What is the future of design thinking?

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The future of design thinking

Over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen design thinking (and design methodologies) go from a specialized, almost secret process employed by a few experts, to a global movement. Whether you subscribe to design strategy, human-centered design, agile, Lean Startup, Lean Launchpad, or some other design-led practice, at the end of the day these methodologies can be summed as non-linear, iterative processes that, at their core, are supported by empathy and experimentation. This is the essence of design thinking.

Why all of the interest in design thinking? It works. Plain and simple: when you focus on human wants, needs, and desires, then work quickly to come up with novel ways to address their wants/needs/desires, and test those ideas using simple prototypes (and pretotypes) in order to make them better (or learn something new), you will always see interesting results. What’s more, the results will almost always cost way less to produce than some monolithic, multiyear strategy costs (to fail).

For as great as design thinking is at solving many of today’s problems and harnessing the opportunities therein, what’s missing from most design thinking processes is a view to distant futures, or what we (at BMI) call the edge of innovation. If we’re solving the challenges of today, through journey maps, empathy maps, minimum viable products (MVPs), and the like, we’re likely not focused on distant futures. This is also the crux of why visionary entrepreneurs, like Peter Thiel, Steve Jobs, and even Elon Musk are seldom mentioned in the same sentence as the term “design thinking”. These three – and many others like them – continually think (or thought, in Jobs’s case) in the future tense. This doesn’t mean they don’t use some design-led methodologies to test their ideas. Elon loves learning from his explosive failures. The key here is that in order to break paradigms and create the futures we aspire to live in, we must move beyond designing for today’s needs, look toward the edge and make shifts that fit our capabilities and culture…understanding that the edge also continues to move. Hence, we must continue to make shifts as well.

With that in mind, the future of design thinking is about going beyond designing for today’s problems. Yes, empathy and experimentation are still musts. However, this future includes tools and methodologies coming from strategic foresight and futurecasting, such as scenario planningcontext maps, and trend maps. And these only scratch the surface.

Where the rubber meets the road (or the blades meet the air as it were) we will link together futurecasting tools, systems thinking tools, human-centered design tools, business modeling, and prototyping. This is about thinking in the third horizon while prototyping in the current context.

For those of us that run big businesses with revenue-generating engines that cannot be tampered with, this future is NOT about making big bets, like the ones Elon makes. On the contrary. Each of us must work to understand where the edge of innovation exists in our own markets. Based on that edge, we can work backward to ideate and test the appropriate/necessary shifts in our businesses that get us closer to that edge…and perhaps create a visible path to the future we envision for our companies. This is about using the principles of strategic foresight and design thinking to embrace uncertainty, identify opportunities and options, and make small but significant bets on those options (and futures).

This is the future of design thinking. What do you think?


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