Does Design Thinking Lead to Solutionism?

Published Apr 13, 2021

Is design thinking a privileged way of thinking? That question never crossed my mind until I took a trip to Madagascar to lead a workshop on branding and product architecture. My plan was to use the principles of design thinking as the foundation for building a brand or product. However, when I got there and started to learn about the experiences of the individuals in the workshop, it became clear that they simply didn’t have access to education in design thinking. 

The concepts I was about to discuss wouldn’t have relevance to them. 

I had taken for granted the basic principles of design I was able to learn in my architecture studies. An experience that also taught me methods for thinking and problem solving. Or did it?

The shortcomings of design thinking 

Most product designers learn the design thinking methodology in higher education or through on-the-job training. But not everyone has access to either of these. And no matter how you define design thinking, the bottom line is it requires a learned skill set –– empathy, iteration, creative confidence, strategy, and so on –– not afforded to everyone. 

Without access, this inherently places limitations on who can easily break into the field of design. It creates a lack of diversity –– and that’s where design thinking becomes problematic. 

It’s a problem that’s not just specific to individuals living in impoverished countries. The lack of access I experienced among this small group of Malagasy community leaders is actually quite pervasive. In fact, it’s happening right in our own backyard. 

Looking a little closer, I realized how exclusive and privileged the creative field tends to be –– and there are a number of contributing factors that have led to this. One is that lower-income communities are typically disconnected from the arts. It’s not uncommon for children in these communities to be systematically excluded from arts education. 

In fact, the Americans for the Arts found that children from low-income families are “provided less access to arts education.” This has traditionally directly correlated with a low number of minority groups receiving an arts education. Yet, these same studies revealed that arts education, and more specifically design-thinking education, can help at-risk children become more engaged in their education. 

Without this fundamental access at an earlier age, it tends to siphon off the types of individuals who enter design and product development programs and career paths, which leads to a lack of cognitive diversity among design and product teams. 

If we’re aiming to solve problems with a human-centered approach, yet bring limited perspectives and ways of seeing the world to the table, do we run the risk of solutionism?

When design thinking leads to solutionism

Design thinking certainly has its place in product development, design and marketing. It provides us a valuable method for intuitively solving problems intuitively. And there’s no denying it has led to the development of countless life-changing products and services.

But it can also lead to solutionism versus solving for real human and societal problems, especially if product leaders aren’t intentional about bringing individuals with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences together to design a solution. When we don’t, we run the risk of solving for problems that may not truly be problems at all or hypothesize solutions that don’t actually address the root of the problem. 

If we don’t have diverse mindsets present from the start, we set ourselves up for possible failure –– even if we conduct market research and talk to customers. See, at that point, we’ve already theorized a problem based on a somewhat limited purview –– purviews that have been shaped by our specific experiences. This then becomes the foundation of our research and data collection which then influences the architecture of the solution.

Design with diversity in mind

One way to circumvent solutionism is to integrate individuals with diverse experiences into the process. We have to hypothesize, problem solve and build alongside them. We have to take a critical look at who we’re involving in the design process –– and more importantly who we may be excluding. 

Consider for a moment the impact diversity of experience could have on your next product. What if instead of building a team of just degree-holding designers, you brought in individuals from some unlikely sources? Perhaps an underrepresented community or impoverished country, or individuals who had non-related educations in say medicine or even an individual who was previously incarcerated. 

The idea is to get diversity of experience around the design table because it’s these unique experiences that have the potential to bring richness to the products and solutions we build. It forces us to consider perspectives we might not otherwise think to consider. The key is opening up access –– access among our design teams as well as the groups and individuals we’re interviewing and sourcing for feedback. 

Break through the barrier

I believe as product people and problem solvers, whether you’re a designer, manager or marketer, we have a responsibility to integrate more diverse perspectives in the product development and design process. We are shaping human and societal habits and behaviors through the products and solutions we build –– and that is a tremendous amount of power. 

To ethically build the solutions that will potentially impact individuals for generations to come, we have to consider diversity beyond race, gender or socioeconomic status. Focus on the diversity of experiences, as well. It’s the variety of experiences that afford us a diverse set of lenses through which to see the world in new, unexplored ways –– and it’s one of the best ways to avoid the risk of solutionism.

To achieve this, organizations and product teams have to make product design and development more accessible. This could mean:

  • hiring outside of traditional paths, giving others opportunities who’ve had limited access an opportunity to learn and grow with your team;
  • opening up training to underserved communities, or;
  • making diversity and inclusion a priority among your team –– not just in terms of race, but in experiences and perspectives. 

It’s through these seemingly small, but cumulative efforts that we’ll be able to make a magnanimous impact, and begin to break down the barrier of privilege in design. This will empower us to better utilize our unique identities and perspectives to solve real problems and build more everlasting solutions. 

The more people who have access to the invaluable tools and skills an education in design and design thinking provides us, the more empowered they will be to solve the critical problems they’ve experienced in their own lives and communities.