Surprising insights, outliers, and privilege in design thinking

Whenever I read about design thinking, I find myself rolling my eyes… a lot.

If you’re new to the term design thinking, let me provide a brief description. Design thinking, often called human-centered design, is a process to solve problems and develop new products/ideas by helping designers to better understand the people for whom they are designing. Design thinking came into popularity in large part because of IDEO, a design consultancy founded by a merger of David Kelley’s design firm with two additional design firms based in London and San Francisco. Though the idea of design thinking preceded David Kelley and the establishment of IDEO (the term has roots all the way back to the 1960s), Kelley is seen as the godfather of the movement. In 2004, Kelley co-founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, more commonly referred to as the The human-centered design process, as advanced by IDEO, the, and others advances strategies for developing empathy/understanding, defining the problem you are trying to solve, ideating solutions, and rapidly prototyping/testing possible solutions to get input from stakeholders. The Wikipedia article for design thinking does a pretty good job of covering the basics, but feel free to search the interwebs for articles on “design thinking” and observe the high degree of enthusiasm people have for the methodology.

The article, “How To Solve Complex Problems With Design Thinking” elicited a particularly loud “oh good grief!” while I was sitting in my favorite coffee spot in Monterey last week. The author of the article happily announces, “In this article, I’m going to outline how (and why we think) design thinking is the perfect process for solving the worlds [sic] biggest problems.”

It’s hard not to be cynical when I read articles like that, or ones that propose “Why higher education needs design thinking” or “Could design thinking be the next liberal arts?”


Earlier this week, Bob Cole (MIIS Digital Learning Commons) and I did an introductory dive into design thinking for our Envisioning Middlebury Steering Committee. This is the group of faculty and staff who are helping to lead Middlebury’s strategic planning process. In addition to collecting a lot of input from the Middlebury community through surveys, focus groups, speaker series, and listening events, the committee has been investigating the usefulness of strategies like design thinking for envisioning and planning for the future of Middlebury. Ahead of their visit to Stanford’s later in the week, we provided a quick dive into the framework and led a discussion of what tools and approaches in design thinking could be helpful in a variety of Middlebury contexts–from the classroom, to the curriculum, to the Board room.

Bob and I started our planning for the workshop over breakfast one morning, only after we debriefed the current political and social climate in the U.S. I mention this because, in increasingly dark and troubled times, design thinking increasingly feels insufficient, superficial, and even silly. We wondered how far design can really go in addressing serious, complex, and devastating problems. Yes, we’ve seen the case studies of lives being saved through design. Water sources being designed to better support communities with little access to clean water. We have witnessed design thinking based projects giving voice to young people, giving them access to decision makers in their communities. But how far can design thinking really take us in dealing with complex issues like structural racism, abuse of power, corruption? When I think about that, I get the same icky feeling as when I read that Trump put Jared Kushner in charge of bringing lessons from the corporate world to overhaul governmental agencies.

After Bob and I deliberated the conditions of our hearts and souls, we began planning the workshop. We’ll take them through the design process quickly, we said, so they have a basic understanding of its structures, tools, and mindsets. Some of these are quite helpful. I have always appreciated the playfulness of design thinking–it can help cut through some of the ways and places we get stuck. How it untethers us from the usual ways we make decisions and forces us to pay attention to the humans at the center of our designs. I love its strategies for divergent thinking–from interviewing/listening/drawing for empathy, How Might We statements, and various approaches to ideating. And the qualitative researcher in me finds the “surprising insights” part of design thinking—when you look for outliers and unexpected insights—to be an important part of inquiry that often gets overlooked by our tendency toward the mean.

So, see, good stuff, right?

But after our quick tutorial on design thinking, Bob and I began setting up The Questioning. Design thinking is an accessible methodology, often useful and exciting. But it may be too simple, too easy to wield carelessly. It can create or reflect an orientation to solutionism. Some design thinking enthusiasts rigidly push the process and the end-of-process-solution. Brian Ling wrote, “design thinkers that have not been classically trained in design ‘doing’ will likely not realize that great innovative solutions don’t come at the end of the process; they come from any part of the process.”

