What's Next for Design Thinking?

7 thoughts from across the industry on the future of creative problem solving

A client recently asked me, “so what’s next for design thinking?” I shared some thoughts on systems thinking and talked about using virtual reality as an empathy-building tool, and then the conversation continued on to other topics.

The question stuck with me over the ensuing days. More thoughts continued to flow, and I had some great conversations on the topic. I decided to email some friends of mine who are practitioners of design thinking in some way so I could get their perspective as well. What follows is an assortment of our thoughts on what’s next for design thinking.

But first, I want to question the question. Design thinking, at its core, is a method of a broader discipline of creative problem solving. And at some point in the last few decades, design thinking was what was next for creative problem solving. So this post is partly about what’s next for design thinking itself, and partly about what’s next for creative problem solving more broadly.

If you’re a seasoned practitioner of design thinking who is part of creating what’s next, some of these topics may seem more like what is. If you’re new to design thinking or are just getting comfortable with it, what follows may be a bit more out there (perhaps some combination of exciting, inspiring, and overwhelming). Regardless of where you stand on the mindful-to-masterful spectrum, the following will (and must) all play a role in the future of creative problem solving.

Systems thinking

Today’s world is a vastly more connected and interdependent system than it ever has been. Information flow is effectively instantaneous, and many of the resulting feedback loops - the fundamental drivers of the behavior of any system - are far more influential and sometimes less apparent than ever before. Since everything is so tightly coupled and driven at least as much by external relationships as by internal characteristics, rarely will one small change in one part not have potentially significant (and maybe negative) consequences across the whole system of which it is part.

I’ve touched on the intersection of design thinking and systems thinking before with what I call stakeholder-centered design, which I define as the combination of human-centered design with systems thinking in order to identify and design for the highest impact humans — the most significant leverage points — in your product’s ecosystem. It’s the discipline of identifying the needs and interests of each stakeholder in the ecosystem and lifecycle of your product or service and then designing for the most influential one(s). This requires consideration not only of individual stakeholders but also of how stakeholders interact and influence one another.

But applying a systems lens to design thinking is more than just stakeholder-centered design. It’s about understanding as many elements as we can within the system of our product, service, or business: stakeholders, relationships, root causes, incentives, feedback loops, and so forth.

My friend Thomas Both at Stanford’s d.school authored a post in Stanford Social Innovation Review last year on “Human-Centered, Systems Minded Design” in which he explains:

A human-centered approach has its shortcomings. You might create solutions that address the symptoms of a problem, but in turn overlook opportunities to address root causes of the problem. You could get preoccupied with solving for human needs that are not highly impactful. You might overlook downstream consequences of your creations—not only for your beneficiaries, but also for other stakeholders or society as a whole...The scope of your project—how deeply you delve into underlying causes—will dictate whether a solely human-centered design approach is appropriate.”

Design thinking needs systems thinking, and vice versa, in order to identify and deliver the most appropriate and circumspect solutions. They’re complementary tools that are each appropriate for part of your problem finding, framing, and solving process. One should be used when the other starts falling short. From Thomas: A key to benefitting from both human-centered and systems thinking methods is moving back and forth between the two. One lens may answer new questions we discovered through the other lens.

You wouldn’t use a contractor’s power tools to perform laparoscopic surgery, and you wouldn’t use surgical tools to build a house. The challenge for you as a designer, when it comes to complex problems, is to identify where on the spectrum from building a house to performing surgery - or the spectrum from systems thinking to design thinking -  is the line where you need to switch to a different set of tools.

Resilience thinking

Some design solutions are perfect. The problem is that ‘perfect’ is subjective, and it depends on a very important question: perfect for what? The Maginot Line, an impenetrable wall built by the French to deter German attacks in the years leading up to WWII, was a perfect solution for the very specific and assumption-laden problem it was designed to solve. But it’s an iconic failure because it didn’t solve the right problem - the broader problem of defending France from attack. (The Germans essentially went around it.) So if we want to design solutions that are resilient - that is, solutions that withstand inevitably changing circumstances - we need to think outside the spatial and temporal boundaries of the problem we’re solving right here and now.

