Trying to get my head around "design thinking"

I have to admit that I’ve been steering clear of talking about “design thinking” for a while now. A couple years back, when I first heard about what sounded like an exciting new angle on design strategy, I eagerly scoured the web to figure out what it was all about. At Cooper, we’ve always concerned ourselves with challenges beyond skin-deep ornamentation, and we particularly relish working for clients who value the insights that we can bring to their strategic business decisions. I’m interested in anything that gives us leverage to help businesses get beyond the assumptions that stand in the way of truly serving human needs.

So when I set off to learn more, I was a bit disappointed to discover that all the information I could find about “design thinking” appeared to prominently feature the Keeley triangle, some business success stories and not a lot more. (For those that aren’t familiar, Larry Keeley, an OG innovation strategist, devised the triangle as a way of expressing how successful businesses are balanced in the concerns about the desirability, technical feasibility and financial viability of their products.)

keeley triangle diagram

The Keeley Triangle. The d-school site appears to have been refreshed in the interim, but if I remember correctly, at one point, the home page featured a marker sketch of this diagram with the words “this is design thinking.”

To be clear, I have no argument with the Keeley triangle. It was part of the foundation of Alan’s arguments in The Inmates are Running the Asylum (Alan Cooper’s 1999 book about the challenges of creating great digital products), and throughout the years I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful device in explaining how design fits with business and technology concerns.

But I guess I feel like defining design thinking by the Keeley triangle alone is like explaining how to fly by stating the laws of physics. In a 1998 HBR article, one of the first articulations of design thinking, Tim Brown defined design thinking as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” I have very little to disagree with in this, yet I don’t find it particularly useful or interesting. And it really begs at least one big question—what part of “the designer’s sensibility”? The obsession over details? The ability to create incredibly disorganized Photoshop (or Fireworks) files? The propensity to wear black?

All this said, I certainly see promise in the vision and enormously appreciate the work that Brown and IDEO have done to popularize the idea that human-centered design methods are fantastic tools for improving all kinds of things—not just product skins and interfaces, and that businesses can get vastly more value when they ask designers to participate in the product (or service) conception process, rather than to just pretty-up an already-formed idea. So I was really excited when I finally got around to reading Roger Martin’s The Design of Business and discovered a conceptual model that has really helped me understand what part of the designer’s skillset is really useful for this big picture thinking.

Martin refers to this conceptual model as “the knowledge funnel.” The funnel starts with a mystery—for example, how to feed the newly emergent car-centric middle class of 1950s Southern California. Businesses then can create value by moving along the tunnel first to a heuristic, or simple idea about how to solve the mystery—a quick service hamburger stand; then to an algorithm, or the specific operational rules about how to achieve the heuristic—where the hamburger stands should be located, how they should be designed, what the menu should be, how to prepare every item on the menu, and how customers should be served.

Among other things, what emerges in Martin’s model of design thinking is that this “designer’s sensibility” that Brown speaks of is the ability to use an understanding of customers’ needs (as well as technology and business factors) to move inwards and outwards in this funnel by iterating through many different heuristics and algorithms to ultimately imagine and then validate a way of solving this mystery. Intrinsic to this ability is abductive reasoning— making logical leaps to imagine what might be true in the future.

These ideas really resonate with me, but I struggle with the notion that abductive reasoning abilities are unique to designers. Martin is dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and his audience is largely business people. I understand why he wants to differentiate these sensibilities from the largely analytical skills that dominate modern business education. But when I first read and thought about the idea that abductive reasoning is “design thinking”, I had two reactions: first, this is what I’d thought business people were supposed to be doing all along; and second, I know plenty of designers who aren’t at all interested in or good at abductive reasoning beyond their medium of, for example, interaction design, visual interface design or industrial design.

Ultimately, I have grave concerns if imagining a better future becomes solely the province of designers or design thinkers, a world of business and political leaders will be absolved of their core responsibility—making things better. (Not that I’m suggesting either Brown or Martin propose this; in fact, they both very focused on how non-designers can learn to think like designers.) I also worry that the term “design” will lose relevance for all the other meanings we rely upon it to convey. As Michael Beirut recently put it, “Don't say design, say innovation, and when innovation doesn't work, make sure you saved some of that design stuff, because you're going to need it.”

Given the big challenges we face in terms of the economy, environment and society, I think it’s a great idea that everyone learns more about creatively engaging with mysteries through abductive reasoning. Still,there must be a better term than “design thinking” to describe it. Any ideas?


