Design Thinking is a trend. Over the years it has been embraced across many disciplines, including Digital Humanities. Influential institutions like Harvard University and the New York Times have incorporated this way of working in their systems and proved that it is successful. The emphasis is often on these success stories when Design Thinking is explained. However, this blog post investigates the downsides as well, and to what extent these bring risks and challenges for Design Thinkers.

Design Thinking: a mindset, an approach, a process

Design is everywhere in contemporary society, and so is Design Thinking. This term can be interpreted in many ways: it is a mindset, an approach and a process of creation. Brown (2008, n.p.) describes it as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos.” By this he means that within the creation of new products – from software and digital projects to buildings and museum exhibitions – the focus is on a deep understanding of what the intended audience needs, wants and likes in these products. Within this, there is a five-step-process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test (see Figure 1).*Fbh0O_s4RxjL0q5rb_FKGA.png
Figure 1: The five steps of Design Thinking (Yu, 2016)

The user-centric approach is one of the basic characteristics of Design Thinking, according to Gladkiy (2018). He states that in every step of the design process, the user has to be present. Firstly, the use context and users’ needs as well as the business requirements are being specified. Next, design solutions are built and a prototype is developed. This is evaluated by usability testing, not only by the designers themselves, but also – and especially – by the intended audience. Feedback is implemented after which the product is developed and delivered.

But Design Thinking goes further than this. A second basic characteristic of it, is that you never ‘do’ Design Thinking on your own; it is a process of collaboration between people from different disciplines (Garcia, 2014, p. 240). And a third feature that is central in Design Thinking, is that within this process, there is a tolerance for failure (Kolko, 2015, p. 4). The process is as important as the outcome and there is a lot of emphasis on the idea that one should become better, smarter and wiser during the Design Thinking process.

The success stories

As stated, there are many stories that prove the success of Design Thinking. One famous example is the digital story ‘Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek’ (see Figure 2). This multimedia narrative about the Tunnel Creek avalanche was published by the New York Times in December 2012. In six chapters, the story is told from different perspectives, supported by interactive graphics, animations, photos and videos. Back in 2012, this way of storytelling was revolutionary. Within a week, 2,9 million visitors saw the story on the website of the New York Times. It won a prestigious Pulitzer prize. The most important consequence of Snow Fall is probably that it changed the world of digital journalism. Today, the art of multimodal storytelling by news platforms is more common.

Figure 2: The beginning screen of Snow Fall (Branch, 2012)

Snow Fall was created during a Design Thinking process. The people on the Snow Fall team were from different background, which was according to the makers one of the main reasons for the success. As digital designer Andrew Kueneman stated: “You can’t work inside a bubble with thousands of words and probably hours of footage and animated graphics and expect to be able to approach the various drafts with a fresh/clear perspective” (Duenes et al., 2013, n.p.). Besides the collaboration across disciplines, the potential reader of Snow Fall was present in every step of the way. Catherine Spangler, Snow Fall’s video journalist, for instance stated in Duenes et al. (2013, n.p.): “We focused on the pacing, narrative tension and story arc – all while ensuring that each element gave the user a different experience of the story.” The fact that Snow Fall was connected to the needs of the reader to the smallest detail, has probably been of decisive effect for the success of the story as well.

Failures, critics and challenges

So Design Thinking has proven that it can be successful, even very successful. But does that mean that it always is? Certainly not. Next to the success stories, there are many failed Design Thinking experiments as well, which are mostly unknown. One reason for this, is that there is not one, straight definition for Design Thinking. There are characteristics, but these cannot be implemented into an organization just like that (Walters, 2011).

The characteristics of Design Thinking are idealistic and also very general and abstract. As Malbon (2016, n.p.) states: “It’s more focused on generating new ideas than understanding how they might actually work. It often underestimates the strategic context of how specific industries and markets really work.” Partly for this reason, designer Natasha Jen states that “Design Thinking is bullshit” (Jen, 2017, n.p.). Another interesting argument she comes up with to explain this, is our human intuition. She believes that the five-step process used in Design Thinking in most cases is not necessary. Many solutions, people can come up with just from their human intuition. They don’t need to empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test for that. An example she mentions is an MRI-scan for children, which was made from terrifying to terrific by adding cartoons in, on and around it (see Figure 3). The Design Thinking process preceded to this, but from their human intuition, the designers could have come up with that without the process, according to Jen (2017).

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor design thinking mri scan children
Figure 2: Children MRI-scan: from terrifying to terrific (GE Healthcare, 2012)

All of this does not mean that Design Thinking has no value. However, it does mean that Design Thinking should be re-invented for every single organization that incorporates it. The main characteristics can function as support acts for this, but these should not be static rules. Design Thinking might be a great ideal, but that is not enough. It should be personalized. Some aspects might be left out, others might be added to make it work for a certain institution. As Malbon (2016, n.p.) states it: “It’s easy to be seduced by its appealing name, but don’t forget the rest of the stack: because in order to win, you need to solve for the whole of it.”


Branch, J. (2012, December 20). Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. New York Times. Retrieved from on 2019, November 21.

Brown, T. (2008, June). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review.

Garcia, R. (2014). Creating and Marketing New Products and Services. CRC Press/Taylor & Francis Group.

GE Healthcare. (2012, September 20). From Terrifying to Terrific: The Creative Journey of the Adventure Series. Retrieved from on December 3, 2019.

Gladkiy, S. (2018, June 14). User-Centered Design: Process and Benefits. Retrieved from on 2019, November 22.

Jen, N. (2017, June). Natasha Jen: Design Thinking Is Bullsh*t. 99U Conference. . Retrieved from: on 2019, December 3.

Kolko, J. (2015, September). Design thinking comes of age. Harvard Business Review.

Malbon, T. (2016, February 24). The Problem with Design Thinking. Made By Many. Retrieved from on 2019, December 3.

Walters, H. (2011, March 21). Design Thinking Won’t Save You. Retrieved from on 2019, December 3.

Yu, X. (2016, April 11). The feeling in Design Thinking Class. Medium. Retrieved from on 2019, December 3.