Design Thinking  | 4 MIN. READ

What Critics of Design Thinking are Missing

Nathan Waterhouse, October 9, 2018

What Critics of Design Thinking are MissingA few weeks ago Harvard Business Review published an article by NYU professor Natasha Iskander that talked about how design thinking is sometimes viewed as a “poorly defined” knock-off of real design.

This viewpoint has surfaced before. Many critics of design thinking strategies argue that it is “real design,” and that only true designers can, and should, do design.

As a trained designer, I understand this perspective. But I think the critics are missing the point.

There are many common misconceptions about design thinking that cause companies to miss out on the value it can bring because they look at it through the wrong lens. Here are a few misperceptions that come up a lot.

“It is fun to do a workshop, but it doesn’t drive meaningful change.” This is a common misconception that isn’t entirely inaccurate. We often see teams thrive in workshops then struggle to transfer the strategies to their workplace. But that isn’t because design thinking is flawed, it is how it’s being used. When organizations aren’t clear about their goals for design thinking, or they provide the training without the organizational changes needed to apply the lessons learned, then yes, it will have little effect on innovation. However, if companies enable design thinking practices to influence decision making the impact can be profound.

“It’s just watered down design created to steal designers’ jobs.” This one is entirely incorrect. Design thinking programs were never intended to turn accountants, engineers, and managers into world-class designers through a two-day workshop. These workshops we designed to give non-designer employees better problem-solving skills that help them understand and empathize with the customers so they can come up with innovative solutions that could disrupt the market.

These workshops also help change the culture of the organization — which is a direct benefit for designers. By giving employees a common language and set of behaviors around the design process they are able to understand what designers do and how they can contribute to the process.

“Design thinking only leads to incremental innovation.” First of all, there is nothing wrong with incremental innovation if that is your strategic goal. However, it is true that some companies are disappointed when their design thinking training doesn’t result into rapid and disruptive change. But, again that is not the fault of the method, but rather the execution. Most businesses are fraught with landmines that can blow up the best ideas, including managers who fear change, using old metrics to vet disruptive ideas, not giving employees the time and space to be innovative, and failing to link design to strategy.

Design thinking isn’t an isolated department or job title, it’s a new way of doing things that should be part of everyone’s daily lives. Unless companies create an environment where these concepts can flourish disruption won’t happen no matter how good the training is.

“Designers already know how to design, so what’s the point?” Design thinking isn’t about learning to design. It’s about teaching people to think like designers so they will make better decisions — and that should make designers ecstatic. Every department wants the leadership team to understand the value they bring to the organization. Teaching leaders how to do design thinking will make that happen. Instead of being told their ideas are unrealistic, leaders will get excited about their potential, and may even want to help the design team brainstorm ways to make them even better.

Don’t Listen to The Naysayers

There will always be critics of design thinking, and to me, that is just another sign that it is catching on.

Companies across industries are embracing design thinking methods to help them solve all kinds of problems because they need help figuring out how to put the customer at the center of the business. But it is important to remember that design thinking is a journey, and the training is only the first step. The organizations that embrace it as the new normal will find the disruptive ideas that they seek.


Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations.

Kickstart Innovation


Nathan Waterhouse is a keynote speaker and consultant on innovation and design strategy. At Treehouse Innovation he helps organizations grow their businesses through creating more human centred offerings in the world. Previously Nathan led new business ventures at world-renowned design and innovation firm IDEO. There he co-founded, a social impact community of over 200,000 people, across 190 countries, that collaborate online to tackle big systemic challenges in our society. Inspired by this experience, he also co-founded OI Engine, an award-winning software platform that helps corporations tackle tough challenges collaboratively, rather than in isolation.

Nathan is an expert in organization design and has led organization design programs facilitated workshops with hundreds of participants that have helped shift the innovation strategy for 250 year old organizations like Generali. He also helped create HackFWD, a tech startup incubator for Europe. He has also led innovation programs for ABInBev, IKEA, T-Mobile, VISA, and Vodafone, amongst others.

Recent Posts

Most Popular Posts

New call-to-action

Insights Straight To Your Inbox