In General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams, he explains that to engage resilience thinking, designers must “accept the reality that they will inevitably confront unpredicted threats... Resilient [solutions] are those that can encounter unforeseen threats and, when necessary, put themselves back together again.”

And in their book Resilience Thinking, environmentalists David Salt and Brian Walker caution against prioritizing efficiency over resilience:

Humans are great optimizers. We look at everything around us, whether a cow, a house or a share portfolio, and ask ourselves how we can manage to get the best return. Our modus operandi is to break the things we’re managing down into its component parts and understand how each part functions and what inputs will yield the greatest outputs…[but] the more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that system’s resilience. A drive for efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.

So in many cases, our drive to design the best solution for the specific problem we’ve identified may work against us when we zoom out to a larger scope or time scale.

The design thinking mindset continually asks, “Are we solving the right problem?” The resilience thinking mindset continually asks, “How useful will this solution continue to be as the problem space evolves?”

To bring resilience thinking into your creative problem solving practice, take time to understand the broader problem space in which you’re working rather than just the problem you’re tasked with solving. McChrystal’s advice in Team of Teams is to “recognize the inevitability of surprises and unknowns - and concentrate on [solutions] that can survive and indeed benefit from such surprises.” And as you develop your solution, do what you can to continually “poke holes” in it. Use “What if…” questions to explore hypothetical scenarios that may arise and threaten the viability or usefulness of your solution.

Humanity-centered design

Design thinking is built primarily upon two pillars: human-centered design and rapid prototyping. When it comes to the former, a relentless focus on the user is a major reason why design-driven products and services tend to be so successful. But as we move into a future full of questions about climate instability, roller coasters of international tensions, and continually growing inequality, we need to start thinking bigger.

Enter humanity-centered design.

Humanity-centered design embraces the mindset that what isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee. It’s world of designing solutions focused not just on doing the most good for an individual human, but also for the larger community of humans at large. How large of a community you choose to focus on is up to you.

In a recent Harvard Business Review Review article on “Business in the Age of Mass Extinction,” author Andrew Winston highlights the enormous impact that our economic machine has had and continues to have on our environment and biodiversity. Without those two things, humans won’t last long no matter how nice our products are to use.

Lisa Kay Solomon, another friend at the Stanford d.school, describes a similar mindset in her article, The Case for Futures-Centered Design: In futures-centered design, the future (or a range of possible futures) is the focus of the attention — not at the exclusion of humans but in service of understanding how external changes might influence the world in which they live. Without taking the long view, our solutions may not last long either.

[If you’re thinking that humanity-centered design is still too focused on us as humans and not focused enough on Earth itself, consider this point from late comedian-philosopher George Carlin.]

While bringing humanity-centered design into your work may sound daunting, it starts with just a few simple questions. Ask: “How might we make this solution work for everyone, in addition to working for our target user?” Or more broadly, “How might we balance human-centered design with humanity-centered design to design and deliver products, services, and experiences that provide a stellar user experience while also supporting a sustainable future?”

Inclusive Design

At a recent Diversity Innovation Forum in Los Angeles, Dr. Aaron Bruce shared the following: “If you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.” Fortunately, it’s becoming more common for practitioners to ask (and answer) questions like “Are we involving the right people in this collaboration?” or “Whose voice needs to be part of this project?” or “Who might this solution be neglecting, and how might we fix that?”

In this way, creative problem solving is evolving to be not just a “how,” but a “who” as well.

Research findings continue to pour in emphasizing the importance of diversity in innovation. And it just makes sense, too: if innovation is rooted in creativity - the development new ideas - then having a wider range of sources, backgrounds, perspectives, thought styles, and so forth is desirable.

When we talk about inclusive design, we can divide our focus into two primary categories: being inclusive of our collaborators and being inclusive of our users. The former is the more prevalent topic in business: ensuring diversity of a project team to leverage different perspectives and backgrounds. The latter focuses on designing with and for a broad enough set of users to minimize or eliminate the possibility that you’ll leave someone out. Magical Bridge Foundation is an excellent example of inclusive design at work.

