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Design Thinking is not enough anymore: this is the era of discipline-specific innovation tools

By Francesca Zampollo Ph.D


Design Thinking. A buzz term that has flooded the whole world for the past 10 years and design world for the last 30 years. Defined in various ways and embraced by different disciplines, at its core it merges participatory design, user-centred design, and co-design. Design Thinking has undeniably changed the way we all design, it has propelled innovation and made it achievable to non designers too. With the uncountable resources available online, the hundreds of available methods for each one of its phases, and the thousands of accounts of its success, Design Thinking has bounteous merits. Then one day, It all started being insufficient.


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Design Thinking is like a sea of design methods. These methods are all generic enough to be used to design anything: from a helicopter, to a drinkable water system for developing countries, to a sandwich. Who is to say though, that specifically designed methods wouldn’t be more efficient than generic ones? Who is to say that, for example, an idea generation method specifically designed for people conducting a Food Design process, wouldn’t be more beneficial than a generic idea generation method? Research suggests that such methods would indeed be more efficient. Where a few years ago the term didn’t even exist, today we can talk about Food Design Thinking: a Food Design specific brunch of Design Thinking where the specificity is given by the method themselves, purposively designed for a design process that aims at innovation around food and eating.

Does this mean that we’re entering the era of discipline-specific Design Thinking? Absolutely yes. There is no reason why we shouldn’t see the rise of Fashion Design Thinking, Graphic Design Thinking, System Design Thinking etc., given that many Design Thinking methods already look at services specifically, for example, and given that we’ve also already seen books like “This is Service Design Thinking”.

In addition, it’s time to design as many methods as possible that specifically guide participants towards the design of sustainable propositions, whether it’s for a Food Design Thinking process or a Furniture Design Thinking process. Such methods should guide the investigation phase, the idea generation phase, and the prototyping phase.

Moreover, discipline-specific Design Thinking method should be designed not only to accommodate requirements for that discipline, but should also lead towards solutions that pursue all three aspects of sustainability: economic development, social development, and environmental protection. Generic design methods belong in the past, where designers still where inconsiderate enough to forget about sustainability. Today all aspects of sustainability should not only be an end goal, but should be embedded in the very way we gather data, generate ideas, select and prototype them, and finalise design concepts.

Today for example, a complete Food Design Thinking process where all methods are designed to be specific for a Food Design process and to guarantee a solution that is as sustainable as possible, is a reality. This should be an invitation to other design theorists and practitioners to develop more discipline-specific brunches of Design Thinking, as to create a second era of Design Thinking where innovation is more precisely guided and more intentionally supported.


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