Design Thinking Misses the Mark

Article by Anne-Laure Fayard & Sarah Fathallah: “Nonprofits, governments, and international agencies often turn to design thinking to tackle complex social challenges and develop innovative solutions with—rather than for—people. Design thinking was conceptualized by designer Nigel Cross more than four decades ago, notably in the 1982 Design Studies article Designerly Ways of Knowing.” The approach was later packaged for popular consumption by global design and innovation consultancy IDEO. Design thinking quickly became the go-to innovation tool kit in the for-profit world—and, soon after, in the international development and social sectors—because of its commitment to center communities in the collaborative design process.

IDEO’s then-CEO Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, who was then lead of the IDEO social innovation group that became, championed design thinking for the social sector in their 2010 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Design Thinking for Social Innovation,” which has become an important reference for design thinking in the social sector. Embraced by high-profile philanthropists like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cofounder Melinda Gates and Acumen founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz, design thinking soared in popularity because it promised to deliver profound societal change. Brown even claimed, in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, that design thinking could improve democratic capitalism.

However, design thinking has not lived up to such promises. In a 2023 MIT Technology Review article, writer and designer Rebecca Ackerman argued that while “design thinking was supposed to fix the world,” organizations rarely implement the ideas generated during the design-thinking process. The failure to implement these ideas resulted from either an inadequate understanding of the problem and/or of the complexities of the institutional and cultural contexts…(More)”.