So how do you do inclusive design? Ask yourself the questions at the beginning of this section. Study unconscious bias and its effects on design and innovation. Check out Microsoft’s resources on inclusive design. And if designing for everyone feels overwhelming or antithetical to that core tenet of human-centered design that tells you not to design something that’s “everything for everybody,”, consider designing exclusively for an extreme user like the elderly or the physically disabled. Chances are a solution that works for them will work for everyone else, too.

The Designer’s Self-awareness

From my friend Katie Levine, Strategy Director at SYPartners:

“I'm not sure this is what's next for design thinking, but I suppose it's something I'd like to be next. What if we were to include a new step in the process related to self awareness—a moment of personal reflection and team sharing about our own identities so that together we can surface some of the gaps and biases that may spring from them. Because even when we've crafted a great problem statement, our generative process and ultimate choices are limited by our own experiences and our abilities to truly empathize and imagine.

“By stepping back early in our work to humbly remind ourselves of our own limitations—keying in on who we are and aren't—before really digging in, it gives us the opportunity to individually and collectively acknowledge the blind spots and ingrained preferences that we might be bringing to the process. Maybe that makes us deepen our ethnography practices. Or ask a few new questions in our prototyping. Or select new and more varied collaborators. Especially that last part. A step like this would require creating a safe space within the team—another valuable, and for many people, new practice. But a worthy one.

“Ultimately, this is just another way to get beyond our limitations to innovate. And with the importance and magnitude of the innovations happening now in AI, machine learning, and other areas of tech, it seems an especially vital time to check this aspect of our creative process.”

Mastering the POV

Shifting attention away from problem-solving and instead placing more emphasis on problem-finding and problem-framing is a core part of what makes design thinking unique and what leads to its success. In fact, one out of the five steps of the classic design thinking process is dedicated to DEFINE. In this step, we synthesize all our empathy, research, and discovery work into a concise and concrete statement of need - what we call a point-of-view - that highlights the human need you’ve identified and decided to address.

But writing a really good point-of-view statement is hard. Shockingly hard.

First of all, most of us aren’t particularly ‘need-literate’ - we haven’t spent much time or effort learning what it means to really talk about human needs. Second, crafting a POV requires us to commit to one need to address, one problem to solve; many of us struggle when it comes to making a tough decision like that. Third, there can sometimes be a perception of sanctity when it comes to POVs, resulting in thoughts like “We have to get this right” or “This is going to be our guiding principle forever;” such thoughts can cripple progress. Finally, our problem-framing mind has received far less education and practice than our problem-solving mind throughout our lives.

My friend Louis Topper, Director of Product at Massdrop and fellow Stanford d.school alumni, thinks one solution is more educational resources dedicated to mastering POV writing:

Most people struggle to consistently write good POVs - myself included. From time to time I create something that feels poetic. Since that is the art of design thinking - framing the problem appropriately - I guess we need more ‘design poetry’ lessons. More courses dedicated to just POV writing. Like the old art salons in Paris except for designers & POV development.

Einstein famously said that if he were given 60 minutes to solve a really tough problem, he’d spend the first 55 minutes defining it because then he’d only need 5 minutes to solve it. In a recent 2-day design sprint, we spent most of the first day focused on problem finding and framing. So while 55-5 isn’t quite the typical ratio in design or product development, it’s worth asking yourself, “Am I spending enough time defining the problem? Am I sure I’m solving the right problem in the first place?” And it’s worth us all asking, as a society heavily focused on problem-solving as a currency, “Are we spending enough [time/energy/money] educating our people on problem-framing?”

There’s a reason there’s a whole step dedicated to DEFINE. Are you spending enough time there?


Back to Basics

From my friend Ashish Goel, founder of Playbook Design:

“For me, it isn't about what's next, but what's already there and has gotten lost in all the din about design thinking. Design thinking has been around the block a bit: it's been celebrated, maligned, modified, dissed, sold, packaged, and whatnot. Everyone's heard about it, maybe even done a workshop or two, or even spent years studying it (like me) but then you forget about using it. So instead of wondering what's next, I wish people really dwelt in the basics a bit more! They're superpowers!”

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This is surely not an exhaustive list of all of what’s next for design thinking. What do you see down the road? What are you working on?