The design thinking methodology, pioneered and evangelized by fabled design firm IDEO, has spread from products to services to just about anything in business.
“Design Thinking” has joined the corporate lexicon in a similar fashion as “Agile”. It means different things to different people and, too often, is used as shorthand for a magic potion approach to innovation and creative problem solving.
No surprise that critics have piled on, perhaps most prominently with designer Natasha Jen’s article and talk a few years ago that “Design Thinking is Bullshit,” where she mocked design thinking for using “just one tool: 3M Post-Its.”
A few years ago, IDEO partner Michael Hendrix acknowledged the superficial way that many organizations use design thinking, which he described as a “theater of innovation.” As he put it:
“We get a lot of the materials that look like innovation, or look like they make us more creative.
“That could be anything from getting a bunch of Sharpie markers and Post-its and putting them in rooms for brainstorms, to having new dress codes, to programming play into the week.
“They all could be good tools to serve up creativity or innovation, they all could be methods of design thinking, but without some kind of history or strategy to tie them together, and track their progress, track their impact, they end up being a theatrical thing that people can point to and say, ‘oh we did that.’”
I think many organizations fall into the “theater of innovation” trap. As with any methodology, the potential of design thinking is only as great as how it’s actually adopted.
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: