Latest Trends in Design and Innovation–And Why The Debate Over Design Thinking

Sorry for the silence but I’ve been in the field observing the practice of Design with a capital “D.” I just returned from observing ZIBA Design’s amazing new headquarters in Portland and before that I visited with Smart Design in NYC and talked with Continuum in Boston. The good news is that the field of Design is evolving at an amazing clip, moving into new and exciting spaces. And with that, the business model of Design is changing as well. The bad news is that Design education and the conversation about Design Thinking are falling further and further behind the reality of Design. 

Here’s what I saw in the field: 

1- The strongest market demand for Design today from private companies and public organizations is for strategy. CEOs and other leaders are turning to innovation/design consultancies for help in 

shaping brand strategies and even broader organizational strategies. The demand for Design Thinking to help navigate the present and future is perhaps the most powerful force on Design today, at least among the big consultancies based in the US. ZIBA is working for a big Chinese consumer company, helping it brand itself in China a well as the global marketplace . It is also creating a US-based “university” to help impart Design Thinking culture to managers. 

Public entities are the latest organizations to turn to Design to reshape their organizations and cultures. The entire Finnish Parliament visited IDEO as part of a program to reset Parliament’s organization and culture. Demand for designing large scale social organizations is growing. 

2– Demand for products, services and experiences from the same design/innovation consultancies is growing as well. The “doing” part of design is very strong. In fact, as the economy pulls out of the Great Recession, there are signs that the corporate demand for things to sell is about to take off. All four consultancies, ZIBA, Smart, Continuum and IDEO are designing stuff as well as designing strategies. Smart and IDEO worked on the new interactive dashboard for the Ford Fusion hybrid that just came out. It doesn’t present information, it actively engages the driver, providing data to guide the person to drive more efficiently and boost mileage. They designed a productive game to play. 

In short, there is no dichotomy between the thinking and the doing in these design consultancies. The market isn’t asking for choices. It is asking for options. Some companies want the strategy only, some the stuff only, many want both. There is stronger demand among companies in Asia for the design of stuff and growing demand among organizations in the US and Europe for the design of brands and strategy. But again, many companies want both. 

3– Design practice is increasingly about relationships, not projects. Sohrab Vossoughi emphasized how relationships dominate his practice today. Deep relationships with clients over time are critical. ZIBA is giving much of the best space in its new headquarters to its clients. Deep relationships among the staff are crucial. Interdisciplinary workteams are the norm. In fact, Sohrab talks about “tribes” not teams. “We must integrate, integrate, integrate all our people,” he said. And deep relationships with the community are vital to keeping ZIBA current with the latest in culture and society. ZIBA built a beautiful auditorium opening directly onto the street at its new headquarters, so local artists, musicians and community people can have a place to perform–and where Zibans can go and learn. 

4– A new VCD (Venture Capital Design) model is emerging. Yves Behar’s fuseprojects and others are funding new brands either directly or with partners. Designers are using their talent for spotting new trends and their ability to translate insights into new products and services to directly create new brands, instead of doing it for large companies. Smart began the trend by taking royalty positions in OXO in other brands many years ago as part of its compensation. This has expanded to funding new brands. A VCD model embraces both strategy and stuff and adds investment to the mix. 

Venture Capital firms are turning to Behar and other Designers to bring them brands and concepts. This is a new role for Designers. 

So where does this reality of Design fit into the discussion of Design within academia? Not well. There is a big gap between Design practitioners (at least at the top consultancies) and Design educators. The debate over doing and thinking taking place within Design Thinking is moot and meaningless in the marketplace. When design consultancies are asked to set up their own “universities” to teach design to corporate managers public leaders as IDEO and ZIBA have done, then we must ask why design schools aren’t playing that role. 

So, as a Professor of Innovation and Design at The New School and Parsons, I ask– why aren’t design schools playing this role? 

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Reader Comments 

Jonathan Baldwin 

July 31, 2009 04:39 PM 

There are some design educators – many, in fact – who are seeking to change things, but we’re outnumbered by the traditionalists. 

The problem isn’t one of industry versus academia, however. “Academics” in design education are, in my experience, singing from the same hymn sheet you are. But design education is dominated by “practitioners”, people who have spent many years in industry and seem hell bent on churning out graduates who will work in the industry they remember. 

Here in the UK the push from the design industry is for more “skills” (i.e. making, not thinking) and for more industry practitioners to replace “out of touch” academics. (See the textile industry’s demand for graduates with “pattern cutting skills” rather than for graduates with knowledge of new textiles and new technologies) 

The problem is it’s the “out of touch” academics who want to change the way design is seen, used, researched and studied. 

The way forward is to stop having the arguments internally and team up with organisations like IDEO not so much for guidance as for support. We don’t want to be “led” by industry, we want to “change” it – this is the traditional role of universities, and sadly design education hasn’t quite got used to this and still believes its primary purpose is to serve an industry which doesn’t know the world has transformed. But those parts of the design industry that are forward thinking are teaming up with universities for their research expertise, working with academics and students on developing ideas and markets – which is what other sectors like medicine and pharmaceuticals have been doing for decades (and longer). 

