Design Thinking to Design Doing: Bridging the Gap from Theory to Practice

Kenneth Williams


“Design thinking” has been championed as the future of an integrative approach for everything from industrial design to systems-level change management. At its core, design thinking promotes a “human-centered” design philosophy, one that not only recognizes, but actively seeks out, to understand and engage with the end user in the design process. While there are many examples of successful programs and projects based on the application of the principles of design thinking, the move from (principles in) theory to (principles in) practice is not always successful. Indeed, even some of the most visible early proponents of design thinking have come out publicly, questioning its success and seeking new directions for doing design. This paper starts from the assumption that it is not design thinking per se at the core of unsuccessful project. Rather, it is a lack of successful application of the principles, which are fundamental to the whole of design, whether or not we want to use any particular term of the day (e.g., “design thinking) to describe them. The paper will then conclude with a case study and suggestions for how design thinking may be better applied to specific component of the design process which is all too often overlooked: the pre-project negotiation process, or how the design firm and its potential client come to an agreement as to what needs to be done and how. This paper introduces some considerations to help guide these conversations so that the move from design thinking to design doing is as smooth as possible.


While the discussion of design as a particular type of human thinking was likely first introduced in Herbert Simon’s hugely influential, The Sciences of the Artificial (Simon 1969), the term “design thinking” really came to the fore as a distinct approach to design-based problem solving following the publication Peter Rowe’s book by the same name in 1987. While Rowe’s classic was focused on the design of the built environment, the lessons that he frames have considerably wider applicability, contributing the spread of “design thinking” across all designed-based disciplines. As Rowe noted, “there is no such thing as the design process in the restricted sense of an ideal step-by-step technique. Rather, there are many different styles of decision making, each with individual quirks as well as manifestations of common characteristics” (Rowe 1987, emphasis in the original).

What Rowe rightly noted, and what he built up in his book, is that the design process is necessarily iterative, a work-in-progress shared between the designer and the client. Throughout, each must learn the language of the other, as the shared understanding of constraints and solutions will ultimately be a deciding factor in the success or failure of the project. As Tim Brown—CEO and President of one of the world’s leading design and innovation firms, IDEO, and early (and current) proponent of “design thinking”—noted over a decade ago:

“[W]ords are highly open to interpretation—words mean different things to different people, especially when they’re sitting in different parts of the organization. The result: In an effort to be relevant to a large, complicated company, strategy often gets mired in abstractions” (Brown 2005).

With that in mind, let us first turn to what we may call the basic language of design, exploring its syntax and structure. This will allow the discussion to continue with at least some degree of shared context.

The Language of Design

Before we jump to “design thinking,” writ small, it will be helpful to ensure that we understand what we mean by “design,” writ large.

Walk into any room and ask the people you encounter if they know what “design” is, you will almost assuredly get an answer. Most will come up with something related to graphic design (design is picking out colors or fonts) or even perhaps industrial design (design is making an object that people can use). Few will, however, be likely to offer a broad, general definition of design. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Indeed, design as a formal discipline (or, better, set of disciplines) did not really come into focus until around the turn of the 20th century, at least not by name. There were, of course, architects, engineers, etc. who worked as “designers,” but these were specific cases, with design as accidental to their true calling: buildings or locomotives or the like. It seems likely that this lack of common understanding of what design is may have some benefit for the design community. Indeed, if nobody with whom I interact knows what I do, I am, perhaps, afforded a certain mystique, my work a form of dark and magical arts, not to be attempted by a mere novice.

