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The Supposed Demise of Design Thinking

The Supposed Demise of Design Thinking

Part of InSync Training's Thriving as a Learning Professional Series

What’s The Future Of Design In L&D?

You may have heard the quotation, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”—an amusing denial that’s attributed to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)—although it’s slightly misquoted. It’s been coming to mind lately as a variety of articles have been published claiming that the concept of design thinking is dead (and to some minds, deservedly so).  

People seem to be coming to the conclusion that design thinking has lost its shine—and that it never should have had a following in the first place. Interestingly, the critiques of design thinking describe processes and practices that sound to me like poorly executed attempts at design thinking rather than the real thing. In environments that celebrate learning-in-the-flow-of-work, people trying to learn design thinking practices too often skim the short-read explanations rather than dig into understanding the deeper nuances. As a result, in their work, they don’t see the real benefits that can come from embracing design thinking as a way of crafting innovative, well-targeted programs in their work. The truth is that design thinking practices are part of the skill set of good designers in any field. We can no more conclude that design thinking is dead than we can say that design no longer exists. 

Design Thinking as a Set of Practices 

Design thinking is much better understood as a way of thinking than as a process to follow. At the risk of watering down the practices, the following paragraphs highlight the ways that they enrich your thinking. (I invite you to dig in to the details by following links organized in my curated resources.) 


The empathizing practice underscores the fact that our best design work is always grounded in a deep understanding of the people we are trying to serve. In L&D, these people are the learners—the people our L&D initiatives are meant to support. Traditional instructional design refers to this as learner analysis, but it goes much deeper. It’s about exploring their perspective, context, needs, and preferences—and it’s also often about engaging them as collaborators in the design process. Activities at the front end of the process deeply explore and document the perspective of the people we are trying to serve. This empathetic understanding is then threaded throughout the design process so that we never stray too far from their real needs.  

Framing (Defining the Problem) 

Any design process centers on what you are trying to achieve, and that’s rarely just one goal. How you frame the opportunity or problem is critical. In instructional or learning experience design, we sometimes focus primarily on crafting a set of measurable objectives, but design thinking encourages us to explore the full range of goals for the project. These may, and should, include learning objectives, desired performance, related organizational goals, and alignment with L&D initiatives (to expand how we address learning needs, for example). Design thinking guides us to check our assumptions and look at the situation from many angles. Designs are created in a complex context, not in a clinical vacuum, and our project definition has to consider multiple goals. 


Ideating is the fun part of the design, and coming up with creative, innovative, impactful ideas is the animating purpose of design thinking. Advocates of design thinking, along with people who study creative processes, give us plenty of tools meant to generate and elaborate on ideas. Once we have an array of ideas to consider, design thinking advocates give us tools to converge on the specific idea(s) we are going to develop. Often, new designers copy an approach that has worked in other situations; time constraints and lack of experience conspire to prematurely narrow options for addressing learning needs. Ideating counteracts these issues. In the L&D space, ideating is a delicate application of creative energy guided by a deep understanding of how people learn. Creative, fun ideas are only beneficial insofar as they actually play a part in achieving the project’s goals. 


Making design ideas concrete is an essential part of vetting them. Perhaps a game framework will add energy to the virtual learning platform, but how will it actually play? Perhaps a case study will help put concepts in context, but what will it be about and how will the discussion be structured? Perhaps a set of curated materials will give learners options for exploring a topic or skill, but how will they access those items? Or know which would be useful for what they immediately need? And then figure out how they will apply what they might learn? Prototyping forces designers to think through ideas, start to bring them to fruition, and, in doing so, identify and solve challenges. Prototyping takes many forms, some of which are little more than sketches, some of which are close to a finished product. We pair prototyping with iterating—gathering feedback at each step and iterating to an improved product for the next round. 


Most modern instructional design processes have iteration baked in, as you can clearly see in the Successive Approximation Model (Michael Allen and Richard Sites) and Agile Method (Megan Torrance). The more designers can gather useful feedback through in-depth design critique, the more they will be able to hone their interventions to ensure they are serving the need. Iteration isn’t a once-and-done activity; it’s an ongoing part of the process that shapes a program every step of the way. 

After All, Design Thinking Is Not Designing 

As useful as these practices are, it’s a mistake to think that employing them equates to doing the work of design. They help, but great design takes design thinking, experience, creativity, collaboration, and time. The real work of design is unstructured, scrappy, inventive, and focused. 

Jon Kolko put it well when he observed, “We can simplify design to learn it. But we can’t simplify design to do it, and that seems the biggest gap between design education and design practice. The models we are teaching are not design. They are models.” 

The work that researchers have done to uncover and explicate design thinking practices make a valuable contribution to helping designers hone their way of thinking and develop their craft. To borrow a phrase, reports of the demise of design thinking are much exaggerated. 

Want to learn more? Download InSync Training's 54-page guide:  Thriving As A Learning Professional.

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More Resources on the Nuances and Critiques Of Design Thinking: 
  • On design thinking Nick Foster, Partner at the Near Future Laboratory. Head of Design at X, on Medium, 2022 

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