This is the model we need to focus on – ironically it’s an old one. 

I support your general thesis but be careful about lumping all of design academia together and all of design industry. A large part of the industry still thinks design is all about making things and is intent on forcing design teachers to “start teaching design again”. The companies you mention here are still in the minority. At the moment. 

Christopher Fahey 

July 31, 2009 06:27 PM 

How bizarre that I posted “There is no Design with a Capital D” mere minutes before you posted this. The jist is that capitalizing “design” is not only grammatically senseless, it undermines the objective of allowing us to discuss design as a pervasive cultural practice by artificially formalizing it as if it were some kind of deity or institution. 

Must be something in the New York water. 


August 1, 2009 02:04 AM 

First time in a long time I actually agree with a post of your’s Mr. Nussbaum… 

Design Schools need to teach leadership and collaborative enterprise. 

Sergei Dovgodko 

August 1, 2009 03:32 AM 

There are 2 ways to innovate: top-down and bottom-up. 

Most of corporations are top-down innovators. That means analysis, decomposition, solution to components. this leads to incremental improvement. 

The bottom up innovation is the holistic, synthesis, or you can call it design thinking. This leads to radical improvements, but the risks that they will not work are high. 

I don’t see how it might be possible that a “normal” company would suddenly become the “design” kind-of-a-place. 

Companies are manged by professional mangers who were all told they need to be analytical both in business school and by their bosses. 

Here, like in most social systems, the 97/3 Rule of exponential distribution applies. That is, in any given market there are 3% of companies that would practice radical innovation thru bottom-up thinking. 

The rest make big money by improving the components. Going from Mach 3 to Mach 4. 

In principle, design thinking is against the Code (Clotaire Rappaille) of the social entity called the “corporation”. It is and will be a niche thing practiced by some talented professionals. 


Sergei Dovgodko 

St.Paul, MN 


August 1, 2009 05:20 AM 

Bruce, you captured the essence of the new design mode with the line ‘They designed a productive game…’ The productive game is at the heart of improvisation, which is the constant of new design. 

Scripted brand narratives and dogmatic, top-down business processes of the Industrial Age are getting supplanted by by improvised brand narratives and collaborative problem-solving processes designed for (and by) network natives. 

Any brand designed to succeed in the Networked economy will be highly improvisational. Not only does improvisation result in more flexible strategies and better business processes, it defines a new kind of organizational culture in which listening is just as important as saying, and creativity is liberated from what I call the ‘tyranny of the creative class.’ 

When Designers no longer dominate discussions about design, we will have arrived. 

Thanks for the post! 

Prakash Unakal 

August 1, 2009 06:30 AM 

Interestingly in Bangalore, may be in India at large, whenever Industry wants to pick up a design talent..Industry rarely looks for design thinking skills…what actually it needs CAD operator who can design boss’s idea…because Boss is already “know all” design thinker..who can copy from hundred sources modify to avoid being called copy cat. 

Now about junked discussion on “gap” between Industry and Education in India is other way round. 

At least in India – Design students are over trained..and Industry in India particularly is more skewed towards CAD model operator..rather design thinking that is because in Industry skill is more valued at bottom rung where these new grads join…and number is more there and then these grads climb the ladder picking up “unique character” of company they work for…this new knowledge of “”unique company character” they picked up while climbing up in 20-15 yrs.,,is perceived as “GAP” so these same folks now being senior look for “this experience of unique company character” in new grads which obvious no university can give… 

I have similar question people who talk about GAP…let them ask themselves when they Left their universities..did they know what all they are going to learn in “Industry” ? or was that their GAP ? 

Mi Sun Silvia Cho 

August 2, 2009 06:14 AM 

Designing strategies is so important. It aligns the core philosophy of a firm with its market and sales oriented goals. It is a comprehensive activity that the whole corporation should be engaged. It is a pity that many consider design just as ‘packaging’… 

Jules Pieri 

August 3, 2009 12:28 AM 

First, I loved Bonifer’s comment: “When Designers no longer dominate discussions about design, we will have arrived.” 

I started life as an industrial designer and am now old enough to have a son studying the same at Carnegie Mellon. When he first proposed this course of study, I objected. I loved my field, but thought he was probably romanced by things like the HBS case study of IDEO, celebrity designers, and our cool designer friends who tell better work war stories than the lawyers. 

I pushed back and he finally won the argument by saying, “I don’t know if I want to be a designer when I go to work, but I KNOW it will be a great way to prepare for whatever I really do end up doing.” Touche! 

I am now watching his studies and think he is actually getting that broad view and multidisciplinary education I’d hoped. It’s not just a training. He thinks sideways, right side up and upside down. I think his professors must surely deserve some credit for this outcome. 


Jules Pieri 


Jeremy Yuille 

August 3, 2009 03:04 AM 

up font disclosure: I’m an educator and an IxDA director.. 

