Design Thinking

November 22, 2023

This week I saw someone tweet that IDEO had this year laid of one third of their global headcount. It sounded like someone was trolling them, but no, it turns out that it’s correct.

I remember when I first started studying design (Communication Design is what my course was called) it was 2007. And after a few years we learned all the basics principles and studied the greats.

We then all went off into the work force and I think a lot of designers kind of had this feeling that we were adding more value to a project than was recognised.

You’d go and speak to customers and then update a brand or packaging or sometimes even suggest an entirely new product and the company would pay you $100 an hour or something and they they would go on to make a lot based on your work.

And you could read that and be like, “yes Nick, that’s called a services business”, and you’d be right. But the line that was thrown around a lot at that time was that “design needed at seat at the table.” And what that meant was, we wanted to move up the value chain and sit with the exec’s and c-level people and advocate for customers and products from a ‘design lead’ point of view. We fundamentally believed we could bring something new to the board room table.

In 2009, IDEO CEO, Tim Brown gave the now iconic TED talk about his firms approach to solving problems - it was called design thinking.

IDEO was founded in 1991 by a bunch of (mostly) industrial designers. They had famously helped ‘invent’ the mouse for Steve Jobs and cranked out a bunch of award winning work for a couple of decades.

Their design thinking process, (the double diamond which you’ve all seen a version of by now) was apparently responsible for all their success. They had put a reputable and scalable process around creative problem solving.

I remember watching that TED talk and being like “Hell yeah! Finally someone has articulated what we’ve all been feeling!” Fast Company, Forbes, Wired, etc. all started talking about design thinking and for the next 10 years many firms sprung up offering post-it-note lead discovery and innovation workshops that promised to uncover ‘latent customer needs’ and unlock huge amounts of value for clients.

In 2012 I was almost beside myself to be given the opportunity to join the IDEO Singapore office on a few Australian based projects. It was everything I had dreamt and read about.

On the ground in Singapore, we had a huge light filled office full of post-it-notes, sharpies, designers from all backgrounds all sitting around rooms trying to articulate and solve client problems. It was heaven. I never wanted to leave.

The first and most memorable project I did there involved us coming up with 100 (!) ideas to solve a specific problem. We narrowed that down to 20 and built functional-ish prototypes. I created one poster for each prototype and we stuck them on the walls of a large workspace in the Melbourne CBD to present to the CEO of the company.

I’ll never forget that night when the CEO walked in to the room and everyone kind of got nervous - both IDEO and the companies employees who were working with us.

We all knew which of the 20 ideas was the one to select for further development, but we still walked him through each of the ideas in detail which in my memory took two hours, but it was probably more like 40 mins.

He challenged us on a bunch of our customer insights and in come cases told us why we were wrong about some things.

And at the end, he walked over to the idea he liked the most and selected it as the thing we would develop. It wasn’t the one we wanted. I was confused and actually upset.

What was the point of all this work and research and prototyping if the final decision wasn’t going to take into account all the work we’d done?

No this is just one example right. And maybe that didn’t happen on every IDEO project. We know great things have come out of the design thinking framework over the years, but what that experience taught me is that on its own, it is no more useful than any other framework.

Lots of other things need to go right. Stake holder management, project funding, feasibility, blah blah blah. We had sold design thinking as this magic bullet, but was it really that different to traditional consulting?

After IDEO I turned down a full time gig there and we started our own firm (Joan) in Melbourne in 2015/16. We broadly offered design and development services but with design thinking foundations. The fact I’d spent time at IDEO did a lot of heavy lifting in client pitches.

Tim Brown’s TED talk had by this stage filtered through the corporate world and anyone wearing jeans and a t-shirt, holding M3 post-it-notes and a sharpie, could charge $1200 a day to speak to customers and run workshops. And we did. We did lots of them.

I have no idea how many customer interviews I’ve sat through in my life. Hundreds and hundreds. And how many insight deck’s and lo-fi prototypes (remember when making interface prototypes in Keynote was all the rage?).

There was a period in 2014/15 where my ex-business partner and I were selling 5 day design sprints (made famous by Google Ventures) for $15k or something. And they were relatively easy sells. Everyone felt like we were making a lot of quality progress fast. We had unlocked the secret to productive, efficient and value creation. And it all took was The Designers.

Eventually, we pulled back from that kind of work and focused on our own product. The consulting work dried and up and I took my eye off the whole space.

When I eventually came up for air, I started hearing bits and pieces from friends who had stuck round longer than me that they were ‘over it’. They all seemed disenfranchised with design thinking. They were done with post-it-note innovation sessions.

It wasn’t fun anymore. I thought maybe they were just overworked and needed a break. But when you started to dig deeper it was clear that what had actually happened was that the designers had stopped believing.

The biggest advocates I knew in the innovation design thinking space had stopped believing it was working. They had taken enough shots on goal and missed enough times that the belief that this magical process would love all of our problems had left them. And they were looking around for something else to work on. Maybe an entire career shift?

There will be lots of think pieces that unpack what happened in detail of the coming years, but some initial thoughts:

I guess one of the core value props of firms like IDEO was/is that there are things that your company could and should be doing that you can’t see yet because you’re too busy doing whatever it is that you’re already doing. So you should hire us to find those opportunities for you.

Those a probably things that you don’t want to outsource where possible. There are certainly ‘innovation centres’ with $20m budgets in every bank and health insurer in the country right now whose job it is to look for those opportunities and improve their exisiting products (hard to see evidence of that though).

So I suspect that a lot of IDEO’s revenue has simply gone in-house. I know at least 5 ex-IDEO people who now run these in-house innovation centres.

Maybe the bigger underlying thing here though is that design thinking just wasn’t that effective. Maybe it wasn’t even a thing, as much as we (the designers) all wanted it to be.

Having sat on both sides of this over the years, my experience is that sitting in-house, client side, building and working with a team of talented people focused on a specific set of problems, inventing solutions and actually shipping them, has been far more rewarding than any of the consulting I’ve done over the years.

And I do wonder if that how a lot of people ended up feeling?