There are many easy-to-understand definitions of design. For instance, Peter Denning, the noted computer scientist, defines design as “a process where we create and shape artefacts that solve problems” (Denning 2013). While definitions like this may be useful within the context of a paper for a broad (or narrow) audience, given a particular context, they do not fully capture the completeness and nuance necessary to set design apart from, for instance, art, or science, etc. Even if “[r]igorously defining ‘design’ starts to seem like measuring a coastline: The ‘true’ edge always recedes, infinitely, no matter what scale you try to measure it at [sic]” (Pavlus 2013), the process still has value, as it allows us to work from a shared foundation when discussing terms. As such, let us turn to a working definition developed by Paul Ralph and Yair Wand’s careful, scientific survey of the use of “design” across disciplines. The results speak wonders to the difficulty of the endeavor:

  • Noun: a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints
  • Verb (transitive): to create a design, in an environment (where the designer operates) (Ralph and Wand 2009).

While this may, at first, seem quite complex, it is a very useful definition in terms of the breadth of its applicability. As such, we will take each of the component parts and examine them individually.

Design as Noun

First, we take design as a noun, meaning that it is something out in the world, whether a process, a tool, etc.

Figure 1: Design as a noun (Ralph and Wand 2009)

Figure 1: Design as a noun (Ralph and Wand 2009)

Before we run away in frustration, Ralph and Wand offer a helpful glossary for us:

Table 1: Definitions of terms (Ralph and Wand 2009)



Design Specification
A specification is a detailed description of an object in terms of its structure, e.g., the primitives used and their connections.
Design Object
The design object is the entity (or class of entities) being designed. Note: this entity is not necessarily a physical object.
Design Agent
The design agent is the entity or group of entities that specifies the structural properties of the design object.
The object environment is the context or scenario in which the object is intended to exist or operate (used for the noun form). The agent environment is the context or scenario in which the design agent creates the design (used for the verb form).
Goals describe the desired impacts of design object on its environment. Goals are optative (i.e., indicating a wish) statements that may exist at varying levels of abstraction
Primitives are the set of elements from which the design object may be composed (usually defined in terms of types of components assumed to be available).
A requirement is a structural or behavioral property that a design object must possess. A structural property is a quality the object must posses regardless of environmental conditions or stimuli. A behavioral requirement is a required response to a given set of environmental conditions or stimuli. This response defines the changes that might happen in the object or the impact of these changes on its environment.
A constraint is a structural or behavioral restriction on the design object, where “structural” and “behavioral” have the same meaning as for requirements.

Putting all of this together, then, we have that design is a detailed description of the structure of an object (artefact, service, experience, etc.) provided by some agent. The object is intended to achieve some goal in a particular environment. It is created through (re)combination of previously existing modules, based on a given set of requirements and restrictions (Ralph and Wand 2009).

Design as Verb

Next, we consider design as a transitive verb, what it is to “do design.”

Figure 2: Context-level conceptual model of design as a verb (Ralph and Wand 2009)

Figure 2: Context-level conceptual model of design as a verb (Ralph and Wand 2009)

Here, we should note that design always stems from an actor’s intent. Design is an active process, intended on shaping some aspect of the world to achieve some goal based on some given requirements and constraints.

Design As a Whole

Design, then, can be seen as an intentional process with the goal of creating some sort of interventional object (again, physical or non-physical). Two other aspects are key. First, the designed object is never new in its entirety. Instead, novelty comes from the particular recombination of preexisting modular elements. This is a commonly described feature of both design and technology (Arthur 2011; Baldwin and Clark 2006; Lidwell, Holden, and Butler 2003; Norman 2013; Simon 1962), and one that allows us to engage better on both sides of the table (whether we are currently working as a designer or as a client). The modularity of design objects means that we can examine each of the individual components both separately, and in context of the whole. We will put a pin in that for now, but this point will become critical later, as we discuss the negotiation/scoping process for design projects.

Second, design is subject to certain requirements and constraints. While many of these constraints are obvious—e.g., timelines, budgets, material, etc.—others are less so. One critical constraint, which is often overlooked, is the focus of our discussion: the linguistic (semantic and pragmatic) assumptions underlying client-firm communications. That is, what terms do we use and why.

