometimes still more interested in design culture than American culture. The designer can’t realistically talk about knowing culture unless this is made a systematic study, the object of a complete mapping. And I don’t ever hear the design community taking up this challenge. We can only imagine what design thinking could be if it put these things right.

The corporation is headed for open water and a perfect storm.Still, this might be the wrong time to declare the design-thinking era over. The corporation, after all, is facing a new order of difficulty. It is headed for open water and a perfect storm, a great confusion filled with black swans and blindside hits. CEOs as accomplished as Andy Grove and thinkers as brilliant as Michael Raynor have declared the future inscrutable. Innovations once optional are now obligatory. New opportunities (a.k.a. blue oceans or white spaces) and constant self-transformation have become structural necessities. The business of management was once rule-bound, hierarchically organized, defined by precedent, governed by gurus. Now, it feels more like operating an aircraft carrier at night without the benefit of arc lights or radar. It’s scary out there.

In this world, designers can continue to create extraordinary value. They are the people who have, or could have, the laterality needed to solve problems, the sensing skills needed to hear what the world wants, and the databases required to build for the long haul and the big trajectories. Designers can be definers, making the world more intelligible, more habitable. But this won’t happen if, confronted by the inevitable difficulty of the early days, they take their balls and go home.

In sum, it is wrong to say that design thinking has given us “all the benefits it has to offer,” and it’s wrong to call it a “failed experiment.” I think we should be arguing that design thinking is just getting started. And a good thing, too; we need this approach more than we ever did.


Grant McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology. He is the author of Culture and Consumption, Culture and Consumption II, Plenitude, … Read more