Is design thinking fundamentally conservative? Or have conservative institutions caught on to design thinking?

A response to Natasha Iskander’s article in Harvard Business Review

In the September 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, NYU professor Natasha Iskander argues that design thinking is “fundamentally conservative and preserves the status quo.” She gives several reasons for this claim. These include:

  • Design thinking is poorly defined as a methodology,

  • It’s a marketing ploy for expensive consultants,

  • It’s a new name for an old method, and

  • It fundamentally privileges designers, and other elites who keep the power over the creative process

Lee-Sean Huang and David Colby Reed ponder: “Is design thinking just some creative conservative conspiracy to preserve the status quo?”

Lee-Sean Huang and David Colby Reed ponder: “Is design thinking just some creative conservative conspiracy to preserve the status quo?”

Ok. You got me. I am a (sometimes expensive) consultant who teaches and facilitates design thinking. I think Natasha has some valid points, but I also think that it is helpful to reframe the question:

Is design thinking fundamentally conservative? Or have conservative institutions caught on to design thinking?

Design Thinking as Trojan Horse

The following scenario is a pattern that I often see in my work:

My team and I conduct a training or facilitate a design thinking process to help an organization innovate.

We start with a bit of what we call “creative cross-training.” We push the participants a bit out of their comfort zones with some warm-ups and ice-breakers. Awkward hesitation turns into genuine smiles and giggles. Playing with the boundaries of established norms can be fun!

We emphasize the importance of empathy. After some coaching, we get our clients to leave the building and talk directly to potential customers and stakeholders, observing them where they live, work, and play.

When we reconvene, we help them make sense of what they saw and heard. We interpret and distill some insights to (re)frame the problem.

We encourage them to come up with lots of ideas to address the problem. We ask them to defer judgement and criticism of the ideas, however “out of the box” they may be. We make a mess out of Post-Its.

A concept for reimagining urban infrastructure, from a community co-design session led by  Foossa .

A concept for reimagining urban infrastructure, from a community co-design session led by Foossa.

We play with craft supplies and LEGO bricks to build prototypes of the ideas that they have developed. The participants even get to engage in some role-playing to present their prototypes and to make them come to life.

At this point, it’s not about the fidelity or the craftsmanship of the prototypes, it’s about the meaning that we give them from the stories that we develop together about them. This kind of low-fidelity prototyping is meant to be inclusive, giving more kinds of people the chance to physically communicate their ideas, regardless of “elite” crafting skills.

Then we debrief this first iteration of the design thinking process. Somebody raises their hand to reflect and ask for clarification, “so this design thinking thing is fun and great and all, but it’s pretty similar to the scientific method, but the big difference that I see is starting with empathy.”

If “start with empathy” is a key take-way from an introduction to design thinking, then I feel like we have successfully moved the needle a bit. I agree that “empathy” alone can be problematic and still fraught with issues of power and privilege. But we have to start somewhere.

All too often, we see organizational cultures that incentive a narrow vision of “problem solving.” See a problem and deal with it as quickly and as efficiently as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but sometimes organizations rush into solving the wrong problems or creating solutions waiting for problems.

If we can get people in positions of power to pause, focus on better identifying and understanding real human needs and to reconsider and reframe what problems they are really trying to solve, then I will also take that as a win.

If we can harness the “buzz-wordiness” of design thinking to start conversations with organizations about fostering empathy and encouraging problem reframing (rather than rushing into problem solving), I will happily seize the opportunity.

At worst, design thinking workshops are a kind of short-term creative retreat for busy professionals. Come play, have fun, and be “creative” for a bit. Then back to grind of business as usual.

But design thinking can be a kind of Trojan Horse strategy that opens the doors to deeper and more meaningful conversations.

Once we are in the door and have built up some trust, we can work up to the conversations about making the design process more democratic. We can deconstruct power and privilege in the design process. We can talk about taking radical risks with social innovation.

It’s a matter of good facilitation, trust-building, and follow-through. Start with simple, then open up to tougher conversations over time.

The Design Double Diamond: Finding the right problem is half the battle

The Design Double Diamond: Finding the right problem is half the battle

But what happens next? Institutional inertia.

Design thinking can make an opening for deeper conversations about power and participation, but I also admit that there is the danger that design thinking is used as kind of fairy dust of creativity to otherwise conservative cultures.