Words Are Important

While it is (relatively, comparatively) easy to have conversation at the end of a project, due to the shared history established during the term of work, it is more difficult in the beginning, before the parties have established familiarity with the particular peculiarities of nuanced terms. This is an even bigger issue in jargon-rich industries like tech, health, energy, etc.

Design Thinking

Now that we’ve explored design very broadly, let’s examine design thinking a bit more closely. Once again, we’ll turn to Tim Brown, who described design thinking as a process that is steeped in empathy for the end users, strives for systems-level change, and is based on rapid iteration and prototyping (Brown 2008; Brown and Martin 2015). The term that Brown, Donald Norman, and others use for this empathy-based approach is called human-centered design, or HCD (Brown 2005; Brown 2008; Norman 1993; Norman 2013).

Figure 3: Design thinking principles (Design Management Institute 2013)

Figure 3: Design thinking principles (Design Management Institute 2013)

HCD really stemmed from early work in the computer science arena, as computer programmers and designers were looking for a better way to engage users in the computing experience. It has evolved from that point and the term now generally encompasses all approaches to design that place the end user(s) at the core of functionality testing, etc. HCD is, without question, a very worthwhile goal for designers. Our products, services, experiences, etc. should be designed to reflect the needs of users. With that, however, the principles of HCD are most often only applied in the process of the work itself. If we examine the typical design thinking project approach, “practical ethnographies” are often one of the first components of the process and it is often here where we first see the concerted effort to be “human-centered.” With that, however, this point may be too late, if the designers fail to be human centered in how they are engaging with the client. Let’s examine a case study to explore this in more detail.

The Gap Between Design Thinking and Design Doing

A Case Study

In 2015, I had the privilege of partnering with one of the world’s most recognized and respected design firms in pitching to one of my company’s long-term clients. Our challenge was to develop a proposal to help our client realize its vision for a fundamentally different healthcare system. At the core, they were seeking to move beyond even the current vogue of “patient-centered” care to a new, “patient-driven” (my term) reality. This remit falls squarely within the design thinking sweet spot and, accordingly, my new partners were eager to contribute to the visioning and negotiating process.

Eagerness aside, the actual work of framing the problem and solution for the client did not go as smoothly as one (either the client, my partners, or we) would have hoped. From the very beginning, our partners kept referring to their process through heavily coded “design speak.” For instance, they proposed to do field-based “practical ethnographies” with the goal of creating “design blueprints” that would serve as the roadmap for the rest of the project. While the ethnographies were a critical component of the work, allowing us all to better understand the unique viewpoints of the patients, providers, and caregivers for whom our interventions would be designed, the framing was such that the client could never really grasp what was going on. Ironically, “practical ethnographies” sounded too clinical for them and they never thought that they could sell it to their funders, largely due to the fact that they weren’t sure if they truly understood it themselves. For my client, these terms were meaningless and, more importantly, sounded contrary to what they were hoping to achieve. How can something as clinical as a “practical ethnography” get us to something as human as “patient-driven” care?

Worse, our partners final deliverables to the client were described as being a set of “design principles” that would guide the next phase of the project. The client didn’t ask for “design principles;” they asked for systems-level change for the healthcare industry. Regardless of the pedigree and decades of truly innovative work across many design disciplines, the term “design principles” connoted for the client the idea of surface, not depth. Isn’t design the thing that comes at the end, after all? It is the decoration, the graphics, the window dressing, not the substance, yes?

While we are still working with the client to help them organize after a new leader took the helm, the project in question has been put on hold. When pressed, the client felt that there was a disconnect between what they were asking for and how our partners and we were describing the approach. That is, design thinking got in the way of design doing.

