The evolution of Design Thinking — and How Might We sell it?

Note: this paper was written as part of my Masters in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island. So it’s a bit academic. Here we go:

Design Thinking: from ‘magic’ to models

A critical trend in the design industry concerns how we communicate about what Design Thinking is, and what it entails. It is of importance because it helps build consensus, and in the end, market the process to organisations. After all, Design Thinking is an applied discipline — it is most useful when clients buy it and apply it.

Indeed, the origins of the Design Thinking discipline are to be found in what Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla and Çetinkaya (2013) call “designerly thinking”. This phrase refers to the intangible thought processes and competences of traditional designers that allow them to come up with unexpected solutions. Boland and Collopy (2004, p.3) call this a “design attitude”, while Beckman and Barry, quoted by Seidel and Fixson (2013) go as far as putting this in direct contrast with “more rationally analytic approaches that have developed out of the management, engineering and marketing literature.” It is this duality between an intangible, instinctive thought process, and a formalised, transparent work process that the Design Thinking discipline is suffering from. It originates in the former, but strives to reach the status of the latter.

As it started, it would have been hard to market, let alone teach a knowledge so intangible and difficult to define. For Design Thinking to gain traction, it was necessary to develop a vocabulary, and a set of tools that could be helpful in explaining how it works. In 1992, Buchanan defined Design Thinking as “a matter of dealing with wicked problems, a class of social systems problems with a fundamental indeterminacy without a single solution and where much creativity is needed to find solutions” (cited in Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla and Çetinkaya, 2013). It could be argued that this helped define the academic space and possibly drew in early adopters, but still did not spark the interest of the larger public and business sector. This also helped the wider design community realise that if their processes are not as transparent and rigorous as other disciplines creating new products, they will not have the same credibility (Beckman and Barry, 2007).

Real change came about when the actual practitioners — and their clients — stepped forward. Their definition of Design Thinking was closely tied in with defined processes and tangible artifacts they could point to while explaining their workflow. Tim Brown (2008), current CEO of IDEO famously introduced Design Thinking in the Harvard Business Review 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.” He then went on to explain the different phases IDEO uses to complete a Design Thinking project: Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. He explained how each phase leads to the next, and underpinned the process with specific examples from well-known industries. Finally, there was a distinct reference point, a process that could be discussed and applied.

This brought about an industry trend in which different schools of Design Thinking emerged with their own mix of methodologies and their own description of the ideal process. Stanford of design with their five phases (Figure 1), the Luma Institute with their three-tiered approach (Figure 2), or The British Design Council with the Double Diamond (Figure 3) are some of the best known examples.

Figure 1: Design Thinking process (nd)
Figure 2: Luma Institute Innovation System (nd)
Figure 3: Design Council Double Diamond (2015)

While at first sight these processes might appear very different, when we examine their descriptions and content there are quite some similarities between them. As various researchers have observed, (e.g. Beckman and Barry, 2007) all Design Thinking processes seem to “begin with analytic phases of search and understanding, and end with synthetic phases of experimentation and invention”. Similarly, Seidel and Fixson (2013) stated that while exact descriptions may differ, “three main methods are typically described: needfinding, brainstorming and prototyping.” However, not every interested party can be expected to read into the descriptions in this much detail. It can be concluded, then, that even though the individual processes and their visualisations helped considerably in popularising Design Thinking, the seeming variety of approaches weakens the transparency and credibility of the field.


This lack of integrity led to a wider sense of confusion and critique as Design Thinking became more popular (Kimbell, 2009; Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla and Çetinkaya 2013). And this didn’t just affect the academic field, it had direct implications for practitioners. Nussbaum, a former advocate of Design Thinking argues (2011), that these processes helped “package” and sell Design Thinking, but companies molded them to fit their own, linear way of working, thus rendering it useless. He proposes Design Thinking has served its purpose, and it’s time to move on to the next thing.

However, it could be argued that that is not what a designer would do, when faced with a problem. It’s far too easy to pronounce something is ‘dead’, instead of trying to fix the problem. Going back to the phases common in all design practices, a designer would start with understanding the problem. Nussbaum described that the fault lies within the adoption of the process by companies, not the process itself. Consequently, that is the issue that should be addressed instead of abandoning the discipline.

