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Does Design Thinking Make Better Businesses?

If there’s one way to score a best-selling book, it’s to write about the next big thing in business. For many, design thinking has become that thing. But is it a fad or a reliable tool for building better products, services, and business processes?


The one constant in capitalism is that things will always be changing. Industries rise and fall, while the darlings of the business world for one generation are often afterthoughts, or worse, dinosaurs, to the next. Along with the churning comes new ideas for how businesses can best remain competitive. One of the concepts with the most momentum now is design thinking, which to the uninitiated may look like a group of people scribbling on Post-It notes.  

Design thinking is more than that. At its essence, it is using how designers tackle problems in their realm to come up with solutions for businesses. Proponents of design thinking argue that it allows organizations to become more creative and innovative, while addressing issues from new product design to how to clean up garbage in the oceans.

The movement to use design principles to solve business problems has gone mainstream over the last decade or so. Google's venture capital arm, Google Ventures, has incorporated design thinking into a week-long "design sprint" where designers workshop new and better ideas with the leaders of the startups in its portfolio. At startup-mad Stanford University, the hottest school is the D.school, where students work on developing their "empathy muscle," a design-thinking staple aimed at helping you better understand people's problems—and then solve them. And in a sign of just how mainstream design thinking has become, Bloomberg Businessweek now devotes an entire issue to it, calling design thinking "the core to any successful business."

Roger Martin, a former dean of the Rotman School of Management who helped popularize the term "design thinking," takes it a step further: "Design thinking is the form of thought that enables forward movement of knowledge, and the firms that master it will gain a nearly inexhaustible, long-term business advantage."

But while design thinking may be a recent discovery to many in the business world, it's not new. Martin cites the way that Mac and Dick McDonald and then Ray Kroc developed the formula for McDonald's as an early example of design thinking. A Harvard Business School case on innovation at Apple argues that a dedication to design thinking is at the core of what's known as the "Apple Way," fueling the company's ability to understand and anticipate the needs of consumers.

While design thinking is considered a fad by some, and has even sparked a backlash, its proponents argue that it is becoming more popular because it is necessary. Rodrigo Canales, associate professor of organizational behavior, argues in a conversation with Charlie Cannon, chief design officer at Epic Decade, that the blurring of boundaries between various sectors, such as business and government, has created new kinds of problems that can't be solved with standard analytical methods and demand a different approach. "This has created a much more integrated and interdependent system than organizations were used to operating in," Canales said. "Now they're solving for a much broader, much more complex set of issues…As a discipline, design is about putting things together; it's about understanding first of all, how people behave, and most important, how people behave when inserted into their context and their systems."

Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior

Chief Design Officer, Epic Decade