Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong?
When Kyle Cornforth first walked into IDEO’s San Francisco offices in 2011, she felt she had entered a whole new world. At the time, Cornforth was a director at the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit that uses gardening and cooking in schools to teach and to provide nutritious food. She was there to meet with IDEO.org, a new social-impact spinoff of the design consulting firm, which was exploring how to reimagine school lunch, a mission that the Edible Schoolyard Project has been working toward since 2004. But Cornforth was new to IDEO’s way of working: a six-step methodology for innovation called design thinking, which had emerged in the 1990s but had started reaching the height of its popularity in the tech, business, and social-impact sectors.
Key to design thinking’s spread was its replicable aesthetic, represented by the Post-it note: a humble square that anyone can use in infinite ways. Not too precious, not too permanent, the ubiquitous Post-it promises a fast-moving, cooperative, egalitarian process for getting things done. When Cornforth arrived at IDEO for a workshop, “it was Post-its everywhere, prototypes everywhere,” she says. “What I really liked was that they offered a framework for collaboration and creation.”
But when she looked at the ideas themselves, Cornforth had questions: “I was like, ‘You didn’t talk to anyone who works in a school, did you?’ They were not contextualized in the problem at all.” The deep expertise in the communities of educators and administrators she worked with, Cornforth saw, was in tension with the disruptive, startup-flavored creativity of the design thinking process at consultancies like IDEO.org. “I felt like a stick in the mud to them,” she recalls. “And I felt they were out of touch with reality.”
That tension would resurface a couple of years later, in 2013, when IDEO was hired by the San Francisco Unified School District to redesign the school cafeteria, with funding from Twitter cofounder Ev Williams’s family foundation. Ten years on, the SFUSD program has had a big impact—but that may have as much to do with the slow and integrated work inside the district as with that first push of design-focused energy from outside.
Founded in the 1990s, IDEO was instrumental in evangelizing the design thinking process throughout the ’00s and ’10s, alongside Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design or “d.school” (which IDEO’s founder David Kelley also cofounded). While the methodology’s focus on collaboration and research can be traced back to human-factors engineering, a movement popular decades earlier, design thinking took hold of the collective imagination during the Obama years, a time when American culture was riding high on the potential of a bunch of smart people in a hope-filled room to bend history’s arc toward progress. Its influence stretched across health-care giants in the American heartland, government agencies in DC, big tech companies in Silicon Valley, and beyond. City governments brought in design thinking agencies to solve their economic woes and take on challenges ranging from transportation to housing. Institutions like MIT and Harvard and boot camps like General Assembly stood up courses and degree programs, suggesting that teaching design thinking could be as lucrative as selling it to corporations and foundations.
Design thinking also broadened the very idea of “design,” elevating the designer to a kind of spiritual medium who didn’t just construct spaces, physical products, or experiences on screen but was uniquely able to reinvent systems to better meet the desires of the people within them. It gave designers permission to take on any big, knotty problem by applying their own empathy to users’ pain points—the first step in that six-step innovation process filled with Post-its.
We are all creatives, design thinking promised, and we can solve any problem if we empathize hard enough.
The next steps were to reframe the problem (“How might we …?”), brainstorm potential solutions, prototype options, test those options with end users, and—finally—implement. Design thinking agencies usually didn’t take on this last step themselves; consultants often delivered a set of “recommendations” to the organizations that hired them.
At the same time, consultancies like IDEO, Frog, Smart Design, and others were also promoting the idea that anyone (including the executives paying their fees) could be a designer by just following the process. Perhaps design had become “too important to leave to designers,” as IDEO’s then CEO, Tim Brown, wrote in his 2009 book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Brown even touted as a selling point his firm’s utter absence of expertise in any particular industry: “We come with what we call a beginner’s mind,” he told the Yale School of Management.
This was a savvy strategy for selling design thinking to the business world: instead of hiring their own team of design professionals, companies could bring on an agency temporarily to learn the methodology themselves. The approach also felt empowering to many who spent time with it. We are all creatives, design thinking promised, and we can solve any problem if we empathize hard enough.
But in recent years, for a number of reasons, the shine of design thinking has been wearing off. Critics have argued that its short-term focus on novel and naive ideas has resulted in unrealistic and ungrounded recommendations. And they have maintained that by centering designers—mainly practitioners of corporate design within agencies—it has reinforced existing inequities rather than challenging them. Years in, “innovation theater”— checking a series of boxes without implementing meaningful shifts—had become endemic in corporate settings, while a number of social-impact initiatives highlighted in case studies struggled to get beyond pilot projects. Meanwhile, the #MeToo and BLM movements, along with the political turmoil of the Trump administration, have demonstrated that many big problems are rooted in centuries of dark history, too deeply entrenched to be obliterated with a touch of design thinking’s magic wand.
