Design Thinking Isn’t B.S. (But the Way We Think About It Is)


By Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer, Gongos, Inc.

A recent piece in Fast Company’s Co.Design titled “Design Thinking is B.S.” got the attention of several colleagues across our brand strategy, design and client development teams. As a company that embraces design-thinking principles, we appreciate how the author highlights commonly-held misconceptions that directly conflict with the spirit of design thinking.

Inarguably, one of the greatest gifts of the design thinking revolution has been empowering experts across disciplines to rethink how they define—and ultimately solve for—complex problems. With that in mind, I’d like to reframe some of the “watch outs” from the article and place this piece into a broader context. In particular, we’ll look at ways consumer-facing organizations can harness the power of design thinking to drive human-centered innovation.

1. Design thinking might be considered linear, but it doesn’t have to be a straightjacket

As organizations seek to embed design thinking into their practices, they must balance the need to make it consumable by large audiences while still conveying the mindset that underpins it. Frequently, this balance tends to skew toward emphasis of process over mindset, making design thinking appear to be a formula rather than an ecosystem for learning and solving.

Fostering a customer-centric culture of innovation is just as important as the process of innovating. Part of that culture is to spark multidisciplinary thinking, remove bias, and infuse empathy so that the produced outcome is in sync with human needs.

This emphasis on the “intangibles” is what ultimately transmutes design thinking from a recipe into an experiential discipline to drive new value inside organizations.

2. Empathy doesn’t give consumers the power to dictate design

Empathy is a critical element of design thinking and is foundational to consumer understanding. However, as the author demonstrates, it’s easy for empathy to devolve into turning consumers into designers. As referenced in the article, you can’t tabulate the elements that comprise an “ideal” painting and then expect that you’ll wind up creating the next “Starry Night.”

With the long lens of experience, we have seen this fallacy play out numerous times. And, whenever an organization starts delegating critical decisions to the whim of consumers, bad things are going to happen.

Here’s a classic example: In the late 80s and early 90s, clear beverages were all the rage (Zima, anyone?), so PepsiCo decided to hop on the bandwagon. The result: Crystal Pepsi launched, with great fanfare, as an alternative soda because “right now artificial doesn’t feel right” and “we’re all thirsty for something different.”

The research and in-market tests fueled PepsiCo’s confidence that they had a solid hit on their hands and giddily projected a 2% market share for the product.

After driving $470 million in sales in its first year, Crystal Pepsi never reached more than 0.5% market share. What went wrong? In part, the company was so enthusiastic about the market research that it drowned out the chorus of internal concerns about the viability of the product. In the end, those concerns turned out to be quite correct.

The lesson here? It’s easy to confuse “giving the consumer a voice” with abdicating sound business judgment.

It’s incredibly powerful to see the world through consumers’ eyes and design with that perspective in mind. However, in our experience, it’s critical to strike a balance between taking consumer perspectives as gospel and ignoring their opinions because “they can’t tell you what they want until they see it.” Finding that balance point can mean the difference between creating the next iPhone or the next Crystal Pepsi.

3. Design thinking isn’t about diluting great design, it’s about empowering great choices

Many critiques of design thinking are penned by classically trained designers. Their criticisms are tinged with defensiveness and bemoan the democratization of design as a threat to their realm of expertise.

We’d like to suggest a different way of framing it.

If you look at the Latin roots of the word “design,” you’ll find its original meaning anchored in the idea of “to devise” and “to choose.” With that as a backdrop, we see design thinking less about turning people into designers and more about infusing a spirit and mindset of making great choices. Most importantly, these choices need to be grounded in integrating multiple perspectives, both externally as well as internally. It needs to be guided by both visionary spirit and pragmatic business acumen.

From this perspective, it’s easier to see the power and promise of design thinking. By pairing the tools and techniques of the process with the open-minded design mindset, it empowers organizations with new ways of making great decisions on behalf of the consumers they serve.

As published on GreenBook Blog.