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UNPACKING: “MIT: Design Thinking Explained”

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

Peer Review Series: Review #2 of 10:

This “MIT Design Thinking Explained” document is being included in this ten part sensemaking series as an example of how the subject is being explained to the public by the academic community. In this document, published in 2017, we are looking at the perspective from Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Integrated Design + Management Program.

Our NextD Journal focus is asking this question: Is this MIT/Altitude/Accenture document adding to the clarity or the confusion around the subject of Design Thinking? Lets take a look.

[To view the two part MIT document yourself, including the embedded video go here.]


Jeanine Guido:

Reviewing the MIT Integrated Design Management Promotional Video: In terms of using the video to present ‘would-be’ non-design students with a new educational approach geared specifically towards the commercialization of a product, the assumptive narrative in the video makes sense. Encouraging “making” with other teams in order to collaborate better and learn in context how to more efficiently commercialize a product is helpful.

Although there are issues with it, they are honest in the fact that they are focusing on the product development process only and they are using it to illustrate how the basic commercial criteria of feasibility, viability and desirability comes together.

Clearly they have borrowed from the IDEO shopping cart video from 10+ years ago which it’s disappointing considering some headway has already been made in the world of design. It sends the message, and in fact that’s what the video feels like, that they (MIT/Altitude/Accenture) are outdated and behind the curve. Having a homogenous, all white and primarily male group of designers does not help either.

I find it peculiar that they speak interchangeably about innovation and the design process. They introduce Altitude as a “design & innovation consulting firm” that focuses on products and services, yet innovation isn’t just about products and services. Setting the stage for and creating a sustainable innovative culture goes beyond products and services, to equate the two indicates a limited understanding of what innovation is or could be.

In terms of design & Design Thinking, the design experts in this video make no distinction between them; they have assumed and speak of Design Thinking and the design process as the same thing and implying that ‘a product’ is the outcome of it.

Brian Matt, Senior Principal Director, Altitude/Accenture says:

“We use the process of human-centered design. This process is at the heart of everything we do at Altitude. We believe through a deeper understanding of people, we can identify and create more successful solutions for people, companies and society.”

In the video they define Design Thinking as:

“…a human-centered approach to connect with people to understand them at the emotional level and what matters to them.”

However, by “solutions,” they refer to physical products. By narrowing the design process to products, they have again provided a very limited perspective and/or explanation of what design really is and actually of what it could be. The whole point being made today about Design Thinking is that at the very least, by focusing not on solutions but on imagination and possibilities, it helps people to think differently, to open up and feel comfortable in the discomfort of the unknown.

For some reason, human-centered design has become THE conversation about design as if this is a new theme. Since when has design not been about humans? At this point the human focus seems to be old news as it is probably time we moved on to consider all life forms, not just humans. 

Regarding the Article: Design Thinking Explained

Between the video and the article, I see no difference in content. Like the video, the article focuses on the design process as applied to Industrial Design ONLY. It is troublesome that most design literature that keeps on coming out into the mainstream media does not reference or account for the reams of research material and the many publications already available that explain, in depth, the design process and its applications.

Furthermore, a common narrative running through the design industry today is equating design with creativity, with problem solving and with Design Thinking. Eppinger says: “The impact of all the buzz around design thinking today is that people are realizing that “anybody who has a challenge that needs creative problem solving could benefit from this approach. That means that managers can use it, not only to design a new product or service, but anytime they’ve got a challenge, a problem to solve.”

Design is a form of Applied Creativity, but its not creativity itself and there are many proven methods other than Design Thinking for helping people solve problems that have been around a long time.  The levels of complexity that most companies and organizations are facing today are at the system level rather than at the level of artifact making. If not coupled with other processes and methodologies geared towards systems change, design thinking becomes limited as IBM is a case in point. The biggest and least discussed impact that IBM’s Design Thinking program brought to the company was a shift in perspective at the system level, the FIRST step towards behavior change. No small task for a company of that size.

What we often need today to help organizations is not another product or service, but a change in behavior and THAT is a lot harder to accomplish than the design of a product.

Wolfgang Jonas:

My comments are as concise and as blunt as the [MIT: Design Thinking Explained] statement itself. I follow the sequence of the argument in the text:

Understand the problem

“The first step in Design Thinking is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before searching for solutions.”

This is blunt linear thinking, which reveals the strange belief that a problem can (and has to) be completely understood before looking for solutions, based on the myth that problems are essential, rational and fully describable entities. Design thinking, as we have learned (Lawson, Cross), means the parallel development of problem and solution. You fully understand the problem when you have found a solution. Problems as well as solutions are designed artefacts.

[Horst] Rittel´s insights are more relevant than ever: There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the resolution. Then there are what Rittel calls the paradoxes of rationality. One of them: You cannot start to be rational; you always have to start one step earlier. Many more questions come up. Just an example: what about boundary judgment, the sensible separation of system and environment, the concept introduced by Churchman?

Involve users

Understanding users´ needs, this is the trivial and at the same time unattainable goal of so-called human-centered design. Of course, one can determine the obvious, immediate needs of users. But what about the systemic viability, sustainability and longevity of “solutions” derived from these findings?

Go wild!

This step of the process sounds really radical, but suggests an age-old method, which, admittedly, is often used with little care: “The second phase of design thinking is developing solutions to the problem (which you now fully understand). This begins with what most people know as brainstorming.”

Prototype and test. Repeat.

“Repeating this loop of prototyping, testing and gathering user feedbacks is crucial for making sure the design is right – that is, it works for customers, you can build it, and you can support it.” Yes, no objection, but one should again consider what Rittel said: There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. The viability of a solution in the marketplace and possible side effects only become apparent much later.


“Implementation involves detailed design, training, tooling, and ramping up. It is a huge amount of effort, so get it right before you expend that effort”, said Eppinger. Yes, sure, but one can discuss whether all of these steps fall within the purview of design.

Think big

“Design Thinking isn´t just for “things”. … Design Thinking can be applied to any problem that needs a creative solution.” This may sound surprising to non-designers, who previously understood design only as product design (function and aesthetics).

It is less surprising for most professional designers. However, it is clear to them that in each case very special skills are required for the respective fields or levels of designing. There is no universal method. Therefore, in this sweeping way the claim is exaggerated and irresponsible.

What can Design Thinking do for your business?

Eppinger said: “I don’t know industries that can’t use Design Thinking”, .” No comment.

To summarize my critique:

The text should be read as an advertisement and appetizer for MIT Sloan Executive Education courses and for Ulrich and Eppinger´s “Product Design and Development” book. This is ok, managers love simple techniques, especially if they appear to be new and trendy. But what is worse: the text presents a trivialized and streamlined version of design thinking, adapted to alleged management needs, prepared as a smart, easy to digest, marketable product. A representation of design thinking that ignores the richness and complexity of its subject. Fortunately, Sloan School of Management has made more substantial contributions to the topic: For example Peter Senge´s “Fifth Discipline” or Claus-Otto Scharmer´s “Theory U”, to name just a few.

On the question whether this document contributes to the clarity or confusion around the topic of Design Thinking, I would say: It contributes to the clarification, because it exposes the banality and market-oriented smoothness of the approach.

P.S.: The most notable in the video for me was the old lady’s statement: “This one looks like a fashion statement”. She got it.

RitaSue Siegel:

This document is confusing to someone looking for a definition they can use, and contains some errors which are not relevant to whether this is clear or confusing.

Overall, the author of “MIT Explains Design Thinking” (as well as some of the other material on their site about the course) uses the terms, innovation, product development, and design thinking interchangeably.  Starting with Why It Matters, the author natters on with lots of nonsense to what, a fifth-grade audience? I think the author underestimates her audience’s intelligence. The first sentence of the definition contains the phrase in the text, “a set of skills.” But we don’t hear about what they are until later.

Other ideas introduced are not connected to the whole: “Customary deployment mechanisms,” assuming the reader knows in this context, what that means. I think it is confusing.

When the author picks up on skills again, the definitions offered are confusing. Analysis follows modeling? “Creative brainstorming?” How does this differ from uncreative brainstorming, and indeed is brainstorming the skill we are talking about here without putting it into the context of the design thinking process?