Today, innovation agencies and educational institutions still continue to sell design thinking to individuals, corporations, and organizations. In 2015, IDEO even created its own “online school,” IDEO U, with a bank of design thinking courses. But some groups—including the d.school and IDEO itself—are working to reform both its principles and its methodologies. These new efforts seek a set of design tools capable of equitably serving diverse communities and solving diverse problems well into the future. It’s a much more daunting—and crucial—task than design thinking’s original remit.
The magical promise of design thinking
When design thinking emerged in the ’90s and ’00s, workplaces were made up of cubicles and closed doors, and the term “user experience” had only just been coined at Apple. Despite convincing research on collaboration tracing back to the 1960s, work was still mainly a solo endeavor in many industries, including design. Design thinking injected new and collaborative energy into both design and the corporate world more broadly; it suggested that work could look and feel more hopeful and be more fun, and that design could take the lead in making it that way.
When author and startup advisor Jake Knapp was working as a designer at Microsoft in the 2000s, he visited IDEO’s offices in Palo Alto for a potential project. He was struck by how inspiring the space was: “Everything is white, and there’s sunlight coming in the windows. There’s an open floor plan. I had never seen [work] done like that.” When he started at Google a few years later, he learned how to run design thinking workshops from a colleague who had worked at IDEO, and then he began running his own workshops on the approach within Google.
Knapp’s attraction was due in part to the “radical collaboration” that design thinking espoused. In what was a first for many, colleagues came together across disciplines at the very start of a project to discuss how to solve problems. “Facilitating the exchange of information, ideas, and research with product, engineering, and design teams more fluidly is really the unlock,” says Enrique Allen, cofounder of Designer Fund, which supports startups seeking to harness the unique business value of design in industries from health care to construction. Design thinking offered a structure for those cross-disciplinary conversations and a way to articulate design’s value within them. “It gave [your ideas] so much more weight for people who didn’t have the language to understand creative work,” says Erica Eden, who worked as a designer at the innovation firm Smart Design.
It makes a good story to say there’s a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.
For Angela McKee Brown, who was hired by SFUSD to help bring the work IDEO had done on improving the school cafeteria to reality, the design thinking process was a language that bureaucracy could understand. In a district that had suffered from an overall lack of infrastructure investment since the 1970s, she watched as IDEO’s recommendations ignited a new will to improvement that continues today. “The biggest role that process played for us was it told a story that showed people the value of the work,” McKee Brown says. “That allowed me to have a much easier job, because people believed.”
The enthusiasm that surrounded design thinking did have much to offer the public sector, says Cyd Harrell, San Francisco’s chief digital services officer, who has worked as a design leader in civic technology for over a decade. Decades of budget cuts and a lack of civic investment have made it difficult for public servants to feel that change is possible. “For a lot of those often really wonderful people who’ve chosen service as a career, and who have had to go through times where things seem really bleak,” she says, “the infusion of optimism—whether it comes in the guise of some of these techniques that are a little bit shady or not—is really valuable.” And it makes a good story to say there’s a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.
Ideas over implementation
Execution has always been the sticky wicket for design thinking. Some versions of the codified six-step process even omit that crucial final step of implementation. Its roots in the agency world, where a firm steps in on a set timeline with an established budget and leaves before or shortly after the pilot stage, dictated that the tools of design thinking would be aimed at the start of the product development process but not its conclusion—or, even more to the point, its aftermath.
When Jake Knapp was running those design thinking workshops at Google, he saw that for all the excitement and Post-its they generated, the brainstorming sessions didn’t usually lead to built products or, really, solutions of any kind. When he followed up with teams to learn which workshop ideas had made it to production, he heard decisions happening “in the old way,” with a few lone geniuses working separately and then selling their almost fully realized ideas to top stakeholders.
Execution has always been the sticky wicket for design thinking.
In the government and social-impact sectors, though, design thinking’s focus on ideas over implementation had bigger ramifications than a lack of efficiency.
The “biggest piece of the design problem” in civic tech, says Harrell, is not generating new ideas but figuring out how to implement and pay for them. What’s more, success sometimes can’t be evaluated until years later, so the time-constrained workshops typical of the design thinking approach may not be appropriate. “There’s a mismatch between the short-cycle evaluations [in commercial design] and the long-cycle evaluations for policy,” she says. For longtime public servants, seeing a project through—past implementation and into iteration—is crucial for learning and improving how infrastructure functions.
