Design thinking isn’t dead, it’s just no longer adland’s shiny new toy

As the early adopters sound the death knell, Orchard’s Kim Verbrugghe says design thinking isn’t headed for the grave just yet. It’s simply hit its peak and is facing an inevitable backlash, as is the case for all industry trends that burn brightly.

When I joined Orchard earlier this year, we established Human Centered Design (HCD) as our single process across all strategy work. So you can imagine my frustration when articles and LinkedIn posts started popping up saying design thinking was dead.

My first thought was: “How am I going to explain this to the team?”

So let me tell you what I told them.

Design thinking –  a methodology that calls on the principles of design to find innovative solutions to problems – isn’t dead. It’s just that this thing that was once new, shiny and sparkly isn’t so new, shiny and sparkly anymore.

In this industry fuelled by buzzwords and fast trends, there’s a life cycle we’ve all witnessed time and time again. A buzzword comes along championed by a couple of innovators. Then the thing becomes popular and everyone starts doing it. So the innovators say it’s dead.

In a roundabout way, this is how agencies came to adopt design thinking in the first place.

In essence, we aren’t doing things that differently but once upon a time, we used to have the planning process which then became widely known as strategy. Then agencies everywhere claimed they were doing innovation. Now, it’s design thinking which is really only one of the many innovation methodologies out there.

The reasons behind why this was rebranded are plentiful. For starters, there’s been a change in the type of briefs we get from clients. Another reason is that the industry has recognised that we need to have a common language around our practices.

The inevitable backlash

What we’re seeing right now is an inevitable backlash for poor old design thinking.

You can split the people behind the “it’s dead” movement into two categories. The first is people who love brand and have a solid advertising background. Then there’s those who have built entire businesses around design thinking and innovation.

The people in the first camp see design thinking as forgetting about brand influence and solely focusing on user behaviour improving the user journey to the point where services and products all start to look homogenous.

It’s a valid point to make, since this is exactly where ad agencies can set themselves apart from service design agencies: through the deep understanding of brand. But the methodology can still be applied in the context of what a brand stands for.

Those in the second group were likely the first to embrace design thinking and are now seeing it become a simplistic view of problem-solving. They’re witnessing people using it as a flashy one day client workshop with the assumption that the best ideas are going to come out of it. This simplified application devalues the process of understanding or testing with the user which takes time if you want to unearth genuine insights.

These detractors raise a valid point. There is worth in pointing out a methodology’s limitations. Design thinking is just a toolbox with set ‘gateways’, but there is flexibility around which of the tools you use to get through the gates. Most people who use it add their own spin to the process. We borrow some exercises or frameworks from here and there to make it work and that’s perfectly acceptable.

I can’t help wondering if the real motivation here is to shut down the “fast followers”, the waves that piled on after the early adopters did.

The dangers of beating on design thinking

Of course, design thinking isn’t the first industry tool people have said was dead. Take the creative brief. There’s been a lot of talk about that in the past. Many agencies have tried to ideate more ‘loosely’ and then have come back to accept the creative brief as a great tool. People still use it and see value in it.

I believe there’s a danger in trash talking industry practices. The effects are felt right across the industry as it kills the confidence of clients and team members who use it. Headlines decrying the death of a practice tell people it this isn’t worth their time, that it’s irrevocably flawed and they’ll feel foolish even exploring it.

But you only need to look at famous examples such as the creation of the first usable computer mouse which was delivered for Apple by one of the pioneers of design thinking. Sure, a whole lot has changed since 1980 when that happened but the fundamental principles remain the same.

It’s worth remembering it’s all about how you use it. If you don’t get what you need out of it, don’t blame the tool, blame the user. Is design thinking dead or is it the design thinker who’s dead?

Kim Verbrugghe is the head of strategy at independent digital agency Orchard.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing