Design Thinking – what does it take in complex environments?

Move over ‘innovation’; move over ‘agile’ and ‘lean’. ‘Design thinking’ is the new buzzword in town.

Ok, so it’s not actually that new. As Katja Tschimmel and Mariana Valenca explained during our first class in the SID programme, you can trace the concept back to the design methods movement of the 60s and 70s – and to the work of scholars such as Herbert Simon, Bruce Archer, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber.

But design thinking certainly is receiving new levels of attention. ‘The power of design’ has been hailed on the front pages of Business Week and the Harvard Business Review – whilst the Centre for Public Impact recently mapped it at the peak of the government innovations ‘hype cycle’: “Design is not likely to be the solution for all of our governmental problems, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you only listened to some speakers at design conferences” wrote Danny Buerkli.


10 government innovations and their place in the hype cycle, by the Centre for Public Impact

A similar story can be told in the non-profit sector, where the growing profile of design thinking has resulted in a proliferation of toolkits and platforms.

Staring at the hype cycle above, and just a few weeks into an MBA in Service Innovation and Design, I wondered how to brace myself for the apparently imminent slide from ‘inflated expectations’ into a ‘trough of disillusionment’. Afterall, as Tim Brown reminds us, “to harvest the power of design thinking, individuals, teams and whole organisations have to cultivate optimism” (p76).

How might the mindsets and methods, principles and processes we’d been exposed to at Laurea apply in practice? In particular, what should I expect when I try to apply design thinking to thorny social problems in my day job working for a small NGO? Can it really help in these complex contexts, or is this a prime example of the inflated expectations of which I’m destined to be disabused?


How might the practice gained during our classes translate into my day-job?

With these questions in mind, I turned to Stefanie Di Russo’s doctoral thesis, ‘Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments’ (thanks to Mikael for the recommendation).

Through case studies of a service design agency, the Australian Taxation Office and the OpenIDEO platform, Di Russo observed five behaviors which emerge when design thinking is applied in complex environments. These are a ‘holistic perspective’ (characterised by divergent thinking, adaptivity and systems thinking); ‘vision framing’ (the creation of ideal future states as a guide through ambiguous contexts); the ‘decentralisation of the designer’ (collaborative thinking undirected by any single lead); ‘disrupting perceptions’ (shifting perspectives within and beyond the team); and ‘design thinking in flux’ (balancing opposing or contradictory variables to achieve a practical equilibrium).

Interestingly, in Di Russo’s third case study – OpenIDEO – these behaviours failed to consistently emerge, allowing her to explore their enablers and barriers through a cross-comparison of the cases. She demonstrates that the ‘designing’ conducted via the OpenIDEO platform is detached from the complex environment to which it’s being applied.


Position of Di Russo’s case studies relative to their project environment (p212)

Di Russo shows that the absence of direct interaction between designers and the project ecosystem has a number of negative consequences: it disables holistic perspectives, undermines vision framing, limits effective collaborative thinking, reduces the creative ‘friction’ necessary to disrupt perceptions, and shields designers from competing variables that need to be balanced. Consequently “OpenIDEO appears to be more akin to an idea engine… than an innovative example and implementation of design practice and design thinking” (p204).

So where does this leave me? At the most basic level it reinforces my experience to date: designing is possible in complex environments – and the skills I’ll learn at Laurea will be relevant (phew!) – but it’s not easy. Good design demands meaningful interaction with people and context. The process and methods – the post-it notes, paper prototypes and other trappings of design thinking – are easily identified and easily (over) hyped, but taken alone they’re not enough. It’s exciting to have the opportunity at Laurea to move beyond the hype, and hopefully to avoid unnecessary disillusionment. I’m looking forward to the ‘slope of enlightenment’ to come!

Written by Adam Groves


Brown, Tim 2009. Change by design: how design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Buerkli, Danny 2016. 10 government innovations and their place in the hype cycle, Centre for Public Impact. 

Di Russo, Stefanie 2016. Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Swinburne University of Technology. 

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. 

4 thoughts on “Design Thinking – what does it take in complex environments?

  1. Thanks for the reality check from a very good perspective. It´s very true that not all problems are solved (alone) by applying service design.

  2. I see it in a way that Service Design models aren’t a silver bullet but a way to work hard through the process systematically so that you don’t forget anything relevant. If you execute them badly and cheat on the phases or you don’t have right people involved.. it really doesn’t help you.

  3. Maybe we haven’t found Holy Grail yet. And in this kind of introduction course you easily forget this. So I think we have to be critical and clever when we are looking for the answers. I liked your point of view very much!

  4. Pingback: Design Thinking – what does it take in complex environments? – Designing: service, customer service, customer management

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