In a 2021 piece on the evolution of their practices, Brown, along with Shauna Carey and Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO.org, cited the Diva Centres project in Lusaka, Zambia, where they worked to help teens access contraception and learn about reproductive health. Through the design thinking methodology, the team came up with the idea of creating nail salons where the teens could get guidance in a low-pressure environment. The team built three model sites, declaring the work a success; the Diva Centres project won a Core77 Service Design Award in 2016, and the case study is still posted on IDEO.org’s website. But while the process focused on generating the most exciting user experience within the nail salons, it neglected to consider the world outside their walls—a complex network of public health funding and service channels that made scaling the pilot “prohibitively expensive and complicated,” as the IDEO.org leaders later wrote. Though IDEO intended to build 10 centers by 2017, neither IDEO nor the partner organization ever reported reaching that milestone. The article does not say how much money or time went into realizing the Diva Centres pilot before it ended, so it’s not clear if the lessons learned were worth the failure. (IDEO.org declined to be interviewed for this story.)
IDEO’s 2013 work for SFUSD—the project that McKee Brown later worked on from the school system’s side—has a more complicated legacy. After five months, IDEO delivered 10 recommendations, including communal dining tables, vending machines with meals to grab on the go, community food partnerships for fresher produce, and an app and interactive web portal to give students and families more opportunities to participate in lunch choices. (The food itself was a different issue that the district was working on with its vendors.) On IDEO’s website today, the story concludes with SFUSD’s “unanimous enthusiasm” for the recommendations—a consultancy happy ending. Indeed, the project was met with a flurry of fawning press coverage. But with hindsight, it’s clear that only after IDEO left the project did the real work begin.
At SFUSD, McKee Brown saw instances in which IDEO’s recommendations did not take into account the complexities of the district’s operations and the effort it could take to even drill a hole in a wall in accordance with asbestos abatement rules. The vending machines the team proposed, for instance, would need a stable internet connection, which many target locations didn’t have. And the app never came to fruition, McKee Brown says, as it would have required a whole new department to continually update the software and content.
An analysis a few years after IDEO’s 2013 engagement showed that about the same number of kids or even fewer were choosing to eat school lunch, despite a continuous increase in enrollment. This may have had several reasons, including that the quality of the food itself did not significantly improve. The original goal of getting more kids to eat at school would eventually be met by an entirely different effort: California’s universal school meal program, implemented in 2022.
Nevertheless, IDEO’s SFUSD project has had a lasting impact, thanks to the work the district itself put into transforming blue-sky ideas into real change. While few of the recommendations ended up being widely implemented in schools exactly as IDEO envisioned them, the district has been redesigning its cafeterias to make the spaces more welcoming and social for students—after sometimes decades of disrepair. Today more than 70 school cafeterias out of 114 sites in the city have been renovated. The design thinking process helped sell the value of improving school cafeterias to the decision makers. But the in-house team at SFUSD charted the way forward after many of IDEO’s initial ideas couldn’t make it past the drawing board.
Empathy over expertise
The first step of the design thinking process is for the designer to empathize with the end user through close observation of the problem. While this step involves asking questions of the individuals and communities affected, the designer’s eye frames any insights that emerge. This puts the designer’s honed sense of empathy at the center of both the problem and the solution.
In 2018, researcher Lilly Irani, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, wrote a piece titled “Design Thinking: Defending Silicon Valley at the Apex of Global Labor Hierarchies” for the peer-reviewed journal Catalyst. She criticized the new framing of the designer as an empathetic “divining rod leading to new markets or domains of life ripe for intervention,” maintaining that it reinforced traditional hierarchies of labor.
Irani argued that as an outgrowth of Silicon Valley business interests and culture, design thinking situated Western—and often white—designers at a higher level of labor, treating them as mystics who could translate the efforts and experiences of lower-level workers into capitalistic opportunity.
Former IDEO designer George Aye has seen Irani’s concerns play out firsthand, particularly in settings with entrenched systemic problems. He and his colleagues would use the language of a “beginner’s mindset” with the clients, he says, but what he saw in practice was more an attitude that “we’re going to fumble our way through and by the time we’re done, we’re on to the next project.” In Aye’s view, these consulting engagements made tourists of commercial designers, who—however sincerely they wanted to help—made sure to “get some good pictures standing next to typically dark-skinned people with brightly colored clothes” so they could produce evidence for the consultancy.
Today in his own studio, which works only with nonprofit organizations, Aye tries to elevate what’s already being created by a local community, advocate for its members to get the resources they need, and then “get out of the way.” If designers are not centering the people on the ground, then “it’s profit-centered design,” he says. “There’s no other way of putting it.”
McKee Brown considers one of the greatest successes of the San Francisco cafeteria redesign project to be the School Food Advisory (SFA), a district-wide program in which high schoolers continually inform and direct changes to meal programs and cafeteria updates. But the group wasn’t a result of IDEO’s recommendations; the SFA was formed to ensure that SFUSD students would continue to have a voice in the district and a chance to collaborate often on how to redesign their spaces. Nearly a decade after IDEO completed its work, the best results have been due to the expertise of the district’s own team and its generations of students, not the empathy that went into the initial short-term consulting project.
