Ask not what design thinking is, ask what it can do for your client.

Both at the academic and the business DMI conference in Paris this week speakers were very keen on defining design thinking. From an academic point of view, this is quite understandable: epistemologically (wow!) there’s some very interesting stuff happening when a designer/creative puts his teeth in a problem. (See many articles by Roger Martin on this topic) This merits much research which requires a rigorous approach.
From a business point of view however, I’m not so sure all this talk about what design thinking is will help us reach our goals. Let’s explore what’s going on:

As experienced designers and design managers, we have discovered that in many cases our added value to business and entrepreneurship lies not so much in what we do (eg design artefacts or identities) but in how we do it. It is not our design results that make the biggest difference but the way we go about solving problems, applying creativity, involving stakeholders, and creating opportunities. It’s what zilver‘s consultancy practices are based on. We have a great urge to capitalise on these qualities: if only we could bring design thinking to the market, we would be able take upstream what we are best at, and having a great time in the process.
The mistake we are making is that we think we need to know what it is before we can sell it. What we have to watch out for in this context is that we don’t apply ‘traditional’ business thinking to explain design thinking. Imagine trying to sell design thinking to a CEO of a large company using only very strict definitions, measurable benefits, predictable outcomes and proven processes (off course embedded in a nice over the top PowerPoint presentation using a template with groovy fly-in effects, talking paperclips and totally distracting slide transitions). That would be missing the point big time wouldn’t it? Still, that’s exactly the trap I saw some people at the DMI conference fall in to.
My point: from a business point of view, design thinking is not something that needs to be defined before it can be sold. It is many things at once, and none of the above. Like creativity, vision, empathy, excellence and leadership, we all recognise it when it’s there, without having a clue as to how to define it.
If you want to sell design thinking, just make sure it’s recognised: demonstrate what it can do, gather case-studies, ring the bell when it happens, or keep a design thinking diary. I’m sure after seeing these things there won’t be single CEO in the world asking you: “yeah, right, but what exactly is it?”

here’s some thinking on design thinking:

Dan Saffer Victor Lombardi Ralf Beuker stanford but also google it and have a field day!

Rachel Cooper’s mindmap on design thinking, based on our dicussion at the academic dmi conference paris 2008

3 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. Sabine

    Hi Erik,

    I like your observation and I agree with much of it. As a matter of fact, it is precisely one of the concerns, that design thinking is being defined and that promoters of particular definitions tend to inevitably exclude aspects that may be should not be excluded. I see one of the tasks of design research to point out when and where this is happening to generate a greater understanding of design in general.

    Apr 25, 2008 @ 12:10 am

  2. erik roscam abbing

    Design and design thinking are hard to define. But design is about solving ill-defined problems. So designers should be perfectly able to deal with this. Still for design to contribute to a better world it needs to be part of other processes, it needs to be embedded in businesses, linked to marketing, sales, manufacturing, R&D. For this you can’t get away with claiming it is nothing and everything at once.
    But that does not imply putting a box around it and defining it. At the DMI conference in Paris I had a great talk with Francois Lenfant of GE Healthcare about making design part of business metrics without taking away the inspiration and soul. He was working on also including qualitative aspects in design metrics like ‘how is this design making our values tangible’, ‘how is this design project contributing to realising our vision’ and ‘what does this design do to better the lives of our end-users’. I think that’s a truly brave way to embed design in a larger business context without giving up its soul. And without defining it to death.

    Apr 25, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  3. Vol. 2:

    DMI European Conference Reviews…

    For those of you (like myself) who have not been able to attend the latest European Design Management Institute’s conference I thought it might be interesting to read some stuff that other attendees have summarised or commented.

    …Maybe inspire…

    May 02, 2008 @ 11:33 am


+ 3 = eleven

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this is Erik Roscam Abbing's blog on topics relating to the synergy between branding, innovation and design. Erik is a consultant (, teacher (, and frequent speaker on the topic of Brand Driven Innovation. He is also the author of the book by the same title, to appear in autumn 2010 at For inquiries, contact erik at erik at
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