Design Thinking: What’s so different about it? Design Thinking isn't like anything we've seen before. Here's why.

Design Thinking has been gaining steam over the past few years. The popular visualisations of the framework seem obvious and intuitive – which begs the question, what is so different about it?

The answer to that lies in what’s different about in our world today. In the words of Eddie Obeng:

“The real 21st century around us isn’t so obvious to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists… Companies make their expensive executives spend ages carefully preparing forecasts and budgets which are obsolete or need changing before they can be published.”


We’ve all seen the three lenses of Design Thinking, you know the one I’m talking about. The Venn diagram of Desirability, Feasibility and Viability, and at the intersection, the holy grail of Innovation/User Experience/Design Thinking/(insert own phrase here).


When I first looked at this, I had two questions:

  1. How is this so different from the way businesses have been functioning thus far?
  2. How have they survived these past several years, if they haven’t been taking into consideration all these factors?

The answers to these questions are buried in the complex world we have seen evolve in front of us over the past couple of decades – primarily due to technology: Internet, Smartphones, Wearables, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, 3D Printing…

Image Source: Flickr (Chris Moore)
Image Source: Flickr (Chris Moore)

The information age
In traditional business context, customers were represented by broad demographics, example 18 – 25 years, urban, male etc. Market research was driven by a need to validate business decisions, and communication revolved around pushing marketing information.

With the introduction of smartphones, qualitative, location-based data is available to businesses, and that too, in real time – the sort of data that simply wasn’t possible to gather earlier. Businesses now have access to more specific information about ‘users’, as compared to the generic ‘market’. And with it, new businesses have sprung up, offering a larger variety of products/services catering to different types of users.

The social media effect
In the past, communication between businesses and customers was a one-way street. Not so anymore. With internet and communication technologies, customers are more connected with each other, and with businesses.

They can reach out to businesses directly and have platforms to share opinions in real time, thus giving them the ability to influence other customers.

In April 2017, a video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines plane created a world-wide sensation. The impact of those few minutes being caught on a smartphone continues to be felt by the Airlines, more than a year on – according to a survey, consumer perception of United stood at -6.9 compared to 17 in the days before the incident (on a scale of -100 to 100). Source: MarketWatch

Aside: The far-reaching consequences of social media extend beyond business, into governance, having positive, as well as negative consequences. Examples include the Arab Spring, which eventually led to turmoil in the middle east, the failed military coup in Turkey and the US Presidential elections. While significant in the context of our times, for the purposes of this post, we’ll restrict the scope of impact to businesses.

Image Source: Popular Mechanics
Image Source: Popular Mechanics

Advances in technology and processes
Apart from information technology, manufacturing processes are also seeing radical changes. While on the one hand automation is streamlining existing production lines, 3D printing has turned the process of subtractive manufacturing on its head – from economies of scale with mass production, to a perfectly feasible production line of one.

In 2015 Local Motors created the world’s first 3D printed car, opening up the possibility of safer, recyclable cars.

“Thanks to the nature of 3D printing, where the car is built in layers squirted from the nozzles of a massive printer, you can embed energy-absorbing crash structures or superstrong seat-belt mounts that are anchored deep in the body. You could bond springy bumpers to cushion pedestrian impacts… And if you managed to catastrophically damage the tub, you could unbolt the motor and suspension, melt the car down, and print a new one.”

More companies are adapting this technology, and 3D printed cars are likely to hit the roads in 2019.

Put them all together
The factors listed above are significant in their own right. Put all these together, and we have given rise to disruptive business models, given customers more choices, and made predicting the future uncertain.

Photographic film development has shrunk considerably with the arrival of digital photography. Ride-sharing services have created jobs for drivers, but they may be jobless in the near future thanks to autonomous vehicles.

And there’s more. Actions of one industry may impact unrelated industries. A rainy weather forecast may ‘scare away clients’ of car wash companies.

Coming back to the two questions I had at the beginning. I mentioned that the answers lie in our new world.

Earlier, businesses operated in a very different world that exists now. They operated in a world where desirability didn’t need to be accounted for. The market could be created and validated without involving end users. And even those that did take a step in that direction, the context of our current and uncertain future make past experience of conducting business inadequate.

What Design Thinking brings to the table
What Design Thinking does, can perhaps be explained by what it does not do.

  • Design Thinking does not replace existing business methodologies and systems.
  • It does not substitute experience.
  • It is not a body of knowledge or skills to be mastered (and perhaps it cannot be).
  • It is not a set of rules or a codified process that guarantees anything. Design Thinking cannot yield magical results by itself; it is not a magic ship that businesses can board and reach the promised land.

Design Thinking acts as the metaphorical bridge between our lessons from a very different (now irrelevant) past, and what lies ahead in the uncertain future by providing a framework for understanding and catering to customer needs; seeking new alternatives; and facilitating innovation.

Read more on Ideafarms’ Design Thinking Practice »

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The author is a consulting designer & design thinking facilitator with Ideafarms. An avid storyteller, she enjoys connecting disparate dots to create stories.

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