very large need for designers who
can make things.
1. Vinsel, L. Design thinking is kind of like
syphilis—it’s contagious and rots your
brains. Medium. Dec. 6, 2017; https://
2. Jen, N. Natasha Jen: Design Thinking
is Bullshit. Aug. 2017; https://vimeo.
3. Nussbaum, B. Design thinking is a failed
experiment. So what’s next? Co. Design.
Apr. 5, 2011; https://www.fastcodesign.
4. IDEO. Design Thinking. IDEO U; https://
5. Ehn, P. Work-Oriented Design of Computer
Artifacts. Sweden, 1988.
6. Simon, H. Theories of Bounded Rationality.
North-Holland Publishing Company, 1972.
7. Osborn, A. How to Think Up.
8. de Bono, E. The Use of Lateral Thinking.
International Center for Creative
9. Schön, D. The Reflective Practitioner:
How Professionals Think in Action.
Basic Books, 1995.
10. Buchanan, R. Wicked problems in design
thinking. Design Issues 8, 2 (Spring 1992),
11. Arieff, A. Designs on the VA. The New
York Times. Feb. 24, 2017; https://www.
12. Kolko, J. Twitter. June 1, 2010; https://
13. Kolko, J. Twitter. April 10, 2013;
14. Academy of Art University. A
Conversation with Don Norman and Jon
Kolko. Nov. 1, 2011; https://www.youtube.
15. Kolko, J. Design should be a liberal art. USI
Blog. May 11, 2016; https://blog.usievents.
16. Kleinfeld, N.R. Industrial design comes of
age. The Ne w York Times. Mar. 10, 1985;
17. Kolko, J. Design thinking comes of age.
Harvard Business Review (Sept. 2015),
Jon Kolko ( www.jonkolko.com) is a partner
at Modernist Studio and the founder of Austin
Center for Design. He has been a practicing
designer and educator for the past 15 years.
He is the author of five books, including his
most recent, Creative Clarity.
Norman, and went on to say, “My
problem is that I don’t understand
how I can, how anyone can, extract
the thinking part from the doing
part. And right now, if you go get
an MBA at a bunch of good schools,
you might take a class called Design
Thinking, where you’ll take a bunch
of design methods. You’ll learn a
method called empathy. So for four
days, you’ll learn about empathy,
and you are now certified to be
empathetic” [ 14].
And in 2016, I described how
“I don’t really know what design
thinking is. For me, there is just
design; it’s a way of thinking, and a
way of making. Doing the ‘thinking’
part is often alluring because it’s
approachable, and that’s a good thing.
It changes the way you look at the
world, and methods for divergent,
creative thinking can be (and should
be) taught to just about anyone. But
the act of making things takes time
to learn. It’s something that, again,
everyone should be able to do; but
it is not something everyone can do
without years of practice” [ 15].
These critiques of design thinking
are not unique to Vinsel, Jen,
Nussbaum, or myself. They are echoed
in blogs and conference presentations.
The critiques of design thinking are:
• It takes a thoughtful, complex,
iterative, and often messy process and
dramatically oversimplifies it in order
to make it easily understandable.
• It trivializes the role of craft and
making things, which is fundamental
to the process of design.
• It promotes “empathy lite”—as
if an empathetic and meaningful
connection with people could be
forged in hours or even days.
• It’s become a tool of consultancies
to sell work, not to drive real impact.
These critiques of design thinking
are just, as is the emergent backlash
against the methodology by designers
and design organizations. When
viewed from the historic roots I’ve
described above, today’s design
thinkers lack craft, lack intellectual
foundations, and can’t make things.
THE VALUE OF VAPID
There is a great irony to this. The
primary reason design is now in
vogue: The relationship of design
thinking to value has become overt,
championed by the same Bruce
Nussbaum who also publicly derided
it. When Nussbaum was the editor
of Business Week, he regularly put
design thinking on the cover, giving
it a front-and-center presence for
executives and business leaders. He
helped elevate design to a strategic
competency; that simultaneously
popularized both a deep and a thin
form of design.
Through that lens, design thinking
is not a problem. It’s a gift.
Specifically because design
thinking has been packaged and
become popularized at such an
overly simplistic level of detail, it
has helped those of us who have
depth, skill, and rigor to become
more valued. For years, designers
have bemoaned their lack of impact.
In 1985, the Ne w York Times wrote
that “[d]esigners nevertheless call
themselves the invisible industry.
Many companies either don’t use
them or use them in frivolous ways.
Designers tend to agree that most
products on the market are ghastly in
design or adorned with meaningless
decoration and could use their
helping hand” [ 16].
Now we have recognized impact,
and it’s not about styling. It’s
strategic. We can realize this strategic
impact, make more money, and work
on increasingly meaningful work just
by stomaching the superficiality of
design thinking and riding its wave of
In a cover story in Harvard
Business Review, I wrote that “many
view design thinking as a solution to
all their woes. Designers, enjoying
their new level of strategic influence,
often reinforce that impression”
[ 17]. While I wrote that as a
criticism, I now think I meant it as
a celebration. Organizations seek
silver bullets, and they’ve moved
from the shiny objects of Six Sigma
to agile to lean to design thinking.
It is guaranteed that companies will
move on from design thinking to the
next big thing. But in its wake, the
popularity of design thinking will
leave behind two benefits: validation
of the design profession as real,
intellectual, and valuable—and a
DOI: 10.1145/3194313 COP YRIGH T HELD BY AUTHOR. PUBLICATION RIGHTS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00