Design Thinking is Dead. Long Live Design.

One of the most common enquires I receive from people who are keen to train their teams in Design and Innovation is for the very popular topic referred to as Design Thinking.

Almost 4 years ago when I conducted our first team training program from a very humble Surry Hills space, I sat with our client (now a great friend) and she relayed the story of how her company, including her team of 12 UX designers, had gone through Design Thinking training; “it was a fun three days, but what the ___ do we do with it now?”

Design Thinking is a good activity; I’ve participated in and observed and facilitated so many sessions and will attest to the energetic and adrenal value it can bring to teams. When I say it’s a great activity, that’s all it is: an activity. A single activity replaces neither a design process nor a design strategy.

Design Thinking, as an activity, brings together people who may not otherwise collaborate. Multiple, varied disciplines from your company are brought into a space of problem exploration, ideation and creative prototyping.

Use Design Thinking wisely.

In typical sessions, used as a solo technique, Design Thinking falls short for many reasons, most important of which is the absence of the correct participants.

Those who do learn and participate in Design Thinking sessions often leave high with adrenaline-charged ideas only to experience an eventual come down and return to the business as usual grind.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the APAC General Manager of a global consultancy and she expressed the same frustrations; the missing elements from Design Thinking activities: real customers in their real contexts and, once the sessions are over, volumes of often outlandish ideas without a plan for what to do with them.

Where did Design Thinking come from?

A very abridged, truncated and fast forwarded version of the History of Design Thinking:

Recently made famous by the likes of Stanford University’s, the roots of Design Thinking hail back to the mid 1950s with the introduction of the subject, Design Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was a somewhat clinical and technical approach to problem solving which, as it spread outwards, was challenged by the ever-so-clever Scandinavians who, in the 1960s, introduced to concept of Cooperative Design, which is now more widely referred to as Participatory Design or Co-Design.

Moving into the early 1970s, Victor Papanek released his book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change where he married anthropological disciplines with design processes. Soonafter, the concept of Wicked Problems was introduced to the Design world which focused on seemingly impossible or extremely difficult social problems to solve. This brought to the fore the concept of designers collaborating with many different disciplines as well as being personally responsible for their design choices.

(In my mind, any designer who cares about design as activism needs to absorb this Wicked Problems ethos.)

In the 1970s, Design School introduced the now familiar method: Define, Ideate, Prototype, Build, Test which has been adopted, adapted and made famous by the likes of the earlier mentioned (and very excellent organisations) Stanford and IDEO.

The central ethos of Co-Design is to bring people/humans/citizens/customers (I avoid the cold, disconnected term ‘user’) into the design process. Those of us who’ve worked in Design understand the power of the value of bringing Customers into a process and more importantly, investigating from a place of physical context.

In recent years, Design has been experimented with, stretched, redefined and recreated to the point where its definition has expanded beyond visual and analog product design.

Design has become so important for an organisation’s success, that it now sits at the Boardroom table of progressive companies.

Welcome the dawn of the Age of Human Centred Design.

When I receive requests for Design Thinking training, I now ask “What do you hope to do with it once you’ve completed this training?”

Almost always, there’s talk of innovation, understanding the customer, delivering better products, identifying and fixing customer touchpoint issues, improving NPS scores, delivering better service experiences, being taken seriously by stakeholders and so on.

I love this part of meeting with our customers for the first time; we get to talk about so many of my favourite topics: Design, Collaboration, Vision, Purpose, Problem-solving, Innovation, Education, Capability Building, UX Design, Service Design, VR/AR, Product Management, Agile, Growth and, the reason why Academy Xi exists: how the human experience can be improved with thoughtful, collaborative design and tech.

How and when can Design Thinking work? When we zoom out and look at where Design Thinking fits — or can fit — into an overall design strategy, all of a sudden, Design Thinking may work, if used wisely.

Hail the Design Dynasty: The Five Realms of Design.

There are five important Realms of Design that progress in a fluid, sequential order.

Embed these Realms into your organisation and, as a true Dynasty, you’ve adopted a platform for creative innovation, happy teams and a powerful customer-centred approach to problem-solving. Try to use them as out of context, solo processes … well, The Roman Empire.

Realm 01: Design Thinking

Enneagram type:

Number 7: The Enthusiast


A Court of Jesters in the Design Dynasty, they can only function when contained at the entry of the Dynasty. Easily escaping from the Court, as soon as they leave the Realm, they serve no function other than interruptive delight. Being the Court Jesters, they’re entertaining for a while but, as we all know, excessive entertainment can become dulling, tedious and meaningless.


In the context of a complete Design process, Design Thinking has value, only when used as a tactical entry activity and not relied upon as a process to solve business or customer problems. When we teach Service Design or UX Design, we will always incorporate a Design Thinking session. Used in the correct context, Design Thinking:

  • Creates a space of collaboration
  • Introduces teams to the concept of empathy and detachment from “the right way”
  • Focus is on volumes of ideas
  • Lends itself to outlandish, creative concepts

Realm 02: Design Action.

Enneagram type:

In the correct environment, Number 5: The Investigator. Without structure, Number 8: The Challenger.