I've written my thoughts on Design Thinking here, and think it might be useful as part of this discussion: In terms of terms, Roger Martin has a better one that he's used: Integrative Thinking
Dave Cronin
Peter: Thanks for the links, and I certainly appreciate the points you make in the HBR piece, especially the comparison with social sciences. My undergraduate degree is in math, where integrative/adbductive reasoning is also an incredibly important skill. And of course, this is also true in many areas of the "hard" sciences. And I think both integrative thinking and lateral thinking (per Ed De Bono) are very accurately descriptive titles. But the sales guy in me kind of winces when I try to imagine explaining that to some business folks. I'm sure part of the allure for Tim Brown and IDEO around "design thinking" is that it sounds kind of sexy and fun. The crux of it all does seem to be imagining a better future. So maybe there's something in transformation, mutation, or evolution thinking. Or maybe we should just call it "innovation thinking." (Kidding, but wouldn't it be nice if that weren't already a devalued word.)
Ryan McCormack
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dave. I share a lot, if not most, of your reservations and questions. You briefly touch on the element of this discussion that adds to the semantic confusion: the distinction between a type of thinking and the person doing the thinking. In the case of "design thinking", the linguistic implication is very strong that it is a designer who does this kind of thinking, which can lead to notions of elitism or at least exclusion. Alternatively, "analytical thinking" is something that anyone with an analytical mind can achieve. Terms like "integrative" or "lateral" are similarly neutral with respect to the practitioner. Regardless, they're all a bit confusing and open to interpretation. At the end of the day, the litmus test for a term should be whether it promotes understanding and advances the solution of real-world problems.
Graham Douglas
As the originator of a tool for self and guided learning of science-based Integrative Thinking some years before Martin's work it is misleading to regard Integrative Thinking and Lateral Thinking as being similar. Integrative Thinking as I originated it integrates both critical thinking and creative thinking in a process (Satisfying, Optimum Achievable Results Ahead -SOARA) which covers the continuum of Clarification of the Problem, Strategy, Tactics, Action, Review and Evaluation. Please see for an outline of the process and the tools offered. I would be happy to elaborate to anyone who contacts me.
Dave Cronin
UPDATE: It turns out that Dan Saffer wrote an interesting blog post on this subject about 5 years with the exact same title ("Thinking About Design Thinking"). So I changed the title of this piece. Check out Dan's post here:
So many catch phrases, so little time. We used to call it creative thinking. But like "design" itself, the meaning is worn out by over-adoption and diffusion from over use, usually for sales-sake. Funny how we produce and consume meanings like good themselves. Consumer thinking? Anyway, fret not Dave. The glory days of the left hemisphere's reign may be waning, but commodities remain a thriving trade. And however much I love the idea of right-thinking designers holding the reigns of innovation, there is a generation or two of old habits, aka Management, that still, somehow, too seldom see the connection between empathy, emotional intelligence, creativity, democratic thinking and financial results. And yes, that pesky designer with her abductive, integrative, creative thinking really is a threat. But how bad can a threat to hegemony be? Or any overdue course correction?
Carla Casilli
Let's consider that designers are taught to think a certain way by the schools they attend, otherwise what would be the point of design school? Is it difficult to quantify this wide-ranging methodology? Certainly. Does it mean that it doesn't exist? Highly unlikely. Is design-thinking an easily co-opted phrase? Of course, the business world is constantly seeking differentiators, regardless of validity. Our interpretations of it will invariably differ just as our interpretations of "economic thinking" or "social science thinking" would. But let's return to the world of design. I'm fairly sure that you were not trying to denigrate designers and yet, phrases like, "...what part of “the designer’s sensibility”? The obsession over details? The ability to create incredibly disorganized Photoshop (or Fireworks) files? The propensity to wear black?" further problematize an already under-respected profession. They don't really advance a useful or constructive conversation about designers or the work they produce, either. If we, as designers, are ever to be taken seriously we must dispense with exactly these sorts of hackneyed and destructive stereotypes. Instead consider the brilliant Massimo Vignelli's comments on design in Heller & Pettit's 1998 (!) book, Design Dialogues. His perceptive thoughts resonate with profound ideas about design and responsibility; about structure and creativity; and about longevity and trendiness. In this quote he mentions only graphic designers, yet the conceptual distinction that underpins it could easily apply to any type of design.
There are two kinds of graphic designers: One is rooted in history and semiotics and problem-solving. The other is more rooted in the liberal arts—painting, figurative arts, advertising, trends and fashion. These are really two different avenues. The first kind is more interested in looking to the nature of the problem and organizing information. That's our kind of graphic design. To me, graphic design is the organization of information. The other kind is interested in the look and wants to change things all the time. It wants to be up-to-date, beautiful, trendy. ... There really are two channels, completely different from each other: one side is the structured side, the other is the emotional side.
For more of his incredibly articulate and insightful thoughts on design, check out Design Dialogues ( ), particularly page 5. His incisive, culturally-aware, and conscientious approach to the ramifications of his profession is what I hope we mean when we talk seriously about design, its future, and the potential impact of design thinking.
Michael Hendrix
Dave, At IDEO we emphatically agree with you that the future is not just in designer's hands. That would be an arrogant point of view. Designer sensibilities are human sensibilities. Unpacking that, sensibilities are far more than just being empathic. There is much to be said for creating delight in the midst of solving systemic problems. Jane Fulton Suri and I recently published an article on this very topic in Rotman Magazine. You can download here for free: I'm happy to continue the discussion if you want.
Dave Cronin
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone. I just read a nice slant on the subject by Don Norman (incidentally posted the same day as this piece), which nicely addresses the issue of semantics (albeit in a somewhat Machiavellian manner):
Design thinking is a public relations term for good, old-fashioned creative thinking. It is not restricted to designers. Great artists, great engineers, great scientists all break out of the boundaries. Great designers are no different. Why perpetuate the myth of design thinking if it is so clearly false? Because it is useful. There is still vast confusion about the role of design. In the popular mind, design means "making things look pretty." This is still the view of most corporate executives, marketing managers, programmers, and engineers... "Design thinking" ...positions design in a unique way, forcing companies to view design differently than before. The emphasis on "thinking" makes the point that design is more than a pretty face: it has substance and structure. Design methods can be applied to any problem: organizational structure, factory floors, supply-chain management, business models, and customer interaction. I also really appreciate the piece linked to by Michael Hendrix above. It's a very thoughtful examination of the "designers' sensibilities" I wondered about. (And Carla, you do make a good point about my flip use of stereotypes. I guess I was trying to defuse their power by co-opting them in a jokey way, but as usual, sarcasm isn't always so effective online.)
Pabini Gabriel-Petit
Regarding "In a 1998 HBR article, one of the first articulations of design thinking, Tim Brown defined design thinking..." You've got your facts wrong here. That HBR article came out in June 2008 and is very from being "one of the first articulations of design thinking." The term has actually been around for about a quarter of a century. For more details, see the upcoming January 2011 edition of Ask UXmatters, on UXmatters.

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