Not another ‘is design thinking dead?’ blog post

We need to look further than approaches and methodologies to help us futureproof our solutions

Now, to be clear this is not a ‘is design thinking dead?’ post, in fact it’s more of an ode. With maybe a little history added. 

An awful lot of good things have come out of design thinking, much of it has informed our current approaches, user-centred design (UCD), and Agile methodologies. Over the years we’ve seen design embedded in both public and private sector organisations, as demand has increased, and spread literally and successfully across the globe. 

My very first experience of design thinking was when I joined the design consultancy IDEO back in the mid-noughties. I’d never heard of design thinking, or IDEO, nor had I heard of service design, but I rolled up my sleeves, got stuck in, it all made perfect sense. Loved it.

I’m now Head of Service Design at dxw, and I’m writing this towards the end of 2023, having recently heard that IDEO, as well as a significant number of tech companies have sadly been laying off staff. This is interesting because design thinking, which became IDEO’s DNA, emerged as an effective way to address the human, technical and organisational innovation needs. So what gives?

A little history

Design Thinking, the extension of innovation that allows you to design solutions for end users with a single problem statement in mind, emerged in the 1950s and 60s. It was swiftly followed by the identification of ‘wicked problems’ in the 1970s, and the rise of human-centred design in the 1980s. 

Fast forward and this brief history contributed to the design approaches adopted and adapted by the Government Digital Service (GDS) back in 2010-ish. Its user-centred practices, which some of our team here helped develop (and have been discussed in a previous post), have been continually refined for designing better services, often using technology, for the public good. Their success can be seen now, with design embedded across central and local governments, municipalities, communities, worldwide.

At the same time there’s been an increase in: 

We’ve also seen a phenomenal growth in those joining the design community who did not want a career designing posters and logos, or ads for booze, cars and credit cards. Or maybe, for those like me who did that kind of work (because, back in the day, there was no alternative) it presented an opportunity to shift focus to more closely align with their values, which became too attractive a prospect to ignore.

Failing economies, technological advances, the climate emergency, geopolitical turmoil and population growth mean that our world is in constant flux. So we need to keep adjusting our public and corporate responses. 

Why the sketchy history lesson? Because we should learn the rules so you know how to break them properly? – Dalai Lama. Or that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it? – Churchill. I’m not suggesting such an explicit connection, but this is our history. This is what has led design in directions that have spread way past ornament, communication, and one too many chairs, to be the force for good and the catalyst of change that it is today. Our history continues to deliver the hope of a brighter future.

So has it gone wrong for design thinking? 

Er no. But the truth is that all organisations and businesses need to reflect on what’s working and what’s not, innovate and move forward, (of course even standing still, you risk moving backwards). Failing economies, technological advances, the climate emergency, geopolitical turmoil and population growth mean that our world is in constant flux. So we need to keep adjusting our public and corporate responses. 

Case in point – the recession of 2008 led to drastic reductions in public budgets, and local authorities had to deliver the same services for less. By adopting the then emerging citizen-centred approaches, some realised they could actually deliver better services for less. This is the world that design is now operating in.

One criticism levelled at design thinking was that it never really addressed execution and implementation. Or at a systemic level, how to fund the change, instead of being the ‘design theatre’ as some critics have labelled it.

Change, change, change

If design agencies practice what they preach, they recognise and value perpetual change. Design as a thing itself, and where it sits amongst the commercial and public sector has changed too, as the object of design has shifted, manifesting in some visible and significant ways.

We’ve seen the rise of the design team within the large consultancy and IT firms alongside, and integrated into, their traditional transformation practices. 

We’ve seen a significant rise of in-house teams across the whole of the commercial sector, in part because of the shift to digital, as well as in-house teams in central and local government and the third sector who continue to embrace digital to deliver ‘better for less’.

