Today, innovation agencies and educational institutions still continue to sell design thinking to individuals, corporations, 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 d.school and IDEO itself—are working to reform both its principles and its methodologies. These new efforts seek a set of design tools capable of equitably serving diverse communities and solving diverse problems well into the future. It’s a much more daunting—and crucial—task than design thinking’s original remit.
The magical promise of design thinking
When design thinking emerged in the ’90s and ’00s, workplaces were made up of cubicles and closed doors, and the term “user experience” had only just been coined at Apple. Despite convincing research on collaboration tracing back to the 1960s, work was still mainly a solo endeavor in many industries, including design. Design thinking injected new and collaborative energy into both design and the corporate world more broadly; it suggested that work could look and feel more hopeful and be more fun, and that design could take the lead in making it that way.
When author and startup advisor 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 how inspiring the space was: “Everything is white, and there’s sunlight coming in the windows. There’s an open floor plan. I had never seen [work] done like that.” When he started at Google a few years later, he learned how to run design thinking workshops from a colleague who had worked at IDEO, and then he began running his own workshops on the approach within Google.
Knapp’s attraction was due in part to the “radical collaboration” that design thinking espoused. In what was a first for many, colleagues came together across disciplines at the very start of a project to discuss how to solve problems. “Facilitating the exchange of information, ideas, and research with product, engineering, and design teams more fluidly is really the unlock,” says Enrique Allen, cofounder of Designer Fund, which supports startups seeking to harness the unique business value of design in industries from health care to construction. Design thinking offered a structure for those cross-disciplinary conversations and a way to articulate design’s value 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 at the innovation firm Smart Design.
It makes a good story to say there’s a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.
For Angela McKee Brown, who was hired by SFUSD to help bring the work IDEO had done on improving the school cafeteria to reality, the design thinking process was a language that bureaucracy could understand. In a district that had suffered from an overall lack of infrastructure investment since the 1970s, she watched as IDEO’s recommendations ignited a new will to improvement that continues today. “The biggest role that process played for us was it told a story that showed people the value of the work,” McKee Brown says. “That allowed me to have a much easier job, because people believed.”
The enthusiasm that surrounded design thinking did have much to offer the public sector, says Cyd Harrell, San Francisco’s chief digital services officer, who has worked as a design leader in civic technology for over a 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 a lot of those often really wonderful people who’ve chosen service as a career, and who have had to go through times where things seem really bleak,” she says, “the infusion of optimism—whether it comes in the guise of some of these techniques that are a little bit shady or not—is really valuable.” And it makes a good story to say there’s a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.
Ideas over implementation
Execution has always been the sticky wicket for design thinking. Some versions of the codified six-step process even omit that crucial final step of implementation. Its roots in the agency world, where a firm steps in on a set timeline with an established budget and leaves before or shortly after the pilot stage, dictated that the tools of design thinking would be aimed at the start of the product development process but not its conclusion—or, even more to the point, its aftermath.
When Jake Knapp was running those design thinking workshops at Google, he saw that for all the excitement and Post-its they generated, the brainstorming sessions didn’t usually lead to built products or, really, solutions of any kind. When he followed up with teams to learn which workshop ideas had made it to production, he heard decisions happening “in the old way,” with a few lone geniuses working separately and then selling their almost fully realized ideas to top stakeholders.