The issue of why companies turned Design Thinking into a linear process could be examined. It could be assumed that companies prefer predictability and being able to plan projects definitively. This then leads to questions like ‘How might we create a Design Thinking process that better caters to companies’ needs while still preserving its original merits?’

Even though he came from a different problem statement, five years after Nussbaum’s article Jake Knapp, design partner at Google Ventures arrived at a viable solution to this very question. In his book Sprint (Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz, 2016, p.17), he outlines a 5-day, intense process that is easy to implement for any business. It offers step by step instructions from the very beginning (how to assemble your team, rules of the workshops) to a defined end (validated solution prototype). Unlike the more vague Design Thinking processes, ‘Sprint’ is exactly 5 days, so it’s clear how to plan for it for companies. It has a detailed structure for every day, so it’s hard to alter it without being aware of the consequences.

Figure 4: The Design Sprint (2016)

It is a process structured around the needs of the companies who will use it. From help with selling it within the organisation down to scheduled “e-mail breaks” in the agenda, it is clearly something companies would find easy to adopt without modifying it to fit their needs to a point of uselessness.

It would be unreasonable to say that ‘Sprint’ in itself is the perfect solution to ‘The’ Design Thinking process. Even though Knaap suggests that the approach is suitable for almost any type of problem, it is clearly more tailored for projects where the problem space and challenges are already clearly defined. As it can be seen from the visual representation of the process (Figure 5), it heavily leans towards the second half of the traditional Design Thinking processes, focusing on ideation, prototyping and testing. A five day, one room process is evidently not ideal for discovery and understanding.

Figure 5: GV Design Sprints outline (2017)

It does, however, focus on the thing that can best sell Design Thinking: results. By focusing on getting to a prototype and testing it, ‘Sprint’ presents a clear process for a key component of Design Thinking. Prototyping, and the results from testing it are crucial, because they help justify and showcase the work within organisations.

The Future

Clearly, by itself, ‘Sprint’ is not the solution. However, it offers important insights into the kind of processes that are viable for companies, while still yielding invaluable results that would be unlikely to arrive to without Design Thinking. It is reasonable to suggest, then, that a viable future for Design Thinking, in terms of marketing it, should be to design a few complimentary processes with the user — in many cases, the companies — in mind.
Processes that are well defined, articulated, time-sensitive and take into consideration the realities of everyday business life.

What do think, though? (no, this last sentence was not part of my academic paper)


Beckman, S.L., Barry, M., (2007), Innovation as a Learning Process: EMBEDDING DESIGN THINKING. 50, pp. 25–56.

Boland, R., and Collopy, F. (2004), , Stanford University Press,Stanford, California

Brown, T. (2008) ‘Design Thinking’, , June 2008, pp. 84–95.

Johansson-Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J., Çetinkaya, M., (2013) Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures. , pp. 121–146.

Kimbell, L. (2009), Beyond Design Thinking: Design-as-Practice and Design-in-Practice, Paper presented at the CRESC Conference, Manchester

Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J. and Kowitz, B. (2016) , Bantam Press, London

Kolko, J. (2015)Design Thinking Comes of Age, September 2015, pp. 66–71.

Nussbaum, B. (2011), Available at: (Accessed 20 February 2018)

Seidel, V.P., Fixson, S.K., (2013), Adopting Design Thinking in Novice Multidisciplinary Teams: The Application and Limits of Design Methods and Reflexive Practices: Adopting Design Thinking in Novice Teams. 30, pp. 19–33.

Young, A. (2018), lecture notes, Design Thinking, Hyper Island, delivered 16. February 2018


Figure 1: (nd), Available at (Downloaded: 21 February 2018)

Figure 2: LUMA Institute (nd), , Available at: (Accessed 21 February 2018)

Figure 3: The Design Council (2015), Available at: (accessed 21 February 2018)

Figure 4: luke_keogh, (2016), . Available at: (Accessed 21 February 2018)

Figure 5: Skjoldbroder, (2017), Available at: (Accessed 21 February 2018)

Strategic Design Lead at, ice-cream eater, Hyper Island alumna (Digital Experience Design)