Designer, Design Thyself

While there have been some recent notable challenges to the supremacy of design thinking, these have focused exclusively on the failure of design thinking to meet the needs of the market. For instance, Mark Payne, in his recent book, How to Kill a Unicorn: How the World’s Hottest Innovation Factory Builds Bold Ideas that Make It to Market, notes that while design thinking is great for framing an approach to driving innovation, it is less well equipped in guaranteeing the market success of said innovation (Payne 2014). One could, of course, argue that it is not design thinking per se, but the ineffective application of design-thinking principles by people and teams without the experience to so well, which is at issue. Indeed, Tim Brown earlier noted that “[design thinking] is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity” (Brown 2008, emphasis added). Design thinking provides a framework for applying time-tested principles (empathy, human-centeredness, iteration, prototyping, collaboration, etc.) to the design process, whether in the context of design as traditionally practiced, or in the executive suite. That is, it is not the failure of design thinking itself but, rather, the failure of individuals and teams to appreciate the limitations of design thinking in the hands of those who are not steeped in design more generally. Design thinking brings along with it its own affordances and constraints.

What was the issue for us, then, if it wasn’t the design thinking approach that our partner and we outlined? The case study highlights the failure—which is sadly not uncommon—of human-centered design principles to be applied to the design process, not just the design product (object, service, experience, etc.). This issue is the not the fault of design thinking. Indeed, design thinking has opened the door for designers, giving us previously unheard of access to Board rooms and the C-suite. If entrepreneurial leaders were searching for a process to guide “disruption,” to help make a big splash out in the world and affect real change, design thinking provided an accessible entre to at least the design-related components of that. As Tim Brown noted in a 2009 TED Talk, “[design thinking] gives us a new way of tackling problems. Instead of defaulting to our normal convergent approach where we make the best choice out of available alternatives, it encourages us to take a divergent approach, to explore new alternatives, new solutions, new ideas that have not existed before” (Brown 2009).

The failure, then, was one of translation: the design team wasn’t able to frame their approach in terms to which the client could or would respond. Again, Tim Brown frames the issue for us well:

Words are highly open to interpretation—words mean different things to different people, especially when they’re sitting in different parts of the organization. The result: In an effort to be relevant to a large, complicated company, strategy often gets mired in abstractions (Brown 2005).

When we examine the core principles of design thinking, we must acknowledge that the failure of effective translation should not be attributed to design thinking as a discipline. Instead, it stems from what is, unfortunately, an all too often encountered issue: firms on the cutting edge of applying today’s terms of art often fall prey to a particular hubris based on the attention currently bestowed upon them. Whether this is the design of the “responsive web,” the creation of engaging “user experience,” or, indeed, of “experience design” more broadly, public attention—lacking for the majority of the history of “design” as a discipline—has the potential to foster a certain degree of hubris for the designer. Indeed, nobody is beyond the potential reach of hubris (Ford 2006). With that, it is imperative to remember that “design doesn’t—shouldn’t—live in a bubble and designers need to bridge the divide between their world and business, not just lob ideas over the fence and hope for the best” (Walters 2011).

Moreover, we must recognize that design thinking, as a process, is a tool that cannot be forced; it is not a panacea for whatever ails you. Even some of the most fervent original supporters of design thinking are looking for different methods (or at least different handles) to define their work. Bruce Nussbaum went so far as to claim that “Design Thinking Is a Failed Experiment” (Nussbaum 2011). Even Tim Brown rightly noted the limitations of the approach:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process. In a few companies, CEOs and managers accepted that mess along with the process and real innovation took place. In most others, it did not. As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low (Nussbaum 2011, quoting a conversation with Tim Brown).


Just as we must acknowledge that design thinking writ large is not a one-size-fits-all process guaranteed to deliver design results (noted at least as early as Buchanan’s 1992 classic “The Wicked Problems of Design Thinking”), we must also acknowledge that design communication must be tailored to the needs (social histories, expectations, experience, etc.) of all of the parties at the table and, importantly, from the very beginning of the engagement. Design thinking is a great tool, but it must be coupled with practical, impactful actions. Design thinking must support design doing. Moreover, this doing must begin even before then pen touches paper. If leading by design means anything at all, it certainly means setting an example through how one approaches design.


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