As she’s continued to work on food and education, McKee Brown has adapted the process of design thinking to her experiences and team leadership needs. At SFUSD and later at Edible Schoolyard, where she became executive director, she developed three questions she and her team should always make sure to ask: “Who have you talked to? Have you tried it out before we spend all this money? And then how are you telling the story of the work?”
What’s next for design thinking?
Almost two decades after design thinking rose to prominence, the world still has no shortage of problems that need addressing. Design leadership and design processes themselves need to evolve beyond design thinking, and that’s an arena where designers may actually be uniquely skilled. Stanford’s d.school, which was instrumental in the growth of design thinking in the first place, is one institution pushing the conversation forward by reshaping its influential design programs. Within the physical walls of the school, the design thinking aesthetic—whiteboards, cardboard furniture, Post-its—is still evident on most surfaces, but the ideas stirring inside sound new.
In fact, the phrase “design thinking” does not appear in any materials for the d.school’s revamped undergraduate or graduate programs—although it still shows up in electives in which any Stanford student can enroll (and a representative from the d.school claims the terms “design” and “design thinking” are used interchangeably). Instead of “empathy,” “make” and “care” are the concepts that program leaders hope will shape the design education across all offerings.
In contrast with empathy, care demands a shift in who is centered in these processes—sometimes meaning people in generations other than our own. “How are we thinking about our ancestors? What is the legacy that this is going to leave? What are all the intended and unintended consequences?” says academic director Carissa Carter. “There are implications no matter where you work—second-, third-order consequences of what we put out. This is where we are pulling in elements of equity and inclusion. Not just in a single course, but how we approach the design of this curriculum.”
The d.school’s creative director, Scott Doorley, who has been with the school for over 15 years, has begun to hear the students themselves ask for fundamental shifts like these. They’re entering the programs saying, “I want to make something that not only changes things, but changes things without screwing everything else up,” Doorley says: “It’s this really great combination of excitement and humility at the same time.” The d.school has also made specific changes in curriculum and tools; an ethics course that was previously required at the end of the undergraduate degree program now appears toward the beginning, and the school is providing new frameworks to help students plan for the next-generation effects of their work beyond a project’s completion.
For the Design Justice Network, a collective of design practitioners and educators that emerged out of the 2014 Allied Media Conference in Detroit, slowing down and embracing complexity are the keys to moving practices like design thinking toward justice. “If we truly want to think about stakeholders, if we want to have more levels of affordances when we design things, then we can’t work at the speed of industry,” says Wes Taylor, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a DJN leader.
IDEO’s practices have been evolving to better address that complexity. Tim Brown says that toward the beginning of the company’s life, its unique power was in bringing together different design disciplines to deliver new ideas. “We weren’t looking particularly to help our clients build their own capabilities back then. We were simply looking to do certain kinds of design projects,” he says.
Now, when the questions being asked of designers are deeper and more complicated—how to make Ford a more human-centered company rather than how to build a better digital dashboard, he gives as an example—IDEO leaders have recognized that “it’s the combination of doing design and building the capabilities [of IDEO’s clients and their communities] to design at the same time where the real impact can happen.” What this means in practice is much more time on the ground, more partnerships, and sometimes more money. “It’s about recognizing that the expertise is much more in the hands of the user of the system than the designer of the system. And being a little bit less arrogant about knowing everything,” says Brown.
IDEO has also been building new design capabilities within its own team, hiring writers and filmmakers to tell stories for their clients, which Brown has come to see as “the key activity, not a key activity” for influencing change in societal systems. “If you had asked me 10 to 15 years ago,” he says, “I would never have guessed that we would have as many folks who come from a storytelling background within a design firm as we do today.”
Indeed, design thinking’s greatest positive impact may always have been in the stories it’s helped tell: spreading the word about the value of collaboration in business, elevating the public profile of design as a discipline, and coaxing funding from private and public channels for expensive long-term projects. But its legacy must also account for years of letting down many of the people and places the methodology claimed it would benefit. And as long as it remains in the halls of consultancies and ivory-tower institutions, its practitioners may continue to struggle to decenter the already powerful and privileged.
As Taylor sees it, design thinking’s core problems can be traced back to its origins in the corporate world, which inextricably intertwined the methodology with capitalistic values. He believes that a justice lens can help foster collaboration and creativity in a much broader way that goes beyond our current power structures. “Let’s try to imagine and acknowledge that capitalism is not inevitable, not necessarily a foundational principle of nature,” he urges.
That kind of radical innovation goes far beyond the original methodology of design thinking. But it may contain the seeds for the lasting change that the design industry—and the world—need now.
Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer, and artist based in San Francisco.