Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I

By Lucy Kimbell

Kimbell, L. (2011) Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I, Design and Culture, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 285-306

This article takes a critical look at the rise and rise of design thinking in the world of business and social innovation.  Written by Lucy Kimbell, a Fellow at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, and a designer herself, it focusses particularly on the limitations of design thinking as it has been portrayed by Tim Brown and the US design consultancy IDEO.  Kimbell situates design thinking in a wider social, economic and cultural landscape and suggests that there is a need to explore both what it actually is and why it has struck such a chord particularly in business and policy.

Although there are some direct criticisms of the IDEO framework, the work is much deeper and broader than this.  The article draws out the long and interdisciplinary tail of what has been termed ‘design thinking’ and it makes a cogent argument for a more robust examination of the place of design practices in business and policy, and for that matter, in social innovation.

Kimbell’s argument centres on three key points:

[1]  Much design thinking literature is dualistic, focusses too much on the ‘thinking’ part of design and misses the action and practice dimensions; whilst also separating design and designers from the contexts in which they operate, meaning that the process can be de-politicised;

[2]  Design thinking takes a broad view of what ‘design’ is, suggesting that there are shared characteristics across all design disciplines and not acknowledging how these different disciplines have emerged and are embedded in historical and institutional settings;

[3]   Despite advocating ‘user-centred’ and ‘human-centred’ approaches, paradoxically, in much design thinking literature the designer is still emphasised as the key agent of the design process.

In the end Kimbell decides that the practices of design (whether by designers or other stakeholders practising in the broad space of design) do indeed have something to offer in business contexts and in relation to social innovation.  However, she argues that perhaps ‘design thinking’ may not be the best descriptor for the role of design in these contexts.

Kimbell suggests that design needs to be situated within both a wider research base and linked to broader theoretical and practical disciplines in order for its potential contribution to be realised.  She concludes by suggesting that the “critical rethinking of design thinking has only just begun” (p.301).

Lucy Kimbell’s blog about her MBA elective on Designing Better Futures (see and her other writings on design thinking and practice are certainly worth following as the arena of design thinking develops.  The Part II of her article, where I hope her vision of an alternative approach is further outlined, is worth seeking out when it is released later this year.

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