Design thinking and creative intelligence
Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 1:40PM
John O'Connor in Creativity, Education, Higher Education, Leadership, creativity, design thinking

If we are to take Bruce Nussbaum’s word for it the role of ‘design thinking’ in business development and innovation has been in decline since 2011 when he called it a ‘failed experiment’. Nevertheless, I suspect that its value as a methodology for re-framing ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) has yet to be fully realised. Undoubtedly, there remains considerable confusion around the notion of design thinking. For example, 'Designing Growth', a discussion hosted by Dublin City Council in 2013 to explore how design could be harnessed to drive economic growth in Ireland revealed competing understandings of the role of design in design thinking.

The international panel of experts held divergent opinions – as did the audience, largely made up of members of the design community. The event was intended as 'a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design' but had difficulty getting beyond a debate on the value of design itself, never mind design thinking. This was a disappointing, if not altogether surprising, outcome: all the more so due to the missed opportunity to convince John Moran (the panel’s deliberately selected sceptic and influentially positioned Secretary General at the Department of Finance) and other policy makers of the value in utilising alternative methodologies to plan the rebuilding of the national economy following its collapse in the recent recession.

The confusion between ‘design thinking’ and ‘designing’ in evidence at the event is not unusual. From an academic perspective Lucy Kimbell writing in 2011 suggests that:

Even on a cursory inspection, just what design thinking is supposed to be is not well understood, either by the public or those who claim to practise it.

In 2007 Nussbaum was a proponent of the role of designers:

My own current thinking is that designers must play a critical role in the creation of this new field of design thinking. The whole core culture of design is essential to design thinking.

Later that year Nussbaum's thinking has developed to the point where he is recommending that CEOs:

have to understand design thinking – using the process to manage the company. That is what [Steve] Jobs does – he isn't a trained designer but he gets it. He focuses on what is important these days. And it took him a while to get these skills. Remember all those mistakes along the way?'

This understanding of design thinking as an approach to problem framing and problem solving – derived from the design process – emerged from business schools. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, interviewed by David Dunne in 2006 says 'today’s business people don’t need to understand designers better, they need to become designers.' Martin had gained an insight into the design process from encounters with a small design firm in Toronto and a later involvement with IDEO. He was fascinated by the way designers approached problem solving by accepting constraints and ‘creating something that looks great and sells’. He also recognised that the same approach applied in business:

As I watched it, I saw that this is what great business leaders do. They enter some kind of constrained environment where they want to do something that is near impossible. They have to figure it out by thinking differently from anybody else. The best of what I see in the best business people is the same as what I see in designers at their best.

Kimbell cites Martin, from the Design of Business (2009) describing design thinking as having:

something important to offer managers, enabling them to shift from choosing between alternatives to helping them generate entirely new concepts.

Designer and writer Aiden Kenny (Notes and Thoughts from the 'Designing Growth' Event 2013) proposes that it may lie in ‘collaborations between business strategists and strategically-minded designers’. This all suggests a particular application for design thinking as a methodology for re-framing problems that society is having great difficulty addressing. But, just as it appears there may be a consensus developing Nussbaum appears to change his mind. In 2011 he writes that:

The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ.

A cynical response might be that his conversion is simply a strategy to support his new book, Creative Intelligence (2013). But, in fact, he attributes it to the failure of CEOs to understand and implement design thinking correctly and opportunistic designers misusing it to increase business. He reports a conversation with IDEO’s Tim Brown and quotes his analysis:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process.

The ability to live with mess, with uncertainty, and with the looping circularity of creativity is something that John Cleese (The Origin of Creativity 2009) talks about also. He acknowledges the instinctive urge to move from uncertainty to decision and argues that it limits creativity. The longer one is willing to live with the discomfort and continue exploring solutions the better the ultimate result.

It seems that some of Nussbaum’s motivation in describing creative intelligence is to move away from the preconceptions he believes have limited the potential he, and others, saw in design thinking. He recognises that the wicked problems have not gone away and they require attention – as a matter of urgency. By changing the context in which they are addressed participation in the search for solutions is opened up to everyone. No single profession, design included, can claim ownership of the creative process so perhaps the new terminology will support the framing of problems in new ways that lead to the development original solutions.

Article originally appeared on johnoconnor (
See website for complete article licensing information.