Expansive, energetic and, when given a structure to work within, feel charged and ready. The core belief of this Realm is that structure has integrity.

Without boundaries and without a plan, expect melancholic dispositions, conflict, aggressive territorial protection, unconscious sabotage and if left continually unmanaged, Judas-like behaviours.

They can become disgruntled when too many opinions emerge with neither context nor cohesion. Fearing irrelevance, The Challengers will oscillate between the extremes of saying “yes” too frequently and outright rebellion.


Design Action is about honing in on specific concepts and, using a Human Centred Design approach, involve both the Customer and the correct Stakeholder group in Co-Design activities.

“What problem are we solving?”

“What problem are we solving?” is the only question you need ask to set the scene for a successful Realm 02.

It’s ok to commence your product design or service improvement journey from Realm 02, but unless you create a space for ideation and creativity, either at the start (Design Thinking) or during the process, the risks of delivering a less than delightful product and/or service experience are painfully high.

Whether you’re creating or improving the experience of a Service or a Product, be it digital or physical, this Realm allows for no shortcuts, if we’re to create a Service or Product that is Useful, Usable, Viable and Desirable.

With a rapid cycle of concept design, validation, iteration and backlog creation, Design Action gives you:

  • Impetus
  • Stakeholder buy-in
  • team cohesion
  • A service roadmap
  • a product backlog
  • An MVP plan

Realm 03: Design Delivery.

Enneagram type:

Number 3: The Achiever however, start in this phase and you have yourself a Number 9: The Peacemaker.


Focused and detail oriented, this Realm is the realm of the Seamstresses, the Tailors and the Milliners. Focused on their craft, The Achievers seek quality and, given an audience, seek to create an emotional connection with their skills.

As much as this Realm is about finery and finesse, without having consulted with Realms 01 & 02, The Achievers will deliver both form and function, however, what is delivered will invariably be the wrong beautiful thing.

… the wrong beautiful thing


Where in Realm 02, their focus was on investigation, collaboration and co-design, in Design Delivery, the focus is, as the name suggests, delivering new or improved Service or Digital product experiences.

There’s no secret that after a well orchestrated Design Action effort, the Agile framework brings focus on delivering an agreed set of features. This can be either a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or, in Service Design, a Minimum Viable Service (MVS).

By the time you’re ready to exit this Realm, you’ve delivered the minimum set of features that have solved the core problem you addressed in earlier stages.

Combining Realms 01, 02 & 03

The clever Imperialists, the British, are blessed to have The British Design Council who made famous the concept of The Double Diamond. Prefixing the Double Diamond with Realm 01: Design Thinking, you have a great process to create or improve a Service and/or Product Experience.

What about the other Realms? Let’s return to the Design Dynasty.

Realm 04: Continual Improvement.

Enneagram type:

Number 1: The Reformer.


Diligent to a fault, The Reformer needs momentum and, in the pursuit of perfection, is perpetually disappointed with only ever achieving excellence. Methodical, organised and orderly, the Reformer has neither the patience nor the time for creativity and ideation. Swayed from their path without reason, The Reformer will launch into resentment and irrationality.


Getting shit done is the focus on Continual Delivery. With a well planned backlog and roadmap, this Realm focuses on teamwork and a well orchestrated fortnightly sprint cycle.

(Aside: Don’t let me rant about the current excitement and blind adoption of the weekly Google Design Sprint. Nothing against Google or it being used however, as with Design Thinking, know what you’re doing with it and the impact it has on your team … a future article.)

Whether you’re using a Kanban board or a range of online tools such as Trello or the Jira, Continual Delivery has much in common with Realms 02 & 03 … collaboration and visibility.

Realm 05: Scale & Reach.

Enneagram type:

A harmonious mix between Number 2: The Helper and Number 9: The Peacemaker.


Being in the final Realm and with their unconditional love for the people, The Helper believes deeply in the Dynasty and has a genuine desire to create a meaningful connection between the Creators with their Subjects. Often seeking instant gratification, when The Helper senses discontent between the Realms, they will uncover the causes and discretely provide feedback to the relevant Realm for the sake of their future. Their greatest fear is not being loved, which energises their desire to


As we continually build upon our MVP or MVS, how do we communicate this to our customers and, more importantly, to the customers of our competitors? If Realm 05 exists without frequent liaison with the other Realms, the marketing messages are at best blanket messages. Those who work in this Realm of Scale & Reach are adept marketers and:

  • Intimately understanding the customer
  • Is aware of the customer’s journey and their drivers
  • Knows their touchpoints
  • Is creative and experimental
  • Understands that research, data and analytics is what rules the Five Realms

The End

Enneagram type:

Number 6: The Loyalist.


Any great company, service or product team understands that, in order for their to be longevity, engagement, loyalty and relevance, the exit from Realm 05 leads directly back to Realm 01. Their motto is “Don’t stop until it’s done” and they intrinsically know that it’s never done.

The Beginning.

At Academy Xi, we teach in demand skills to individuals, we can also train your Teams in Human Centred Design, Digital Transformation and Innovation:

Contact me for a chat.

See you in the future :-)

As the founder and Managing Director of Velvet Onion & Friends, my focus is on building meaningful experiences to Improve Life and Elevate the Human Experience.