Design thinking – Snake oil of today?

What is this mumbojambo?

So, what is Design Thinking. To answer the question, let’s start with the facts. It’s:
– a collaborative and participatory process
– a multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary process
– a protocol for problem solving and discovering new opportunities
– not a linear but an iterative process
Is Design Thinking a new fab? Yes and no. It’s been studied from the 70’s on and you can see similar elements for example in the Toyota Production System or the Lean startup thinking as of late. But on its own it’s fairly new, picking up speed especially in the recent decade.
The word that is repeated most often when describing Design Thinking is process. Design Thinking is not a job task you can start in the morning and be done with by lunch-time. Instead, Design Thinking requires much more planning, preparation and normal work than most people that participate in just the workshops realize. But the work that you put into the process will pay itself off in the end.

So what’s in it for me?

You often see blog posts and articles, such as the ones referenced, highlighting the simplified benefits of Design Thinking:
– it gives you new opportunities that others have not yet discovered or brought to your market
– the process is clear steps you follow
– the tools are easily at hand
– in the end it will differentiate you from your competition.

All of the mentioned things are true and Design Thinking is a powerful tool, there’s no denying it. But at the same time, why isn’t Design Thinking the main way for companies to develop their business? Because as well as being a process, Design Thinking is more than one-shot development workshops or methods. It’s a change in thinking for the whole business unit in which it is used. And also in the core of the methodology is the idea that there will be failures and the company needs to learn from those failures. How many companies do you know that think “if we fail, at least we’ll learn from those failures”? This rationale is not easy to accept at first, but once you can you have a bigger possibility of achieving the goal you have set for yourself in the beginning of the process.

Sweet. Let’s make it work fast and cheap! You can do that, right?

For Design Thinking to work for the company, the company needs to integrate it and Service-dominant logic into its very DNA to get everyone onboard. In Gijs Van Wulfen’s book The Innovation Expedition the author makes the notion over and over again of involving the management in the innovation process. I feel that this is both crucial for the process and only truly possible if Design Thinking has been adopted in more ways than only for few innovation projects and the aforementioned Service-dominant Logic is somewhat familiar to the management.

As the Finnish companies need innovation more than ever amidst the worst fiscal downturn in memory, Design Thinking and it’s derivative Service Design can provide this. I truly believe Finnish companies can harness the benefits of design thinking but only and ONLY if they can fight the temptation of going for the easy way of just getting quick fixes. There will be companies helping you pluck those low hanging apples. If the companies don’t make a more profound implementation of the logic, methodology and process, Design Thinkings powerfull tools will be nothing more than snake oil of today for those companies that choose the easy route of the innovation expedition.


Written by Jukka Kaartinen, a first year SID Laurea student


Tschimmel, Katja. 2012. Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation. In Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona, Spain.

Gijs Van Wulfen, G. 2013.The Innovation Expedition, A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation. Amsterdam, Netherlands: BIS Publishers.

Lüftenegger et al. 2012, The Service Dominant Strategy Canvas: Defining and Visualizing a Service Dominant Strategy through the Traditional Strategic Lens, Beta Working Paper series 383, Research School for Operations, Management, and Logistics, University of Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Fast Company Staff, 20.3.2006. Design Thinking…What is it?

Ballé, Freddy & Ballé, Michael. 2005. Lean Development.

Mueller, Roland & Thoring, Katja, 2012. Design Thinking vs. Lean Startup: A comparison of two user-driven innovation strategies

6 thoughts on “Design thinking – Snake oil of today?

  1. I think Jukka has really fullfilled the assesment set for us in Design Thinking class. The titles were eye-catching (your post was the first one I wanted to see) and you had interesting points of views in the text including pictures and even an interesting video.

    • Thank you for the comments 🙂 I tried to figure out a different take on the great class we took, I’m glad I nailed it and you liked it.

  2. Until recently, I was relating your title topic to the whole of Service Innovation and Service systems. Professor Evert also mentioned that Service system is like a ghost, pushing all the unknown subsystems under Service innovation. I think that if people like us start to function as Service practitioners in the business world, then we could break all these myths.

    • You’re right that it’s up to us as sort of early adopters to enable this change. It’s a rocky road but with persistency it can be done 🙂

  3. Thanks for a precise post that offered me food for thoughts! I can´t help but thinking that it´s something still “under construction-ish” on the term DT and how Design Thinking is described, one minute I´m like “Hell yeah, I´m all in!” the next, I am worrying that it´s the emperors new clothes, or snake oil as you put it. I think you are on to something when you say we are talking about a change of mindset, it´s a pretty deep. And Design Thinking is further difficult to explain when it is a toolbox aswell, and when we try to put further and other non-decriptive words like “process” to explain. Point is, like you say, there is no quick fixes and fast-track to shifting mindset. It´s pretty damn painful even, and we as practitioners need to consider that when we are out to make the world think more designy. What I am is very suspicious to ready made recipes for Innovation Journeys and fixed shelf ware that promise the one path to Design Thinking and innovation. Companies are all different, but to build a culture and a leadership robust to learn from failure and to invest money in projects that they have no idea where will end up – is almost counter-intuitive for most people, simply because we are safe seeking animals. However looking forward to explore more of this topic both in theory and practice.

    • Thanks for the comment. I totally agree with you on many things, especially the “dangers” of the of the shelves tools or recipes for Innovation Journey. I feel they are imperative to learn but if one just follows them blindly for a longer period of time, it might actually diminish the amount of actual innovation as the actual process and tools become more important in the innovation journey than the actual Innovations. Therefore I feel that no matter how painful, one can only be successful when mixing things up (the new and the old methods) in the process and therefore finding the ideal way for each project 🙂 The journey continues.

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