Of course, the video could be better, but using a simple artifact presented thusly can illustrate the design thinking process.  It needs to be supplemented by one that might go into digital transformation, or something really complex perhaps with a systems component.  The best point made in the video (in my opinion), is that before the team went through this process, they could not have envisioned the solution they arrived at.

“Go wild?” I am not sure that this usage contributes to the clarity of the definition the author is trying to write.

GK VanPatter:

Did You See the Gorilla?…are the five words that come to mind in reviewing this two part MIT “Design Thinking Explained” document.

Yes, I have been reflecting on analogies that come to mind in what I see in several of the documents in this sensemaking series, this MIT/Altitude/Accenture document included. In an odd way what I see here reminds me of the famous “Selective Attention Test” also known as “The Monkey Business Illusion”published by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris some years ago.

In that test video (you can watch it here) the narrator gives instructions to viewers to focus on counting the number of passes between a group of basketball players never mentioning a gorilla walking through the center of the players. According to their research, 50% of first time viewers evidently do not see the gorilla.

Of course once the gorilla is pointed out by the narrator at the end of the video it is impossible for viewers to unsee it. There are several terms for this phenomenon which at this point has a considerable body of very interesting literature attached: Inattentional Blindness, Selective Looking and Selective Attention.

I have come to believe there often is a version of the Monkey Business Illusion occurring around the subject of Design Thinking today.

In many “Design Thinking” documents viewers are being given a very broad philosophical notion of what Design Thinking is and does. They are then asked to focus on a sequential set of activities, the equivalent to counting the number of passes between a group of basketball players, while a gorilla walking through the center of the picture goes unmentioned.

Selective Explaining?

Not sure if there is an official term for this version of the phenomenon. It seems to be a form of Selective Explaining that has infected many neighborhoods within the Design Thinking community.

The gorilla can be seen clearly in this two part MIT/Altitude/Accenture document, as well as in the previous Document #1 Review: “How it Works: IBM Design Thinking”. Since this MIT document has a video embedded in it with an explanation running in parallel to the text the overall effect is multilayered and this adds to the confusion.

Unlike in the attention test, the presence of the gorilla is never pointed out by the narrators/authors of either the IBM or MIT “Design Thinking” documents. Its debatable whether the narrators/authors are even aware that the gorilla is there!

Having seen the gorilla, this omission strikes me as not fair to viewers. I am not convinced the omission in explanation is in the long term best interest of our professional community.

To keep it simple: If you did not notice that the method promised and philosophically described in the text description of “MIT Design Thinking, Explained” is not the method seen in the video then you missed the gorilla.

While the text purports to describe a method being framed as “Design Thinking” capable of broad applications, the video shows a straight-forward traditional Product Design Process. The philosophical promise and the actual method delivered are two completely different things. The same gap or disconnect can be seen in the previously reviewed IBM “Design Thinking” video.

Seen in the MIT text is this broad refrain: “Once you master the skills central to the design thinking approach, they can be applied to solve problems in daily life and any industry.” That is philosophy, not methodology. How is that possible when what is shown is a product design process? To be fair to MIT, the video narrators never use the term “Design Thinking”.

Assumed Context?

The starting point for the method shown in the video is a GIVEN framed challenge. There is NO problem finding or challenge framing work shown at all in the video. Whether the MIT author is aware of it or not, this is (similar to the IBM video) what we call an assumption-boxed method as it contains both challenge and solution path assumptions at the outset.

It is as if the boss has entered the room and has already decided upon what the challenge should be. This is the “problem solving” context for the method and the skills exhibited. It is a little fuzzy if that starting point is just for this video exercise or assumed to be the starting point for the context the graduates will be working in. To reiterate: What is shown in the video is a downstream starting point where the challenge has already been defined. This is the context MIT “Design Thinking” students are being trained for?

In a real organizational setting one would hope that an entire body of strategic work occurred prior to, or upstream from, the beginning of the method shown in the MIT/Altitude/Accenture video. That assumption-free strategic work would typically entail figuring out what the challenges actually are facing the organization, some of which may or may not have anything to do with product creation. Although the text refers to broad application, no such work appears in the video. Does this mean that MIT/Altitude/Accenture Design Thinkers are trained to engage after the strategic framing work has already been done? Do the students know that? I see no clear explanation in this regard.

