Why Design Thinking Conquered The World

Creative companies no longer have a monopoly on design thinking. Now, many industries, including healthcare, education and government, have embraced the principle.

If you desire to work in a creative environment, that place might actually be a hospital or a bank. Once the unique competence of creative companies, design thinking has become a way of problem solving for a wide range of companies. In some cases, organisations embraced design thinking by acquiring creative companies and moving them in-house.

Why Design Thinking Conquered The World

Design thinking begins with empathy for the user, and works towards overcoming a challenge. It is an integrated problem-solving practice, that merges the functional, rational and analytical way of thinking, with the emotional, intuitive, and inspirational. Assumptions are challenged, prototypes are built, and the process is shared. Over the last several years, companies that would be classified as Left Brain organisations have built Right Brain departments.

Why is this happening? Competitive advantage is one reason, but the complexity of issues facing industries is another.

As the need for design thinking has grown, what does that mean for creative firms? If all companies are creative, then why would any client approach a creative firm to solve a problem if they have the internal capabilities to solve it themselves?

This can be seen at the TED Institute, a program organised by the popular ideas conference. TED helps organisations like UPS and BCG identify internal creators, and helps them to share their insights in the TED style.

To some observers, the growth of design thinking in organisations is eliminating design as a business, but companies such as IDEO are proving that there is still a role for creative companies to help other organisations build a creative culture. Companies want to build internal systems that encourage innovation.

A quote on the company’s website, from IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, states that “design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

When Lufthansa wanted to improve its business class experience, they approached IDEO to transform their long-haul service into a modern, human-centered experience. IDEO built a full scale cardboard model of the business class parts of the aircraft at their Munich studio, and tested insights gained from a variety of airlines that offer luxury service. Then the prototypes were tested in a real Airbus A380, with real passengers and crew, at Lufthansa’s Raunheim facility. The exercise helped the airline to identify opportunities to improve its service, which they implemented across their fleet.

Why Design Thinking Conquered The World

IDEO helped other organisations with similar requests, such as when Holiday Inn Express Europe wanted to modernise their hotel experience and the San Francisco Unified School District wanted to update how they feed their students.

Education of all industries seems like the right fit for design thinking to flourish. Educators are teaching students as young as 5 years old how to think like a designer. As more emphasis is placed on exposing kids to design thinking, schools and groups all over the world are taking note. There is even a Twitter hashtag,  #DTK12chat, for educators to see what their colleagues in other cities and countries are doing.

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Not only is design thinking used for the very young, but also for older, more sophisticated students in medical school. With all that medical students have to learn, design thinking is seen as an important addition to spur innovation around the patient experience, both in terms of being comfortable and getting through the health systems. Design thinking is also being used to help universities grads make the jump from school to the workforce.

Even government agencies dealing with foreign policy and counterterrorism are seeing design thinking as a solution in a world full of diverse threats. Problems that are poorly defined and unknown are seen to require more than logical thinking. If governments are using design thinking for serious issues such as these, you know the principle has gotten deep into the mainstream. It’s not surprising to see design thinking used for marketing, but for defending the homeland? What about the World Bank trying to achieve financial inclusion? Or showing how nuclear waste can be transformed into fuel? Surely, the world has finally understood the importance of design.

That is why we shouldn’t be surprised to see organisations like Design Thinkers Group, and  Design Impact Group broadening their reach, or the newly founded Design Thinkers Academy in London, attracting new people. 

Design, creativity, innovation are no longer buzzwords, but ways in which traditionally non-creative industries are building their businesses and achieving their goals. Still, if design thinking is everywhere, and everyone is doing it, is there still a reason for clients to approach creative companies such as IDEO? Yes, because design is constantly refreshing itself. Though airlines, banks, hospitals and schools may have design thinking internally, the core of their business is still something else.

What the ubiquity of design thinking means for the average designer, is that a job with the government or a large corporation, tackling serious global issues, like energy consumption and terrorism, might be just as good or better of a choice, than working for a creative company.

Words: Phil Roberts

5 Responses to “Why Design Thinking Conquered The World”

  1. Anthony Sully says:

    My conclusion is that the leaders of design thinking have been very clever in weaving a myriad of thought patterns (influenced more from systems engineering) over an already existing design process, and disguising it as some fresh way of thinking. Hence expanding their modus operandi and increasing their fee income.

    Tim Brown states from his book ‘Change by Design’ : ‘What we need are…new products…new ideas….
    that can be integrated into all forms of society,……….’
    Where has this need been recognised and who is Brown to say as such? New products and ideas have been churned out since the beginning of time.

    ‘Design thinking begins with the skills designers have learned over many decades in their quest to match human needs with available technical resources within the practical constraints of business. Design thinking takes the next step, which is to put these tools into the hands of people who may never thought of themselves as designers and apply them to vastly greater range of problems.’
    Anarchy! The lunatics have taken over the asylum! Non-designers cannot pick up and use tools that they have not be trained to use.. The leading word ‘Thinking’ begins informing us that the concentration is a mental activity. Design follows and informs us of the subject at hand. Both words fully understood. Design Thinking is thinking about design which is what ‘Thinking Design’ tells us but with more immediacy. Design Thinking is the wrong way round rather like saying Stop Bus or Table Kitchen or Suit Dinner. It is has been contrived to create an aura that surpasses even Design itself. The problem being that Thinking is a constant cerebral activity within us and it can be very difficult to externalise it by attachment because everything we do is governed by thought.

    • Phil Roberts says:


      Thank you for your comment. You made some excellent points.

      “Design Thinking is thinking about design which is what ‘Thinking Design’ tells us but with more immediacy.” Definitely, you must think first before you design. I’m heard some designers say that design is a form of thinking. That’s probably how design thinking started to become so popular. People started to see design not only as a creative operation, but as a way of thinking.

      Other industries are using DT to design different outcomes or to think differently about how they achieve their goals. I see it as a form of meta-thinking.

      Your point about Tim Brown and “New products and ideas have been churned out since the beginning of time” is a good point. It goes well with “It (DT) has been contrived to create an aura that surpasses even Design itself.” When you look at how widespread DT has become, I can see how you would feel like this is similar to “green washing.” Industries jumping on a trend for marketing purposes, without really solving any problems. However, I don’t think people in education or health are using it that way. I believe that they want to find a different way to teach and treat, respectively. In design, you often have to weave disparate pieces of information together, to solve complex problems. There’s a certain way that you have to think to do that and that is what other industries like about DT.

      When we look at the companies that promote DT as a business, that’s where your point really applies. There’s nothing new about creating new products. We’ve always done that. A skeptic could say that reduced to its core, DT is just someone with an outside perspective providing a solution to a problem that those too close to the problem are able to see themselves. Sometimes, all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes.

  2. Anthony Sully says:

    Hi Phil, and thank you for your reply. I am an interior designer with 7 years training which includes post grad at the RCA. After months of corresponding about Design Thinking on Linkedin It became apparent that such devotees were not designers in the traditional sense but rather ‘systems’ or ‘management’ people, and my words rang hollow for them. Designers already are qualified to cover all that design thinking eschews to cover and more, but non-designers would not know that, hence my frustration. I have written two academic books on interior design and DT is not mentioned once. When you report that ‘design is a way of thinking’ I have to disagree to avoid confusion. The process of design, as with absolutely anything we do, involves thinking, and it stands alone embodying all the necessary skills – it definitely is not thinking.

  3. […] is not my imagination. Design firms, according to this article have conquered the world. They are everywhere. It suggests that the selling of design thinking as a […]

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