Defining Design Thinking. Mind The Methodology Gap

By GK VanPatter (SenseMaker, Author, Speaker, Advisor, Co-Founder, HUMANTIFIC).


What we see in the marketplace around the subject of Design Thinking is alot of smoke and mirrors that have confused zillions of people. The design community itself has created much of the confusion and unfortunately clarity leadership from the direction of graduate design education in particular has been less then ideal. Many have conflated Design Thinking Philosophy with Design Thinking Methodology, when in reality, one is not the other.

Humantific seems to be among only a few practices stepping up to point out that Design Thinking cannot be defined philosophically as an open-aperture problem solving approach, often described as capable tackling "wicked problems" if the actual present state methods are assumption-based presuming/recognizing/addressing only product, service and experience challenges and outcomes. That makes no sense at all.

It is no secret that many diverse challenges in organizations and in societies exist that have nothing to do with creating more products, services or experiences. Any skilled methodologist can tell you that open-aperture methods and assumption-based methods are two different things. They have different starting points and different outcomes.

Truth be told: This is presently the #1 elephant in the Design Thinking living room and one that has caused massive confusion. The spinning and selling of philosophy as methodology, downstream methods as upstream methods, assumption-based methods as open-aperture methods amounts to a Design Thinking Hocus-Pocus. Once you become aware it is not difficult to spot the Hocus-Pocus when it appears and it is now widespread.

The good news is that with organizational leaders becoming more knowledgeable, more savy, the Hocus-Pocus Era of Design Thinking is winding down. We are optimistic that a new Methodolgy Ethics Era is dawning.

As a practice we are at Humantific, already embracing and living in that era.



DESIGN THINKING [Also known as Meta Design Thinking, Strategic Design Thinking and Adaptable Inquiry]

Key Words: Upstream, meta, iterative, human-centered, empathetic, nonlinear, creating, optimizing, insight creation, design research, data/information fueled, visual sensemaking, challenge framing, focus on right challenge, acceleration, adaptive, inclusive.

  1. Is a meta, iterative, nonlinear, holistic, human-centered innovation process.
  2. Oriented towards multiple participant, cross-disciplinary cocreation.
  3. Begins with no preconceived assumptions regarding what the challenges, and opportunities are.
  4. Begins upstream in Opportunity Challenge Definition Phase.
  5. Begins with a fuzzy situation to be defuzzed.
  6. Contains empathetic research insight creation that informs challenge framing and opportunities for changemaking.
  7. Recognizes that a constellation of diverse challenges likely exist simultaneously that can be visually mapped.
  8. Contains a high degree of empathetic visual sensemaking that shapes insights for accelerated digestion by all participants.
  9. Contains the surfacing and orchestration of participant innovation behaviors.
  10. Contains the surfacing and orchestration of participant cognitive thinking style preferences.
  11. Like a Swiss army knife, is adaptive to various challenge types found in organizational and societal contexts.
  12. Serves as human-centered, adaptive toolkit/skill-set in the pursuit of organizational adaptive capacity building.



Key Words: Downstream, situational, iterative, human-centered, empathetic, nonlinear, insight creation, sensemaking, acceleration, creating, optimizing, products, services, experiences.

  1. Is a situational, iterative, nonlinear, holistic product/service/experience creation process.
  2. Oriented towards a project team, or teams creating products/services/experiences.
  3. Begins with preconceived assumptions that the challenges or opportunities are product/service/experience related and will be outcomes.
  4. Begins downstream in product/service/experience Opportunity Challenge Definition Phase.
  5. Most often begins with a predefined product/service/experience brief.
  6. Contains empathetic research focused on insight creation that informs the creation of products/services/experiences.
  7. Recognizes product/service/experience challenges.
  8. Might contain a high degree of empathetic visual sensemaking that shapes insights for accelerated digestion by all participants.
  9. Most often contains no surfacing or orchestration of innovation behaviors.
  10. Most often contains no surfacing and orchestration of cognitive thinking style preferences.
  11. Like a hammer, screwdriver and wrench. Each applicable situationally to product, service or experience challenges.
  12. Can serve as a useful toolkit/skill-set in the pursuit of product/service/experience creation capacity building.