Chris Thelwell
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Design thinking: an over promise under delivered

I was asked by InVision “What is the biggest problem in the design industry?” This was my response.

Written on Tuesday, 23rd February 2016 by Chris Thelwell

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When you’re dealing with a client, there’s a rule in the design industry: you should under promise and over deliver.

Doing that helps you build a great relationship with your client—who rarely understands how the design process works—based on trust and delivery.

But what will happen if we over promise and under deliver on design itself?

“We can finally write the cheques our mouths have been writing for years”
Mike Monteiro, The Golden Age of Design

Design thinking is everywhere. The largest companies in the world are investing in design, embedding design leaders at C level. Large enterprises are acquiring design agencies—like Capital One (Adaptive Path) and Facebook (Teehan and Lax). Others are hiring thousands of designers (IBM).

This is great news, isn’t it?

“As corporate leaders become aware of the power of design, many view design thinking as a solution to all their woes. Designers, enjoying their new level of strategic influence, often reinforce that impression.”
Jon Kolko, Design Thinking Comes of Age

All eyes are on designers to solve the many problems faced by the largest companies in the world. We need to deliver design at scale.

Have we broken our own rule and over promised? What will happen if we under deliver?

The odds are against us.

Do we have enough time?

People now know they need design. But they don’t quite understand what design is or why they need it. Design thinking confuses things more. It implies a process and a way of thinking, yet people fail to recognise that design is also a craft. It takes experience, skill, and time to deliver great design.

What happens when companies apply design thinking but don’t get immediate results?

“If expectations are set appropriately, they must be aligned around a realistic timeline—culture changes slowly in large organisations.”
Jon Kolko, Design Thinking Comes of Age

Establishing design thinking in large organisations requires a significant culture change. That culture change takes a long time.

Organisations expect results, yet designers give them learnings. We talk about failure being a good thing. It’s all too easy for the outcome of design thinking to be misunderstood.

“For organisations that haven’t invested in mastering Design Thinking in a sustained way, the end results can be incremental and short-lived.”
Tim Brown, Design Thinking is a skill which takes years to master

Designers are dealing with these misunderstanding by over selling design thinking. But non-designers need to see the results. Hearing a sales pitch reminds them of the way they worked with designers in the past.

We’ve all moved on, haven’t we?

“I’m frustrated by Design Thinking. I’ve had enough of college grads in suits, stood in front of whiteboards talking to me about Design Thinking. Can’t you just go and do it?”
Barrie Barton, at Leading the Product Conference in Melbourne

Do we really have enough time?

Delivering design needs designers. Delivering design at scale needs lots of designers. But do we have enough good designers for this new demand? And if not, where are we going to get them from?

Colleges, courses, and even leading universities are taking advantage of the opportunity. They’re producing more new designers than we’ve ever had. But these new designers, and the ones being hired by the thousand for large organisations, need training. It takes years to master the craft of design, and this training happens after graduation.

“Startups and new designers, I hope you guys never meet”
Mike Monteiro, The Golden Age of Design

So new designers need mentors. But the experienced designers within the agencies that get acquired often leave. They set up new companies or work for themselves. New designers are also falling for the short-term gain of the startup—the dream of becoming a unicorn designer.

How long do we have?

Design thinking is the shiny new thing in the business world, just like The Lean Startup and Agile were a few years ago. But once it becomes mainstream, it’ll no longer offer a competitive advantage. So businesses will move on to the next craze.

“Now that design thinking is everywhere, it’s tempting to simply declare it dead—to ordain something new in its place.”
Tim Brown, Design Thinking is a skill which takes years to master

How long do we have until design thinking simply gets replaced?

So what?

These are big problems to solve. We are designers—solving problems is what we do.

But what if we under deliver on the promise design thinking has made?

  • What happens to the thousands of designers—in the large companies—when they aren’t required anymore?
  • What do we do with all the designers we’ve created when the supply of design jobs no longer exists?
  • What’s left of the design industry when agencies no longer exist because their clients have built in-house design teams?

You may think we’ve over promised design thinking, or you may disagree.

It doesn’t matter. We will still need to ask these questions.


This article was first publish on InVision Blog: What is the biggest problem in the design industry?

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