Everyone says that they want innovation, but few institutions are naturally set up for it culturally and structurally. Institutional inertia is inherently conservative.

Let’s continue our scenario:

The design thinking workshop or sprint ends. The team comes up with ideas that actually have legs. They are worth exploring further. But there is a gap between excitement over an idea on a sticky note and actually taking action to invest in developing, prototyping, and testing ideas.

When there is a lack of creative courage, analysis paralysis creeps in. Most organizational cultures have a “conservative” tendency to minimize uncertainty to ensure survival.

How much financial risk can we take on? Is this a good use of staff time to “fail forward”? What’s the ROI on this “play” stuff? How can we justify paying these consultants so much if we don’t know what the final outcome will be and if it will work?

We don’t know. That’s the inherent risk in innovation. And there is a risk that organizations adopt the methods of design thinking without fully integrating the mindsets of design thinking into their culture.

The ideation and the prototyping gets compartmentalized as a kind of “innovation theatre.” Those are some novel new ideas, but really, we will just go back to what we know. Slow and steady. Status quo.

The powers that be will sanction a few fun workshops, but ultimately, the status quo will feel more comfortable and safe. The methods of design thinking make sense conceptually and intellectually, even if they are pretty vague. But the mindsets of “designerliness” are too foreign, too “creative” to fully work themselves into the organization’s cultural DNA.

Change is hard. That’s why change management exists.

As designers, we also have to think and act as cultural change agents. We have to understand organizational psychology, we have to position ourselves as coaches and mentors, we have to make the case for investing in the process.

Let’s talk about power.

Now let’s return to Natasha Iskander’s HBR piece, where she claims that design thinking protects the powerful:

Both design thinking and the rational-experimental approach implicitly establish problem solving as the remit of the powerful, especially when it comes design for social ends. They turn the everyday ability to solve a problem into a rarified practice, limited only to those who self-consciously follow a specialized methodology.

If that is actually happening in practice, then we need to do better as practitioners. For me, the intention behind sharing and teaching design thinking is to make the process of design and creativity MORE inclusive.

I often tell my students that design thinking is SIMPLE, but not EASY. It is simple to explain and understand conceptually, but requires a lot of time to build intuition and the ability to facilitate it effectively and with the kind of sensitivity to power and privilege that Natasha mentions in her article.

I think Natasha may be assigning design thinking too much agency. Design thinking is a method and a mindset. It’s a tool. It doesn’t inherently have the agency to protect the powerful or to preserve the status quo. It’s the people who practice design thinking who may do so.

You can practice design thinking for good or for evil. Blame the practitioners not the tools.

Perhaps the “poorly defined” nature of design thinking is also part of its power. It may be a buzzword and B.S. but it can be useful B.S. Simplicity and vagueness can be strategies of persuasion. Hating on a popular buzzword phenomenon is also a strategy to get your own ideas noticed. Hook people in, then introduce your agenda for radical participation and inclusion.

Design thinking isn’t a single monolithic doctrine or cult. There are different dialects of design thinking. There is democratic design thinking. There is also dictatorial design thinking. It depends on the practitioners and the cultural or organizational context in which it is practiced.

You can build on design thinking, fork it, or build new models on it or in response to it, as Natasha has done with her “interpretive engagement.” Or what we at Foossa call “community-centered design.”

Different models or “dialects” of design thinking by Stephanie Gioia via  Folletto

Different models or “dialects” of design thinking by Stephanie Gioia via Folletto

Design thinking never happens in isolation. It always exists in a social, cultural, and political context. The simple linear steps are a teaching and facilitation tool, but there is always the messy human process of interpretation and renegotiation of the terms of engagement and collaboration.

We need to use the simplicity of design thinking as a starting point towards inclusion and deeper understanding, not as a tool for reduction and exclusion. That is up to us as practitioners.


As designers, we have to think about the power and privilege that we wield. With power comes responsibility (thanks for that lesson Spiderman). We must continually reflect on the process and how it favors some over others. Who does it include? Who does it exclude? How do we re-design design thinking itself. That is the iterative meta-question.

What do you think?

Is design thinking fundamentally conservative? Or do conservative institutions practice conservative forms of design thinking?