First, a disclaimer: Design is not a fad. What I discuss here is the movement called “Design Thinking”, that very often does not represent the work of serious designers. And I am not alone on this critique. Even strong evangelists of Design Thinking agree that its time is over.
A fad is “a set of ideas that suggest a quick fix for a management problem – a simple solution that all organizations can embrace, to make employees more productive, happier customers or greater profits” (Miller et al, 2004). Many fads do not always serve the essence of the business and show little or no profound effect on the performance of organizations, without generating the desired results. Some claim that there are cases of companies that were successful because of a fad, but it is rarely possible to prove that it was the fad that caused the effect, and not some other factor.
When a fad leaves the scene, what remains is the disappointment and the costs of implementation that did not bring any desired results. In addition, following each new fad, such as Design Thinking, can cause distraction from what really matters in the business, confuse people and generate cynicism.
What are the evidences that prove that Design Thinking is a fad?
Design Thinking has some common fad characteristics, such as:
- It consists of simple ideas, easy to explain and understand
- Promises too much
- Fits any problem
- Can be implemented in an incomplete or partial way
- It is aligned with the “spirit of the times”
- It’s a new packaging for an old idea
- Gains legitimacy through renowned gurus or companies
- It is presented in an articulate, memorable way, full of enthusiasm
Below I comment on each evidence.
Evidence #1. It consists of simple ideas, easy to explain and to understand
Design Thinking, like other fads, is made up of small concepts used to convey a fundamental message. Some fads simplify the matter by pointing to clear differences, archetypes or perfect contrasts, such as
- Before and After,
- Today x Tomorrow,
- User Focus x System Focus, etc.
Or they reduce complex ideas, tasks or situations to a very small number of factors, dimensions and characteristics.
Fads propose short lists of key factors to worry and act on, promising economic or emotional salvation. The simple ideas of Design Thinking seduce because they reduce mental effort, taking little time to be absorbed and understood by the brain, being easily communicated even to laypeople. Of course, simplicity is one of the reasons why the fad is short-lived. Simplicity works in a simple world. But few business managers are lucky enough to live in that world.
Evidence #2. It promises too much
Design Thinking authors write about the spectacular successes that have come about by adopting the practices they advocate. But the actual results are generally pale compared to what was promised. (Look at this epic fail of IDEO’s design thinking applied to the problems of a small city, Gainesville).
Evidence #3. It fits any problem
Design Thinking suggests that the proposed practices work in all areas, organizations, cultures, whether in small or large multinational companies, business or cities. The universality of Design Thinking theory makes it easier to be accepted. It can be applied anywhere, whether in a hospital, church, public agency, Apple or a local bakery. Managers are motivated to use this theory because they do not have to worry about complications that may arise from the fact that their organizations are not the same as others where Design Thinking was applied.
Evidence #4. It can be implemented in an incomplete or partial way
Due to its simple and “handyman” character, Design Thinking cannot be explicit or complete in its recommendations or implementation criteria. Many supporters of Design Thinking make generic, vague suggestions about what to do, encouraging superficial and “ritualistic” adoption.
Design Thinking has the ability to be implemented in “pieces”, or in a shallow way. Any practices that involve high expenditures or redistributions of power are generally rejected, so fads avoid recommending them. The changes proposed by Design Thinking can be implemented quickly and easily, without threatening personal powers.
The lack of an exact description of what Design Thinking’s results are expected helps in this superficiality of execution. Design Thinking generally does not explain when the execution was considered successful. There is no indication that people will demonstrate the expected attitudes, whether they will be able to overcome political issues or whether they have enough power to change the status quo.
Superficial changes generated by Design Thinking allow managers to believe that they are being modern and progressive, while avoiding political conflicts within the organization. The changes suggested by Design Thinking are not very profound, are located in one or two departments, or fail to change the way the company performs its basic tasks.
There are meetings, new positions, some committees and some new buzzwords. But everything continues as before. The superficiality of the changes makes them much easier to digest. Those who have power continue to do things the same way, while claiming that they are using the most current management techniques.
Workers know that things are not going to change, at least for now. Given the limited scope and impact of changes, and their sporadic assimilation, expressive results are unlikely. Before it takes too long, managers realize that Design Thinking has real costs, but few benefits, and things go back to the same way they were before. And people become cynical waiting for the next “fad”.
Evidence #5. It is aligned with the zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”)
The fads are in line with current management problems, responding to challenges that are felt by many and are discussed openly. Fads offer solutions to problems that are on everyone’s mind. However, they tend to respond more to current concerns than to fundamental challenges.
Evidence #6. It’s a new package for an old idea
Design Thinking is not really a new thing, but a re-discovery or re-packaging of old ideas, values and approaches. It is old wine in a new bottle.
Proponents of Design Thinking can take old ideas and reformulate them to add appeal, perhaps by using simplification, memorable examples and new technical terms. Another rhetorical feature that dramatizes the novelty is the contrast between the old and the new.
Design Thinking acts on beliefs that managers have had for a long time: employee motivation, achievement, success, efficiency, opportunity, engagement. But they rarely change the status quo in ways that require significant redistribution of power or resources.
Evidence #7. It gains legitimacy through renowned gurus or companies
Design Thinking gains legitimacy through the status and prestige of its proponents, such as IDEO, d.School, Stanford, to name a few, without any solid empirical evidence. The stories of corporate heroes and organizational successes serve as role models. Proponents of Design Thinking are helped by stories from companies that have soared or famous executives who have embraced new practices. However, many success stories involve analyses of what has already happened, which attribute positive results to Design Thinking, which in fact had no impact. (And some gurus are jumping ship, seeing Design “Sinking”, like Bruce Nussbaum)
Evidence #8. It is presented in an articulate, memorable way, full of enthusiasm
Design Thinking is presented in an instigating, passionate, vivid and sometimes even extreme way. The problems are catastrophic, and the solutions are almost perfect.
The writer who speaks about Design Thinking may be a consultant or an academic with practical experience, but he is almost never a person with experience as a manager. While a writer’s expert status can confer legitimacy, this is rarely enough to create a fad. To be influential, the text must be stimulating, in a lively and eloquent way, with unforgettable stories, organized schemes and an active and personal voice. Books or people who create fads are good to read or listen to.
However, ideas chosen for their ability to entertain often do little to meet organizational needs. Unlike fads, classical theories do not emerge from the writings of academics or experts, but from practitioners’ responses to economic and competitive challenges.
So, how should managers react to Design Thinking if it is a fad? They must be constructively skeptical. They can use questions to test whether it is worth following a fad:
- What evidence is there that Design Thinking can produce positive results? Are the arguments based on stories with moral lessons or solid evidence from many companies that have been monitored over time?
- Did the approach work for similar companies like yours, which face similar challenges?
- Is the approach relevant to your company’s priorities and strategies?
- Is the board specific enough to be implemented? Do we have enough information about the challenges that will arise in the implementation, and how should we deal with them?
- Is the advice practical for our company, taking into account our capabilities and resources?
- Is it possible to assess the costs and rewards that we will achieve?
A last word: Again, as I said in the beginning of this article, we should differentiate Design Thinking from Design itself. Design is not a fad. You don’t need to worry about the end of Design itself since it is much stronger than a temporary fad.