Un-thinking Design

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Albert Einstein.

Design Thinking is a smart branding for a small part of the more complex design- and innovation process. Originally, it was intended to enhance internal management process by enabling everybody to be creative, or at least provide the illusion. As this was widely accepted by large corporations, universities (e.g. Standford’s d.School) and consultancies, the original intent of making a non-linear and visceral process more accessible to left-brain professionals was too challenging, as creative thinking requires creative talent. This meant that it had to be watered down into a linear method, which resulted in a great success of acceptance, but a total failure regarding results. And underlying pseudo-theories such as “T-Shaped Thinking” haven’t helped neither.

So far, no company or brand which applied design thinking has created a break-through result, as design thinking is mostly applied in fringe areas of big companies. Due to its nature, there also isn’t any practical way to convert isolated workshops into real-world successes. In my view, design thinking is blocking creative advancement. But much worse, it is confusing the purpose and task of design both with companies and with students. Design isn’t just about thinking, design is about creation of real-World products, experiences and cultural progress – with as little bits and atoms possible.

In ancient Athens, to become a free member of the “polis” (city), one had to venture through 3 stages: 1/ building competence by learning, 2/ studying philosophy in order to understand and practice ethics, and 3/ to recognize, respect and create beauty. For me this still is a great model of complete education and “Bildung” – as the German language also has a cultural definition for this kind of education. Now, not everyone is capable of being perfect, but competence and ethics can be achieved by everyone – this still means that designers should not copy or steal other people’s IP. With beauty – the major element of design – things are more complex. This isn’t just visual, but a visual expression of the entire process of creating holistic and cultural solutions, which make best use of technology, economics, semantics and human desires and needs for the sake of humanizing our World of artificial objects – analog & digital – as well as the experiences provided. In my view, true beauty isn’t an artistic element, but a deep creative challenge. It also is about longevity and identity: looking back only very few designs are passing the test.


Design is about creativity, which is fed by curiosity and driven by imagination. This means to dissolve the task into its “molecules”, then to imagine new and better ways to create, and then being able to succeed in cross-disciplinary collaboration with other professionals in a company to bring it to market as close to perfection as possible. This involves close interaction with outside partners, using e.g. advanced mobile-video-selfie research along the way, and finally not to accept lame compromises. A truly new and essential design isn’t acceptable right away – Steve Jobs actually was frightened by the first Snow White designs – because it must be successful in the future nobody has chartered yet. Design also must be original, because each company has its DNA and technology constantly offers new opportunities – incl. better tools for us designers – to be innovative beyond what people dare to dream. After a decade design thinking is showing its real face as demonstrated by Google’s Pixel phone: instead of being forced to hype small details such as the texture of a power button, they should confess, that either the executives (probably) or/and the designers (hopefully not) have looked at Apple’s iPhone, and didn’t have the guts to disagree to copy and stealing. Ethics aside, any competent designer could have gone to Foxconn and design the Pixel phone in one day. At best, design thinking is corporate entertainment for those who never can see the pattern that connects.

4 Responses

  • Well, I see two aspects on the text, which I agree and disagree, at same time 🙂
    First, is the beauty in apply the frameworks and tools of service design / design thinking in improve services, which is proved to work well, but not for all cases and strategic challenges, but works well.
    The second is the marketing use on big corporations of the same terms and frameworks with the sole objective to be “fashion”, “innovative”, “modern”. Contracting consultants, creating new areas and positions to sell the illusion that it is enough to innovate, ignoring the cultural bias and internal protocols and process that is necessary for innovation, independent of the framework that is being used.
    It is in fact, in my opinion, a distortion caused by the gravity force of the market on this field of study, not a problem or a debit on the field itself.
    All is part of the maturity and new waves will come, improving and renewing knowledge and creating new paradigms.

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