Whole tranches of our industry could not function without the rise (again) of contractors, freelancers, networks of friends, and the associated agents and supporting services. We’re now also seeing the return of tiny agencies, 2-3 people, often from those large agencies, working together more efficiently and cost-effectively (it feels like the 90’s all over again).

And an increasing number of design agencies are becoming employee owned, as indeed we are, in part to retain that precious independence.

Back to now

For us here at dxw, creating public services which improve people’s lives is what brings us together as a commercial business to design, deliver and maintain public services. And we, in turn, benefit from this rich, recent history. We can, and do address complex problems (even if not quite ‘wicked’ by definition, but still darned tricky). Ones that our clients can’t address by themselves because of a shortage of skills and capabilities, or simply not having enough people. 

Maybe the most interesting changes are not in the tools that we so readily focus on, or our methodologies and approaches to innovation and improvement. Maybe we should be paying more attention to the most valuable of resources, the humans, and how we think, behave and work together for change.

For example, supporting the MoJ in housing prisoners on parole to help reduce the risk of reoffending. And raising awareness of air quality in London boroughs. Delivering solutions to these problems would not be possible without our multidisciplinary teams (of often T-shaped people, something else IDEO evangelised), and our focus on users, the technology and the organisation. We’d be back in the pre-1950s without widespread:

We’re all good right?

So what’s next?

With the wheels of change spinning faster and faster, and our landscapes continually shifting, we must keep reflecting on what we do and how we do it, and be comfortable with the necessary change.

What are the shiny new things we need to deal with now? 

Our brave new world saw data as the new oil, now it’s all about AI and its as yet unknown impacts. Never forgetting the not-so-bright things we need to deal with. It’s a long list and let’s not kid ourselves, design and design thinking whether it’s user or planet-centred, can only be part of the solution.

Maybe the most interesting changes are not in the tools that we so readily focus on, or our methodologies and approaches to innovation and improvement. Maybe we should be paying more attention to the most valuable of resources, the humans, and how we think, behave and work together for change. 

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

Amongst other things I’m thinking about the agency those we are designing for have (or don’t have) in ‘our’ design process. Of course we should be designing with, not for, but maybe they should be doing the designing, right? All too often it seems co-design takes place with ‘experts’ in hackathons and sprints, as it’s easy to skip working with end users, their lived experiences and relationships, as that can be challenging. 

Next comes the removal of our (often) white middle-class university-educated bias from the equation. Or at least understanding the power that we, and those terrible algorithms, wield. This means going back to basics and remembering that we are not the user and that special focus needs to be brought when designing with and for particular needs and disabilities

We need to be more genuinely inclusive instead of tokenistic, and pay attention to all differences, be that amongst our users, or other beneficiaries and audiences of the services we design and build. We can do this by taking an equity-centred approach, as we did in this project, and by not forgetting to apply this to our workplaces too.  

Do No Harm may sound like common sense, but not exposing anyone or anything to additional risks through our actions, is something we need to pay attention to more than ever. 

The somewhat startling first law of systems thinking states that ‘Today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions’’. What bad seeds are we sowing now for tomorrow’s citizens to face the consequences of? Design is inherently about the future, so we’re duty-bound to, as far as possible, future proof our solutions.

There are many more changes to be made, some within our control, some not. Some attractive, some fiendishly challenging, some transient and one-off, others longer lasting. Some obvious, many invisible. Change is that constant.

Where does this leave us? These brief examples are not new methodologies to replace those that have gone before. Design thinking still works I’d argue, as a principle, as a starting point but it’s not enough. Nor is Agile enough. We need more ways to help us define our new business as usual, and I’m suggesting that mindset, attitude and behaviour might just be good places to start.

What I think is certain is that we must keep on reflecting, reviewing and revising our thinking and doing in the context of everything going on around us, make that the priority, and in turn continue to write our histories. What makes sense for you may be different from what makes sense for me, and that’s OK. A little tension, some experimentation and continued curiosity for the new can only be a good thing.