Broader Transformation?

At no time in the video does the narrator or the project team step outside the product assumption-box. Similar to the IBM Design Thinking video, when “reframing” occurs, what gets reframed is functionality requirements and focuses within the project assumption box. Does this mean MIT/Altitude/Accenture “Design Thinking” project teams are not encouraged, allowed or trained to step outside that assumption box? As in the IBM video, this boxing would have serious implications in terms of ability to aid in broader organizational transformation.

We might ask: Is Design Thinking and Product Design the same thing? Have these become interchangeable terms and methods? As actual methodology is Product Design capable of fulfilling the broad promises of Design Thinking? This MIT/Altitude/ Accenture document certainly seems to be creatively suggesting so. We might ask ourselves: Since when?…Does that make any sense? and…why would folks be doing that?

Fueling the complexity in this MIT document: The method in the video is additionally described by various narrators as “human-centered design”, “the state of the art product design and development process” and later in the video as a process “to create products, services and business models.”

Adding more complexity: The video shows a traditional product design methodology that is not substantially different from the infamous IDEO Shopping Cart Redesign video from 20 years ago, seen on YouTube by 1 million+ viewers. That method was and is Product Design. In that 1999 video explaining how the downstream IDEO Product Design process works in the context of redesigning a shopping cart the term “Design Thinking” did not appear.

If in the academic community the method itself and “the state of the art” has not substantially changed in 20 years, is the new part the repackaging and marketing of it as “Design Thinking”? Is that what is new..the wrapper? Is the depiction of the method as philosophically having broad applications the new part? How does all that spinning play into the mountain of confusion around this subject?

Methodology Evolution?

Apart from clarity questions: I would think that snails pace timeline of methodology evolution in slow motion across 20 years would surely raise numerous challenging R&D questions for leaders of the academic design community responsible for forward motion. This is what high profile schools are teaching folks that Design Thinking is in 2018?

To be sure it is a puzzling picture. The combined montage on display in the MIT/Altitude/Accenture document would surely confuse many readers.

I tend to view the confusion around the subject of Design Thinking as having several chronological chapters and recognize that this MIT/Altitude/Accenture document as a rather late arriving perspective that was perhaps/probably inspired or permissioned by numerous previous documents, some of which are coming from the graduate design education community itself.

At this point the vibe is being picked up by numerous other schools; technology schools, business schools, etc. seeking to become involved in selling skill-building now being framed as “Design Thinking”. Oddly in addition to the vibe, they often seem to be mimicking the same Selective Explaining and the same omissions. At this point the Selective Explaining seen in this MIT document is widespread in the Design Thinking community. All of this surely complicates the subject.

Recognizing that philosophy is not methodology it seems prudent to be aware of the “Monkey Business”phenomenon and the gorilla that now appears in many, not all explanations of Design Thinking.

At the end of the day, whatever it is being called, the next time someone describes to you a broad, philosophical, assumption-free innovation approach but then delivers/demonstrates a tactical assumption-boxed method you can turn and ask them:

Did You See the Gorilla?

I hope this is useful to our sensemaking NextD Journal readers.


Restating our NextD Journal focus here in this special series: We are interested in making sense of the present state and arriving future of this subject being framed in the marketplace as “Design Thinking”. We are not waiting around for an official body somewhere to undertake this “community” leadership sensemaking work. We are doing it ourselves.

With the help of peer reviews we have a particular interest in examining the alignment or lack-there-of between stated philosophy and actual methodology, between challenge scale/challenge complexity and the methods, toolsets and skillsets being depicted as “Design Thinking.” Is there presently a strong match or a dysfunctional mismatch?

When we consider the vast array of organizational and societal challenges that designerly folks seek, in good faith, to participate in, the need to better align methods and skills to challenge scale and complexity seems clear.

Please feel free to join us on this unfolding sensemaking journey!

Stay Tuned for NextD Journal [Reboot]: Document in Review #3: Coming Soon!



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