In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Natasha Iskander, NYU Wagner Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Service, declares that “Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo”. Understandably, the article drew some pretty strong reactions. Iskander makes some good points and highlights some of the misgivings of many pragmatic design thinking practitioners i.e. design thinking is not clearly defined, design thinking is a re-branding of old methods, many of the benefits of design thinking are anecdotal. None of these concerns are new and have been shared many times before including here. However, what concerns me most is the assertion that Design Thinking preserves the status quo and protects the powerful. Both of these assertions undermine the philosophy and goals of design thinking which seeks to democratise the design process through values of participation, equality, and, most importantly, challenging “what is?” and asking “what could be?”.
My experience has been that design thinking has allowed me to engage with people and organisations regardless of status. I’ve worked with hierarchical, conservative organisations where tools such as journey mapping and stakeholder mapping provided the ultimate level playing field. Design Thinking is a challenge to the status quo. Sure, we don’t change the world every time but normally everybody walks away with a much deeper understanding of the people they are designing for. As a researcher who places a premium on engaging with industry, DT has provided an effective collaboration framework. There is no doubt that we are experiencing the equivalent of Design Thinking’s very own “Dutch Tulip Mania”. Going forward we will see lots of examples of Design Thinking being offered as a solution to problems which it is ill equipped to deal with. We’ll also see misappropriation of the method and countless failed projects. None of these development undermine Design Thinking but perhaps they will engender a more pragmatic approach going forward.