Is Design Thinking Conservative?

Let’s blame the practitioners, not the tools

Published in
7 min readOct 4, 2018


Photo: Copyright Morten Falch Sortland/Getty Images

InIn the September 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, NYU professor Natasha Iskander argues that design thinking is “fundamentally conservative and preserves the status quo.” She gives several reasons for this claim, including:

  • Design thinking is poorly defined as a methodology.
  • It’s a marketing ploy for expensive consultants.
  • It’s a new name for an old method.
  • It fundamentally privileges designers and other elites who keep the power over the creative process.
The author and David Colby Reed ponder: “Is design thinking just some creative conservative conspiracy to preserve the status quo?”

Ok. You got me. I am a (sometimes expensive) consultant who teaches and facilitates design thinking. I think Natasha has some valid points, but I also think that it is helpful to reframe the question:

Is design thinking fundamentally conservative? Or have conservative institutions simply caught on to design thinking?

Design thinking as a Trojan horse

The following scenario is a pattern that I often see in my work:

My team and I conduct a training or facilitate a design thinking process to help an organization innovate.

We start with a bit of what we call “creative cross-training.” We push the participants a bit out of their comfort zones with some warmups and icebreakers. Awkward hesitation turns into genuine smiles and giggles. Playing with the boundaries of established norms can be fun!

We emphasize the importance of empathy. After some coaching, we get our clients to leave the building and talk directly to potential customers and stakeholders, observing them where they live, work, and play.

When we reconvene, we help them make sense of what they saw and heard. We interpret and distill some insights to (re)frame the problem.

We encourage them to come up with lots of ideas to address the problem. We ask them to defer judgement and criticism of the ideas, however “out of the box” they may be. We make a mess out of



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Design Educator and Content Creator. Cofounder of Foossa, Director of Design Content and Learning at AIGA, and PT Faculty at Parsons School of Design and SVA.