Design thinking may miss the mark in capturing and designing for complexity, especially when it comes to designing for social problems. The empathy work often surfaces the complexity of human problems, but can leave those behind as designers fall in love with the solutions. Design thinking can feel like colonialism. Enter privileged White people to impose post-it note solutions on our community’s problems. Beyond obscuring or under-recognizing structural inequities at the heart of problems, and beyond not requiring problem-solving enthusiasts to see their own privilege, it may create new problematic power dynamics rather than helping address the liberatory needs of populations oppressed by structural inequities. (helpful article from Copernicus Consulting on similar issues with design thinking in corporate/management scenarios)

I am concerned about the promotion of design thinking to “disruptive agent” in higher education.’s interview with SMU Professor Kate Canale showed how easily people move from design thinking having a helpful role in students’ learning to “solving” higher education’s greatest problems that, frankly, may be too complex for design thinking. Canale starts with a statement with which I agree (mostly):

“Design is poised to make a huge impact in higher ed. There are two ways this can happen–first, as a tool for students’ learning. There’s so much talk about preparing students to solve problems that the world can’t yet imagine, but how are we going to do that? Design is a wonderful framework for promoting the skills that leaders and innovators need, including things like empathy, collaboration, persisting through failure, and comfort with ambiguity. So that’s one way.”

Then, this:

“The second way is as a disruptive force. To me, an industry is ready to be disrupted when one of three things happens: it outgrows its business model; its offer is no longer appealing to its customer base; or technology has pushed it out of relevance. All three of those things are happening in higher ed right now. As an industry, higher ed is going to shift, either from the inside or the outside. Probably both. I believe design will play a major role in that shift.”

Higher education’s biggest problems are deep, complex, and rooted in social inequities that are at the foundation of our society. I don’t mean to say that design thinking cannot provide useful tools, but I worry that its surface-level solutionism works against our willingness to dig into the real meat of problems.

What happens if design thinking in education leads us to address the wrong problems, to design for the wrong issues? What will happen if we aren’t critical in our approaches to higher education’s problems, and we don’t deal with issues of power? Look around for a sec, and whisper to yourself, “How White is design thinking? How privileged?” Now sit up a bit and ask more loudly, “How White-centered are our current approaches to fixing issues in higher education? How privileged?”

Anti-sleeping spikes in storefront window by Kent Williams (CC BY 2.0)

The conversation we had with the Envisioning Middlebury Steering Committee, deconstructing and questioning the design thinking mindset, encouraged us to wonder if design thinking wasn’t disruptive to liberal arts education, but rather if liberal arts education was disruptive to design thinking. Discuss.

I want to recognize here that there are people and organizations who are doing design thinking differently to try to address the issues raised here. Creative Reaction Lab is one such program. You can see the difference in their approach in their description of the “Design to Better [Our City]” program:

“Through the immersive school year program, participants will learn about Black and Latinx history, current events, and racial and economic disparities, the impact on their daily lives, and the power of community engagement. Then, in partnership with local residents, the students will co-create solutions (directly addressing a systemic issue the community deems a priority) to pilot in their city. In Design to Better [Our City], participating youth will not just work in the classroom, but also work within their local communities — from community canvassing (in which community members share their ideas for building healthier, more inclusive neighborhoods) to pop-up design labs.”

I also want to acknowledge that the biggest proponents of design thinking / HCD have heard these criticisms and have started to incorporate more strategies for addressing them. IDEO, for example, added an ideation strategy called Co-Creation Strategy. Their description: “The purpose of a Co-Creation Session is to convene a group of people you’re designing for and then bring them into the design process. You’re not just hearing their voices, you’re empowering them to make alongside you.” That sounds like an improvement. Of course, the statement is followed by: “You can co-create services, investigate how communities work, understand how to name your solution, or what its logo should look like. Not only is a community far more likely to adopt a practice or service that it helped create, but you’ll also gain valuable insight into all facets of your solution.”


Amy Collier

2 Responses to “Surprising insights, outliers, and privilege in design thinking

  • Amy Morsman
    5 years ago

    I loved your thoughts, Amy, and the way you wrote about them. It was a pleasure diving into Design Thinking with you and Bob last week in Monterey, and your blog post has helped me retain the best of the discussions we had about the strengths and multiple weaknesses of this approach. I’ll carry the hilarious photo of Clinton & Obama around in my mind as I continue thinking about this and other matters related to higher education, strategic planning, and the broader crazy world we are inhabiting. Thank you.

  • This article articulates something important that I couldn’t put a finger on. Design thinking by outside organizations can be used to help a community, but the buzz around that progress can feel like a self-congratulatory pat on the back while systemic inequalities silently worsen.

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