Design Schools can definitely play a role .. but the professions can help here too. Schools can only take it so far, particularly when they’re not the most agile environments to work in. (as a Professor of Innovation and Design at The New School and Parsons, I’m sure you might have some experience of that) 

Professional associations like IxDA or IAI *can* help bridge these conceptual (and attitudinal!) gaps that everyone loves to describe. Check out the mentoring program IxDA have set up recently as one concrete example. 

BUT. as an educator, my biggest input into this conversation isn’t some strategic or tactical response to the GAP etc.. but to remind us all that 

learning is (hopefully) a lifelong process: 

Some of it happens in the formal environments we call schools. 

Some of it happens in the formal environments we call work. 

Lots of it happens in the interstitial spaces, the back-and-forth between these two environments. 

Jason Cooper 

August 3, 2009 09:37 AM 

As an industrial design student not set on being an industrial designer bullet point four really interests me: 

Venture Capital Design model 

I’d like to find out more about this. Any books/blogs, recommendations, advice would be appreciated. 

Xanthe Matychak 

August 4, 2009 05:26 PM 

Academic design practitioners, many from fine arts backgrounds, don’t yet know how to teach design across disciplines. I’m gonna take a stab at it this year in the B-school at RIT. I’ll let you know how it goes : ) 

August 4, 2009 05:30 PM 

One more thing regarding the design thinking / doing debate. It’s not like we stop thinking when we are doing, for e.g., creating and testing an early prototype on end users. So doing is just a type of design thinking…I think : ) 

August 10, 2009 06:53 PM 

I believe that there is a nature vs nuture component to the design thinking debate. We should remember that Steve Jobs is one in several billion people when we think about what he has achieved. 


An issue with design education is that it doesn’t formally equip designers for doing business strategy at most design schools. Designers need to be taught more about business thinking as well as business people need to learn design thinking. I have yet to see a clear definition on how design thinking differs from design process or even a widely accepted definition of design thinking. There seem to be many conflicting definitions. 

It is about a team understanding the rest of the team. What is relationship between a creative personality and design thinking. 

I believe that what industry needs most is more people like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and James Dyson. These are business people who may have creativity in their DNA. In the 2005 Stanford Graduation Speech Steve Jobs talks about his childhood which no doubt contributed to his creative drive. It was a sometimes painful childhood that is something that cannot be taught. 

I believe teaching the creative process of design thinking to someone who has a fundamentally uncreative personality will not lead to worthwhile creative output. 

I did some research for a company in China related to creativity and design thinking. What is the relationship between creativity and design thinking? Here is some material I posted earlier in a different discussion. 

I agree with the basic concepts of the design thinking discussion but I feel that it does not recognize the nature of highly creative individuals such as Henry Ford, James Dyson and Steve Jobs. I believe that such individuals were born with a type of creative intelligence unusual in the general population or at least that potential. 

Some research since the late 1800s suggests that creativity may be in part genetically inherited. Research also suggests a genetic link between some forms of inherited genetic related mental illness and creativity. 

Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto and colleagues at Harvard University have found that decreased latent inhibition of environmental stimuli appears to correlate with greater creativity among people with high IQ. 


“The results of this study support an association between bipolar disease and creativity and contribute to a better understanding of possible mechanisms of transmission of creativity in families with genetic susceptibility for bipolar disease,” 

The study in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment. Other people’s brains might shut out this same information through a process called “latent inhibition” – defined as an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs. Through psychological testing, the researchers showed that creative individuals are much more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition. 

“Scientists have wondered for a long time why madness and creativity seem linked,” says Carson. “It appears likely that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought might predispose to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishment under others.” 

A less able mind has a greater need to be able to filter out and ignore stimuli. A less intelligent person with a low level of latent inhibition for filtering out familiar stimuli may well sink into mental illness as a result. But a smarter mind can handle the effects of taking note of a larger number of stimuli and even find interesting and useful patterns by continually processing a larger quantity of familiar information. 

The authors hypothesize that latent inhibition may be positive when combined with high intelligence and good working memory – the capacity to think about many things at once – but negative otherwise. Peterson states: “If you are open to new information, new ideas, you better be able to intelligently and carefully edit and choose. If you have 50 ideas, only two or three are likely to be good. You have to be able to discriminate or you’ll get swamped.” 

Some personality traits of creative people 

Open to new experiences 

Independent and self reliant 

Willingness to risk 

Sense of humor or playfulness 

Enjoys experimentation 

Personal courage 

Preference for complexity 

Goal orientation 

Internal control 





Acceptance of disorder. They may be untidy. 

Tolerant of ambiguity 

Motivated, has vitality and enthusiasm 


Self confident, assertive, dominant, aggressive 

Less inhibited, less formal and unconventional 

Rejects authority 

Perseveres and is thorough 

Critical, less contented, dissatisfied 

Has collections of books, reference material is widely informed, has wide interests 

Has low interest in interpersonal relationships, does not like social interaction, is introverted, is reserved 

Robin Ferraby 

August 19, 2009 02:05 PM 

This tallies very much with what we’re experiencing in the UK also, at Kenwood UK where we are speaking to UK consultancies about strategy and product, and this through a continual relationship. 


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