Is Design Thinking Dead? I don't think so, and here's why.
A few articles posted on LinkedIn and journal publications have asked, Is Design Thinking Dead! A person’s response to this question will likely vary based on perspective, experience, and context. To begin, a person would need some knowledge of Design Thinking and its history to determine its decline or death.
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When it comes to context, perhaps some aspects of the industry are experiencing a decline in the number of private consultants promoting and teaching design thinking workshops and experiencing an increase in new (or repackaged) design, creativity, and innovation methods. Much of my work in design thinking is in education, where I loosely use a collection of frameworks to promote the concept of Teacher Creativity (a little more on this at the end).
Design Thinking as a Mindset
Regarding perspectives of Design Thinking, I have always taught and approached it as a mindset that promotes a collection of principles. The mindset perspective differs from Design Thinking as a methodology, which supports a sequence of procedural steps designers must undertake in response to an ill-defined (or wicked) problem (e.g., empathy, clarification, ideation, etc.).
I understand there are specific industry standards for approaching problems, and often, these standards are proven and ingrained as part of the professional community’s culture. Some of these communities may have adopted and since moved on from Design Thinking.
In education (or specifically technology classrooms and innovation spaces), I still occasionally see or hear references to popular Design Thinking methods, but many seem to have moved toward crafting a sequence of unique steps with some notable names representing familiar steps in Design Thinking but also some less familiar.
So, as a methodology, we are likely seeing a decline in the reference and adherence to the popular steps known to many as Design Thinking. As early as 2019, I began wrestling with using the words design thinking because I was increasingly concerned that many people did associate it with a specific methodology, and therefore, I was at risk of making my work sound dated when there was an inevitable movement toward the next shiny thing.
However, as a mindset design thinking remains highly relevant across various fields and contexts; design thinking is a collection of principles promoting data use to inform how we solve real-world solutions. Through research, we gather more information about the context of the problem and think critically about that information; we learn to check assumptions and make every effort to prioritize the needs and wants of an intended audience. As we develop and implement our initial ideas, we identify measurable goals and utilize data to validate our success at reaching those goals. t
Now, to transition these principles to teaching and learning, I will start by advocating for a sociocultural perspective to this discussion. Sociocultural theories ask us to consider the environmental factors influencing creativity and our capacity to engage in the creative process. We might want to promote divergent thinking or risk-taking as part of an experimental development phase, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment is conducive to participating in either successfully.
Failure to consider the impact of environmental factors is one reason why Design Thinking (and other creative problem-solving methods) is not always successful – especially in education. It’s another reason why I am more inclined to promote Improvement Science over Design Thinking as a creative methodology in education, as it acknowledges that any approach to a problem or implementation of a solution requires a person on the team with knowledge of the environment (e.g., a teacher), which might differ from district to district, school to school, and in my work classroom to classroom.
For this reason, teachers and administrators in education must remain in control over their creative process and how each principle manifests in practice. As a mindset, design thinking is about working within the problem’s constraints, including the limitations in your environment, and learning how to identify what opportunities exist to be creative. Once you determine these factors, you can decide if the conditions are right to apply design thinking principles to your process.
Teachers are the Creative Directors
At the very least, one important principle to consider is using your understanding of your classroom and your students to support clarification of a problem. Another principle is recognizing that your classroom contains different groups of students with varying needs and wants. If you are opting to generalize and speculate you are likely veering away from design thinking. You must also utilize data to select and validate ideas to stay within other core design thinking principles.
However, not adhering to these principles or choosing to drop them for other new approaches doesn’t mean that design thinking is dead or useless; it simply reminds us that there are many ways to approach problem-solving, and not all must conform to design thinking and design thinking principles.
As I conclude on the topic of is design thinking dead; a recent comment on my LinkedIn post reminded me that this discussion might be a branding problem, as opposed to an issue with the methodology. I also was reminded that some of the best creative approaches take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which is exactly what I do when I work with schools to facilitate teacher creativity. Ultimately, the teacher is the creative director in the classroom, which puts them in charge of the process.
Teachers are designers. We even have a related field of study called instructional design. Design is about solving problems and solving problems within the constraints of a box. That’s why teachers must think inside the box.
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As a mindset, design thinking remains highly relevant across various fields and contexts; design thinking is a collection of principles promoting data use to validate ideas and inform how we solve real-world problems.